With a century of films under his belt Takashi Miike returns to Cannes with his latest adventure, an epic, brutal, funny and fantastic Jidaigeki film, Blade of the Immortal. The work, based on the Manga by Hiroaki Samura, sees a brave warrior Maji set to protect his sister, only to be ambushed by a hundred men. Vanquishing his enemies, the warrior is cut to pieces (literally) only to be resewn by magic worms bestowed by a white-cloaked crone. Switching from Black and White to colour, the film then travels on further adventures with this swordsmen, living up to the burdens and responsibilities of what’s both a gift and a curse.
Birth.Movies.Death. spoke exclusively to the esteemed director with a view that overlooked the Mediterranean sea. Miike was in fine form, and thanks to some of the most extraordinary real-time translation encountered in years of journalism we were able to delve a bit deeper than usual into the nature and scope of his art.
One hundred movies! Do we have another 100 left to go?
As long as I'm alive! Who knows? I might lose this environment where I can make films anymore, you never know.
Do you still find the excitement you had with your first film, that sense of exploration?
On yeah, definitely. The first film, the 3rd film, 50th, the 100th – they all share the same value for me. They are valuable in the same way.
If one had to define what makes a “Miike film”, what would you say?
Well, I have many different elements within me. Violence - I mean, people tend to say I’m a director of a certain genre, but I don't really see the boundaries between. If it's a yakuza film the narrative could be something that's entertaining. If the situation is hilarious, it'll become a comedy. Even yakuza people go to karaoke, so you could make a musical about that!
There's one difference - for example Ichi the Killer, or Audition, or Gozu, my first film to be shown at Cannes - I'd never imagined that my film would be shown in a film festival. It was never my objective, which hasn't changed still to this day. But unexpectedly people feel fond of my work, and the work takes me to different places, leading to encounters with different people.
I met Jeremy, the producer [of Immortal], through [these travels]. There are works that are very special and dear to me because they opened doors, but that's of course not the only thing important to me. Even the lesser known films are very important and many of them I love. But I don't really visit my own films.
What has changed more over your career – the types of films that you make, or the general audience and their tastes?
Oh, I think the audience is probably the one that has changed more. I'm getting further and further away from audiences, especially in Japan. In Japan specifically exhibitors want girls between maybe 12 and 18 to come and see the film. And I don't want to push my films onto teenage girls! But it's not that I'm going to try to make something that they would like or reflect their opinions in my own filmmaking.
I'm not going to do that… although of course you never know! [Laughs]
This film feels in some ways very classical, very traditional. At the beginning with the black and white, it's hard to not think of the likes of Kurosawa. But once you elevate the scope, even in the B&W, you have classic Miike. When crafting do you still draw love from the classics of Japanese and World cinema?
Of course I draw inspiration! After becoming a director your perspective [on classics] is a professional one, but I was also [merely in the] audience once and I was able to enjoy cinema as a spectator. There are many films that have stayed with me. With “jidaigeki”, aka Japanese traditional period films or “Samurai movies”, most of the great ones were made in black and white before we had technicolor. And one of the biggest directors of course, as you mentioned, Akira Kurosawa.
I think the Japanese film people's vitality has decreased as colour was introduced. So period films I think visually too if it's in black and white, it's a better fit.
One reason people might think this is that in black and white, violence becomes photographic, whereas blood, when it is red, is much more intense, and less poetic.
[With Immortal] you start watching the film thinking ok, it's kind of an old period kind of film style and then once you have colour, you know that it's a film for modern days, so it's for the audience too [and] for Manji, the main character as he becomes immortal. The story is set in the older times, but the film itself is for modern audiences and I wanted to express that.
Are you finding new ways of staging action, are you finding the new technology of cinema, be it editing, be it cameras, are allowing you to express visions that you were not able to do before?
Actually, for this film especially, I went back to the old day style. It's old school as I tried to use as few crane shots as possible, or camera works from the modern day. Wire action is actually at a minimum too. The style in which people made great interesting period films is the style that we used, so basically I only used one camera.
But the biggest difference probably is the sound design. That's probably one of the areas that saw the biggest technological advancements and in Japan, it's really tough to do this because there's not a tradition of spending a lot of time in post-production. But sound effect guys are really curious about things that they have not tried before, so I worked with them for a very long time to create the sound.
Were there particular foley effects you used that you would like to share?
You might not really hear this as an audience member, but we had a piece of boned meat and we slashed it, not quite with a katana blade, but something with a long blade. If we use that too intensely, it would probably feel very grotesque, so we kept it to a minimum. But sounds like that are subtly used for ambiance in the film but now digitally you can create any sound.
Do you still as an audience member go watch other people's movies? Or are you drawing more from literature and from manga?
Actually, I kind of stopped reading manga. I did read it enough when I was young. I don't think anything can beat a manga reading experience from childhood because you have that sensibility to really enjoy it. Those abilities regress as we become older. It seems like we kind of lose the ability to really enjoy the places we're supposed to enjoy. As we become grownups, our ability to focus on the failings or the shortcomings becomes higher and it's very difficult for a grownup to truly just enjoy.
I've always been like this, but I've never been an avid film goer to begin with because if I watch something, I'd probably think that “oh, it's already been done, we don't need to make something in the same vein.”
Is there a film that you love that would surprise us? Are you a big fan, say, of La La Land?
Unfortunately, Jason, most of the stuff that I like the fans would probably go, oh yeah, of course! [Laughs].
But you’re still stretching yourself creatively?
I've actually just directed a kabuki play, which is very traditional. And right now I'm actually doing a TV serial which is shown on Sunday mornings, seen by girls between 3 and 6. It's all about, “oh, violence is not good girls”, the protagonists use song and dance to purify and give solace to the grownups around them who've become corrupted so they can find the good in them again.
Now I'm trying to picture somebody like Fulvi or Argento doing a kids' show – This seems as ridiculous as Miike doing a kids' show! After 100 films, people will have developed expectations about what a Miike film is. If you meet those expectations we may be satisfied but not enriched. If you challenge us and give us something we're not expecting, for some it won't be satisfying. Does this paradox come up during your filmmaking?
I aspire to do the latter. For me, to try to make something that I haven't done before is a personal will. With the projects I work on, while I have my own ideas it's also about the encounters that find me, what manga or what source material [to draw from]. Instead of forcing that on others, I think just being natural and being organic I'm able to find that through these encounters.
[Speaking of pushing], I'm also making a claymation film and I also voice the character. The main character's an insect that pushes poo, a dung beetle.
This surely is a metaphor for filmmaking - pushing shit up hill and trying to make something worthwhile.
I’ve long advocated that you get to do one of the standalone Star Wars films. If they asked would you do an R-rated JidaigekiJedi movie?