SCREAMIN' EVEN HARDER! SCREAM THEORY RETURNS
During his brief sabbatical from the Scream Theory column, Xavier Mendik has finished off his volume on '70s film, which will be released in late August as Shocking Cinema of the Seventies (Noir Publishing). He has also been putting the final touches to Underground U.S.A., the first volume of the new Wallflower Press journal of cult and underground film 'AlterImage' (available in October), as well as finding time to profile leading global cult figures for the groundbreaking new OPI Media TV series OutTHERE Exposed.
Now he is back and promising the editor of kamera.co.uk that he will stop writing so many books and stick to what he does best: bringing cult film fans the very best in exclusive interviews, reviews and film jury commentaries. In the coming weeks, Scream Theory readers can expect profiles of Sweden's premier Fantastisk Film Festival, as well as interviews with the likes of Robert 'Freddy Krueger' Englund, Jesus Franco, Lloyd 'Troma' Kaufman and Jean Rollin alongside reviews of the very latest in cult film releases.
To get us back in the mood, Xavier here profiles Japan's most controversial blood and angst merchant Takashi Miike, in an interview that is presented here exclusively for kamera.co.uk
TAKASHI THE KILLER: AN INTERVIEW WITH JAPAN'S LEADING CULT DIRECTOR TAKASHI MIIKE
A woman is beaten and molested by her partner, as the camera captures her disfigured face in close, almost fetishistic detail. Meanwhile, outside their apartment a young boy masturbates before the images of degradation that he has just witnessed. As his semen spills on the open ground the titles 'Ichi The Killer' emerge through the globules…
Welcome to the violent, sexually explicit and unpredictable world of cult director Takashi Miike. With titles such as Dead or Alive (1999), City of Lost Souls (2001), Visitor Q (2001) and Audition (2000), this controversial Japanese director has produced a series of blood and guts classics that have provoked outrage for their OTT scenes of SFX splatter and scenarios of prolonged sexual violence.
It is on the basis of such imagery as well as his experimental manipulation of genre motifs that Takashi Miike's work has been both praised and condemned in equal measure. To his detractors, Miike exposes the very worst excesses of the gun-crazed, unrelenting, misogyny haunting Japanese culture, while his defenders see his works as uncompromising and experimental comments on the customs of an increasingly techno-alienated society.
Upon first appearance, Miike's recent production Ichi The Killer certainly seems to bear out the opinions of his most ardent critics. The film focuses on a sexually repressed teenage assassin who employs a pair of lethal, razor-tipped boots to wipe out the local mafia, in a narrative that owes more to Manga and Yakuza traditions than that of horror fiction. That said, the images contained in Ichi The Killer are some of the most extreme committed to celluloid, even leaving hardened critics at the 2002 Brussels International Festival of Fantastic Film feeling nauseous. Grisly highlights from the film include shots of Ichi's victims literally being sliced in half under the impact of his lethal boots, as well as scenes of gangland torture whose intensity will test the physical endurance of even the most seasoned gore-hound. For instance, one victim is stripped naked and then suspended in the air via a series of hooks inserted into his flesh. To add to his agony, this presumed informant is then horrifically scalded across the face and body with the burning fat from a frying pan. (Miike's revolutionary use of CGI allows the viewer the dubious pleasures of seeing the victim's face melt before their eyes in close-up.) This display of prolonged agony is itself overshadowed by the treatment of women in the film, who are disfigured and raped.
While such images are hard to justify, defenders of Miike's work rightly point out that the violence in his films functions more as a critique of Japanese culture than a celebration of its violent excesses. For instance, several of his films use scenes of suffering in order to investigate the repressive nature of patriarchal family structures. For instance, the outlandish Visitor Q begins with a sex scene between a dysfunctional father and his young daughter, before revealing a catalogue of domestic violence enacted against a subservient mother by the male members of the household. The effects of such systematic abuse are revealed in Audition, Miike's biggest European hit to date. Here, the apparently meek Asami is transformed into a vengeful female torturer after years of systematic sexual abuse cause her mind to snap. In truly startling fashion, Asami vents her rage against patriarchy by tormenting the film's central male protagonist Aoyama, whom has fatally misinterpreted the female character as possessing the 'ideal' traits of Japanese femininity.
Asami's actions indicate that despite all the claims of male sadism, it is actually Miike's female characters who retain ultimate power, which they use to overturn established principles of Japanese patriarchy. Indeed, Asami's extreme revolt is mirrored by the mother from Visitor Q. This character wrestles power away from her failed and philandering husband after discovering a method of female lactation that literally floods the family home with breast milk and reduces her husband to a willing position of infantilism.
