Takashi Miike: “First Love” & Bullets

A great talk with the legendary director.

Don’t be fooled by the title. Although Japanese provocateur’s Takashi Miike’s new film, First Love, is filled with car chases, gun battles, sword fights, severed limbs and tons of yakuza violence, the movie ultimately wears its heart on its kimono sleeve.

In First Love (which opened Friday in NY and LA from Well Go USA Entertainment and is expanding nationally on October 4), boxer Leo (Masataka Kubota), told that he has just months to live, falls in love with a hooker (Sakurako Konishi) in trouble. Yakuza gangsters, the Chinese mob and a corrupt cop complicate life for the couple, but the prolific 59-year-old director of Audition, Ichi the Killer and Blade of the Immortal relished the opportunity to tell a romantic story amidst all the bloodshed. In this exclusive interview, aided by a translator, Miike discusses his latest critically-praised work.

Q: You make so many films a year. What attracted you to First Love?

TAKASHI MIIKE: Honestly, this is born from a personal desire of mine to show that something good might come from all the chaos and violence in the world. I have these bad, rough-and-tumble characters who are interacting. Out of all of their interactions and violence, chaos and death, two people end up meeting, and a love story is born from that. So, there’s my hope that in this chaotic life of ours, something good can come out of it.

Q: Was this a film you developed with screenwriter Masaru Nakamura or did he bring the project to you?

TM: In the days that I used to make low-budget, B-movie direct-to-video types of films, we would do a lot of yakuza films. I wanted to go back to that and make something like that again. And so, I approached him and said we should do something new that harkens back to the yakuza that we did in the B-movie-budget days. And he came back to me with this idea, “What about this love story that develops, contrasting that with a yakuza story?” Mr. Nakamura had not been well-versed in the yakuza genre at all, but at the same time, as a scriptwriter, one of his virtues is that he’s a very kind person. He sees that, even if you have these bad characters or whether the characters are portrayed as good or bad, there’s still this affection and humanity that exists there. And so, he did a very good job at portraying that, and I thought it was a good script to do.

Q: The film is such a mix of genres: crime, fight film, love story. Was there any one you wanted to emphasize more than the others?

TM: The most interesting or important thing to me was to portray this lost culture that used to exist around the yakuza. It used to be one thing, then it became more about a crime syndicate. But that’s not the way it was. The stories used to be more infused with humanity and commented on societal roles that were important to Japanese society at the time. I wanted to portray the yakuza side of things.

Q: You have worked previously with actor Masataka Kubota (13 Assassins). What did he bring to the character of Leo that you liked?

TM: Mr. Kubota’s character Leo is this average boxer who isn’t a champion in Japan or a particular success and is working a part-time job. Then he’s told that he’s going to die. Leo really doesn’t move the action or plot forward. He takes a passive role, and even though someone says he’s totally healthy, he’s full of rage, stress and anger. Normally, an actor in this kind of role wants to play it over the top and wants to act like a star. But Mr. Kubota was able to understand this character because part of Leo exists in him. In the movie, his character just needs to survive and let the story move forward so he can take a permanent role as the survivor in the end, and not [serve as] one of the action characters. Mr. Kubota understood that very well, and his acting was a perfect fit. It actually takes a lot of courage to be that passive in a film.

Q: Why did you choose an unknown, Sakurako Konishi, over a more experienced actress?

TM: We decided to use Ms. Konishi to play Monica because we felt maybe a more experienced actress could do that role and definitely create the character, but they would artificially have to create that character through their acting. What we wanted to do was take this person who was weak, unreliable and vulnerable and who didn’t have her stuff together. She was going to be the survivor of this story and build a future with the other protagonist, Leo. And we wanted to make sure that we got it just right, that there was this feeling of reality of Leo wanting to help this vulnerable person. And we felt like the interaction between those protagonists was going to end up being a lot more realistic if we brought in someone who was new and inexperienced to play that role.

Q: How has your working methods changed since you began in 1991?

TM: Not that much has changed since then, even since I was an assistant director. When I was an assistant director, it was more like I was really working for the director trying to take their instructions and get it done in the shortest time possible. As a director, you’re taking the script and you’re trying to get it to play out through the actors. And it may sound like a platitude, but I enjoy being on set and just giving it my all and doing my absolute best there. Honestly, recently I’ve felt like maybe I’ve gone back to, and in a way reverted back to, some of the ways that I worked when I was an assistant director.

Q: Have you ever been directing a scene where you had to stop and say, “Wait! This is too extreme! Even for me!”

TM: No! That hasn’t really happened. What has happened is, I film this scene and whatever we get, we got it. And I’m curious, “Where is this going to go, what is going to happen with this, what are we going to be able to do with it?” When the editing comes next, at that stage, sometimes I’ve had regrets. But I never had regrets about what we did; I’ve had regrets about what we didn’t do. And so, there were definitely situations where I’ve thought, “We should have done this,” but I never had regrets about doing something that was a little bit experimental, that we should not have done it.

Q: What’s next for you?

TM: There’s a TV series for 3- to-6-year old girls that I have been producing and that is going to be made into a film. So, when I get back to Japan, we’re going to be doing the preparations for the filming of that. It’s going to be a movie for kids, and it’s actually rejecting violence. It’s this fun kids’ movie with song and dance. It’s a redemption for all of my past sins as a film director. I’m really looking forward to doing that kids film. It’s called The Secret Warrior: Fan to Mirage.

Q: Are there any genres, crime, action, comedy, horror, etc., that you want to further explore in future films?

TM: As we move forward in film, we’re constantly creating new genres, and I don’t see myself or any particular work of mine locked into a specific genre. As we’re filming, we’re breaking new ground and creating new genres as we go. Absolutely, I want to cover new ground and move forward in the future and explore as many new genres as possible.