Interview: Japanese Director Takashi Miike on Filmmaking & Violence
by Alex Billington
May 31, 2017
"I don't choose the projects. I think the projects choose me." At the 2017 Cannes Film Festival, legendary Japanese filmmaker Takashi Miike premiered his 100th film. At least, that's what the marketing folks were telling us. When I asked him specifically about this, he gave me a different answer. Nonetheless, Miike is indeed a "legendary" filmmaker. Even at the age of 56, he still keeps making movies non-stop, sometimes two or three in a year. His latest film is titled Blade of the Immortal (or Mugen no jûnin in Japanese), an adaptation of a manga series about a samurai cursed with immortality who takes on a job of protecting a girl. He's known for ultra-violent horror, epic samurai films, and the occasional drama. It was an honor to speak with him for what is the only interview he did with a website from America while at Cannes this year.
Even if you don't know him by name, you definitely know his work. Takashi Miike has directed a number of iconic, controversial, beloved films over the 20+ years he has been working as a filmmaker. His most popular features include Full Metal Yakuza, Ichi the Killer, Audition, Dead or Alive, Visitor Q, One Missed Call, Sukiyaki Western Django, Zatoichi, Detective Story, 13 Assassins, Hara-Kiri: Death of a Samurai, Ace Attorney, Shield of Straw, Over Your Dead Body, and Yakuza Apocalypse. In all honesty, I was a bit scared to interview him, because I don't feel I'm truly worthy of talking with such a filmmaking legend. I did my best to come up with some interesting questions that were more about his work and all of his films than this one. Blade of the Immortal is a damn fine film (read this review) but I wanted to talk about much more.
Once I met Takashi-san at one of the beach resorts in Cannes, I wasn't as scared as before. He had a camera around his neck, snapping shots here and there like a true cinephile, and seemed to be in good spirits. I've interviewed many filmmakers over the years and most of them are, deep down, genuine film geeks who just love telling stories and making movies. That's definitely the feeling I got while talking with him, and he was even nice enough to snap a selfie with me at the end (he also made me retake the photo with better lighting, like a good director, of course). The interview was conducted with the help a translator, and I've provided the full transcript below. After chatting for 15 minutes, I realized I would need at least an hour or more to really get into his career. As always, there's never enough time. But it was an intriguing discussion anyway.
Welcome back to Cannes. They've been saying that this is your 100th film. How does that feel?
Takashi Miike: Well, in fact I didn't know until somebody related to the film here told us. So it's 100 films as a result [of all my work]. And I'm just amazed that there were so many producers who had asked me to work on so many projects. The fact alone is amazing.
How do you keep yourself this busy? It seems like you're working constantly.
Miike: But it's true, yeah, I am always working on a film. And actually, I'm doing the interviews in the afternoon [here in Cannes] because I'm working on two [other] films [right now]. I'm doing post on two films and I'm looking at the CGI for one of those in the morning - through Skype and the internet. And I say to them "okay, this glossy bit needs to be darker," things like that. So that's what I have been doing today in the morning. And I'm speaking to you now. But that said, don't grown-ups work like that?
Yes! But my question is: you don't get confused as to what you're working on? Are you only focusing on one film at a time?
Miike: Of course, [Blade of the Immortal is] an adaptation. Obviously the source material from the author is going to be different than if you have an original story. Obviously to shoot a scene with the same actor saying the same line, you will never have that repeated. That's never going to happen again. So every time is very fresh for me. And even if you don't change, the cameras change, the methodologies for editing changes. The environment of filmmaking changes. And even if you get to work with an actor you worked with a year before, it's only been a year, yet there will be actors who have found a new ability. Or a different actor who's kind of deteriorated as a human being. So it really depends. So to answer your question, I never feel fatigued or I never get confused or bored.
What makes you choose the projects you choose, and what is it about Blade of the Immortal that was special?
Miike: Basically whoever comes to me with an idea.
Miike: Yes. And that's the order I make my films in, whoever came first. First come, first served. Because I don't choose the projects. I think the projects choose me. Or I am lucky enough to be chosen by the films. And for some reason if the film finds itself to me, I think that… there would be, of course, limits as to when we can shoot it or what budget we can have. But, of course, I might not be able to do it for those reasons. And yet I do want to make sure that that first impulse, of how the story first came to me, I don't want that to be tarnished. So I want to turn it into a film. So in Japan, if a project was having issues and when it wasn't doing well, I can maybe step in and help them, help to bring it back.