While the sexual imagery of Miike's films have provoked controversy, the stylistic features of his work have also sparked heated debates for those wishing to label him as simply a 'genre' director. This is because his films all feature the complex configurations of cinematic time and space associated with European art house and avant-garde masters. As with directors such as Godard or Antonioni, the works of Takashi Miike require an active form of spectatorship, one that forces the viewer to work out how one vignette or examination of on-screen space relates to another. For instance, the opening of Dead or Alive bombards the viewer with a collage of carnage that is only later revealed to be the activities of warring gangs presented simultaneously over differing locations. The fact that this montage scene briefly features one hitman parading the crowded neon lit streets in traditional Japanese dress is also significant. This uneasy meeting of old and new, an inability to distinguish the local from the global place proves a problem haunting many of Miike's male characters. It explains why his films are flooded with a variety of nationalities, languages and dialects, which often makes it difficult to define where these narratives are actually set.
In the interview that follows, the director discusses the role of family, film style and gender in his work, as well as contextualising the centrality of violence within his own unique cinematic vision. The following is presented as an introduction to the work of one of the brightest film talents to emerge in the last decade, as well as highlighting the merits of a director whose work is set to remain unsettling, controversial and groundbreaking.
Xavier Mendik: I wanted to start by asking about Visitor Q and Audition. They both seem to be dealing with violence in the Japanese family. Is this a particular interest of yours?
Takashi Miike: My interest is definitely in the family. Violence may appear to be a particular problem, but my interest is more in human actions and human emotions within the family. But violence of course, as a film-maker, is an easy tool for expressing or conveying certain problems or emotions that are at work within the family. I'm not particularly conscious or aware of the fact that my work tackles this sort of situation, but on the other hand what you feel and what happens around you enters your films unconsciously.
Many of your films focus on concerns and social problems like domestic abuse, incest, drug abuse and urban alienation, which are all issues facing contemporary Japan. Do you see yourself more as a social commentator than a fantasy film-maker?
Although these issues are there, I am often not aware that they are making an impact on me at a conscious level. So even if I don't set out to reflect any social realities or these problems as such, even if I want to forget about them and make something completely unrelated, it is exactly at that point where it seeps in.
Audition seems to be a very knowing comment on the perils of voyeurism. Asami seems to take the power of looking away from men, and seems to punish Aoyama when she sticks the needles in his eyes at the end.
Of course in a lot of films you have cause and consequence, where if you do some thing bad you must get punished, you commit a crime and you get shot. That sort of punishment I certainly did not have in mind. Actually he's a pretty good guy, the fact that he meets this unhappy fate is not really a punishment. It's just what happens in this relationship to these two people and we shouldn't generalise any further beyond that. The fact that he ends up like this is not because he has to pay for some kind of sin. I wanted to show that even if you are a good guy and do the right things all the time you can still end up very unhappy.
Many of your films, such as Dead or Alive and City of Lost Souls, require your actors to perform extreme acts of violence against one another. How do they respond to this challenge?
The funny thing about violent scenes is that in them the actors have to be the most considerate of each other, and have to show their love for each other. To shoot these scenes and to want to make it real the actors have to really trust each other to get as close as possible to make it look good on camera. You must have a real team that can communicate well with each other. It seems a paradox but it is because we love each other so much that the violent scenes appear so well done.
Your movie Ichi the Killer features state of the art effects in depicting the violence in the film. How do you feel such effects impact on your work?
A lot of Japanese films these days, just like elsewhere in the world, often use CGI as a sales point and it is inevitable to have a specialist CGI person on the crew. This has become accepted common practice, and since this person is there you think you have to use them all the time. I think a lot of CGI effects are completely unnecessary. Some people like to use these effects to make things look more real on the screen, but I like to make them look like a lie. I think you should make good use of this technology rather then be completely controlled by it. I believe that no matter what CGI you use you can never beat the real look of a mother's breast.
That's an interesting comment as I had a question about the Freudian aspects of your films. They are very angled towards women who have motherly positions.
I am aware that in reality all human beings start out by making use of the bodily fluids, not only the mother's milk after we are born but also when we are in the womb we eat from the mother, that's where we get our energy from. In that sense the mother's is a necessary existence.
You have said that you are an arranger of scripts. When the story of Visitor Q changed completely after the breast ejaculation, what aspects of the new script developments did you control by yourself?
The main thing is not really how the story changed, it's about what you want to convey. My role is to bring together all of the elements, so even if you didn't have the scene with the milk I don't think it would have made that much difference. People may think that the original script to the film is very different, but I personally don't think that the result is that different. The dialogue may have changed and the scenes may have changed, but the story didn't change.
How important is film style to you? Your movies have a very experimental feel.
I can only do what is in me. I cannot exceed my own capabilities, but I don't feel any restrictions as far as style is concerned. If I have a big budget or my circumstances are different I will adjust my style. In the end everything comes out of me.
Takashi Miike's responses were translated by Luk Van Haute before an assembled press conference at the Brussels International Film Festival. Xavier thanks Luk for all his patience and Paul Johnson, Head of Archive Operations at the Cult Film Archive, for his help with the interview and its transcription. Xavier would also like to thank the staff at the Brussels International Festival of Fantastic Film for all their assistance and hospitality during the Archive's 2002 visit.
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