For this film, too. The protagonist is played by Takuya Kimura, who is a superstar in Japan. And for a Japanese producer when I suggested his name, it was like no way, he's never going to take it. Because he's what we call a "super idol" in Japan. And for them what's important is a great smile, singing, dancing. It's all about giving hope, instilling hope. And suddenly you have [him in] this makeup and basically the character just slashes and slashes people. And he has been at the top of the game for 25 years. And I felt he probably puts a lot of effort into being that way and he's probably very satisfied with what he's achieved. But I was thinking to have to be that for 25 years, he probably is at a stage where he wants to iconoclastically change something. Or break something of his public image. And I think that coincided fatefully with this project.
And you don't wanna be too cerebral, think too much. And I think if a director chooses too much, having thought too much they, you would start to think "okay, this is going to be good for me." And that probably, I think, breeds failure. But interestingly half of the offers I'm getting now are from China.
That seems to be the big change in the industry.
Miike: Yeah, they're working with many international filmmakers as you know. Investing quite a lot. But for me, wherever I can make a film is good. And I've been talking about projects with them. And the budget that they show us, I always go, "I don't think it's going to take that much." [laughs] But China, of course, is economically very strong. And this has happened as part of the life I'm living. It's a chapter that we're experiencing now. So I don't want to deny anything that happens like that. If fate brings us together, I want to make that film. If it's not going to work, it's not going to work. So that's kind of my stance, if you will.
Is there any particular film that you've made that you're the most proud of? And also one that you wish you could go back and work on again?
Miike: Well, all my films I think there are two reactions. In the older days, oh my God, how free were we? We were doing things, you know, with whatever. The other reaction would be, "oh this expression is a little crude. I could do much better." But even if I was still a little awkward and I wasn't able to achieve a certain expression, I think I still feel a possibility in that scene. And I think cinema itself, films tend to be reviewed by their faults. Rather than the opposite. If it's a low budget film… I think people would feel the possibility of – maybe if we had a bigger budget, he or she would make an amazing film. Or if the cinematography isn't good, maybe can think about: okay, let's have him paired up with this DP and that could be interesting. So I think for me, the past films… they're not my children. It's like they're like my parents.
Because a child can't choose their parents, can they? And it's an object to be loved including all their faults and shortcomings. And even if you want to go back and redo something like you mentioned, we're not going to be given that opportunity.
Miike: So if I do have some time, I do feel like I want to revisit them. You know, just so that I can enjoy my drink, my beer. My pint.
I want to talk a little bit about the violence in many of your films. Specifically that you don't have violence that is glorified, it's a part of it but not there for the sake of violence. I think it's a tool. How important do you think that tool is?
Translator: When I was translating the question, he was going "oh yeah, yeah, yeah. Exactly."
Miike: Like you said, it's because Manji, the main character [played by Takuya Kimura], is there and because of his character that's why we have violence in this film. I think Manji, and myself, we just want to live a peaceful life if we could.
Miike: And the violent scenes are actually, they're a handful to shoot. They're really hard. It's much easier to shoot a love scene, a love-making scene between a man and a woman on a bed. [laughs]
Miike: And that would be a great life to lead, just shooting those types of stories. But Manji came to me. He's my main character. And we have Shira, the really bad guy [played by Hayato Ichihara]. And so he's the other one, they come into my life of this peaceful filmmaker who just wants to spend very peaceful days. And it disrupts my life. But I think violent films, I think they can only be made if the crew and also the cast are really friendly with each other. And Manji is fighting in very close quarters in this film. But none of the opponents got injured making this film. Of course, Kimura the actor/main character, because he wanted to avoid hurting anybody, he would put a lot of strain on his body and so he did get hurt from that.
But Manji and the other characters going at it, we captured them. If you want to do it with love, we try to show how hard it is or how desperate they are, or the pain. So it all comes from love, you see. It is born of love and it's just that in the end, what it amounts to, it becomes violence.
That's a great answer to end on! A very big thank you to Takashi Miike for his time, and also to Jeff Hill + Film Press Plus for arranging this interview during the Cannes Film Festival.
Takashi Miike's Blade of the Immortal just premiered at the 2017 Cannes Film Festival. You can watch the official trailer here, while waiting for a US release. Stay tuned. Follow Magnet on Twitter @MagnetReleasing for updates on the film leading up to its opening. In the meantime, go watch any of Miike's other 99 films.