By Michael Varrati
Having been involved in the horror genre for quite awhile, I must confess I occasionally feel that I’ve hit a wall when it comes to what can legitimately scare or disturb me. I say this not with any sort of pretentious air, but more so a realistic approach to a blood-soaked industry that has become part of my everyday life. In some ways, it’s just an essential matter of survival. Those of us that craft tales of terror, make movies about them, or otherwise glorify things that go bump in the night tend to face our fears on a daily basis. Because of this, there is a relative thick skin that must be developed to avoid any sort of long term trauma. Movies that friends and family members find to be “shocking and gross” are usually “quirky and fun” to me. It may speak to an offbeat sense of humor, but that’s why the majority of cult fans would rather line-up to see Night of the Creeps than There’s Something About Mary. We just develop a new appreciation for what we’re watching, and it is rarely, if ever, based in any sort of genuine, base-level terror. If anything, it’s because we’re amused and tickled in some dark, but earnest way.
Because of this tendency to treat such heavy subject matter with a bemused sense of depraved humor, when a film comes along that finds a way to shock us, it often leaves a deeper, indelible mark than it would on the average filmgoer. After all, we’re the horror fans…stuff like that doesn’t bother us. It shouldn’t…and yet, there’s always the exception to every rule.
It’s just such an exception that ensures I will forever remember the very first time I encountered the work of Takashi Miike.
In the fall of 2004, my friend and fellow cinephile Enrique had invited me over to his apartment to watch the latest shock import from Japan, a little known film titled Audition. Directed by the then unknown to me Miike, the film appeared to be the simplest of romantic comedies. An aging and lonely film-producer is set up on a date by his son with a woman who they first meet via a film audition. Things are relatively innocuous…the man and the woman fall in love and everybody seems posed for the wedding in the final reel. That is, until we discover that said woman is one crazy psycho bitch with a penchant for physical torture. What results is a little more Hostel and a little less How To Lose a Guy in 10 Days. With a transition that occurs with breakneck speed and almost equal intensity, Miike plunges the audience into a world of the most vicious and visceral body horror I had ever seen committed to film. With a growing sense of dread, I watched the woman’s vile perversions go deeper and deeper down the rabbit hole, leading to a nearly incomprehensible mutilation in the film’s finale. So unprepared was I for Miike’s brand of unrelenting violence that I spent the next hour after the credits rolled laying on the floor of Enrique’s bathroom, fighting waves of nausea and convinced I was going to throw up whatever crappy fast food I had eaten earlier that evening.
I was disgusted, bothered, and left feeling physically sick. This had never happened before, and I wasn’t so sure I liked the sensation. It became quickly apparent to me that the greatest victim of any Miike story is the viewer, because it’s really a trial of how far you can make it into the movie before you realize there’s no turning back.
Even in my shaken and disturbed state, I had to admit: This was a master of true horror.
It took me a long time before I wandered back into Miike’s world. I admittedly gave the Japanese born filmmaker’s work a wide berth, if only because I didn’t want to test the mettle of my stomach every time I sat down to watch one of his movies. However, like anyone truly fascinated by the twisted and deranged, it was only a matter of time before I would find myself clutching another one of his DVDs, willing to put myself back on the line for cinema…and for a potential new horrific fix.
I must confess I am very glad I didn’t let my initial encounter with Miike’s work scare me away forever. If I had, I’d have missed out on a rich career cultivated by a filmmaker who continually refuses to be placed in any one definitive box. To be sure, Miike’s films often tend to push boundaries of what is considered acceptable or sane, but they also are willing to branch into territories that are endlessly creative and startlingly fresh.
My second foray into the world of Takashi Miike came in the form of a violent tale of yakuza revenge titled Ichi the Killer. Playing as though David Lynch had tried his hand at directing a Tarantino film, Ichi tells the tale of a man set on pitting Japan’s organized crime leaders against one another through the violent actions of a near superhuman assassin. Horribly gory, but also complete with arcane fever dreams and lushly realized surrealistic sequences, Ichi is the kind of film blood-thirsty and philosophic filmgoers alike can treasure. Add to this the fact that the film features one of the most maniacal villains this side of the Joker (complete with an even more sinister grin), and you have the stuff of which cult movie legends are made.
Of course, for me, when speaking of Miike’s midnight movie potential, none of his works come closer to achieving that Rocky Horror-level of perfection as 2001’s Happiness of the Katakuris. Something of a departure from the serious tone of the previously mentioned films, Katakuris is an odd amalgam of comedic horror, zombie farce, and rock musical. Concerning a family who owns a bed-and-breakfast at the foot of Mount Fuji, the film takes a ridiculous turn for the worst when the well-intentioned proprietors realize their guests have habit of not staying alive until morning. Not wanting the unfortunate (and accidental) demise of their customers to sully their inn’s reputation, the family takes it upon themselves to dispose of the bodies. Unfortunately, as often happens in such films, the dead don’t stay as such, leading to hilarity and some high-kicking dance numbers. Throw in a strangely placed claymation sequence and a lead character who is convinced he is the Japanese nephew of Queen Elizabeth, and you’ve pretty much got a recipe for one of the best foreign films to ever be released stateside. Irreverent and creepily charming, Happiness of the Katakuris may be one of Miike’s lightest offerings, but is also irrepressible proof of a totally unique cult visionary.
Endlessly working, Miike’s output seems never-ending. In 2007 alone, the Japanese master directed and released no less than six films to domestic and international markets. Broad and far-reaching, Miike is auteur whose work is endlessly challenging film-goers and dipping into a multitude of genres (he’s done horror-themed westerns and comedies too) to create a wholly unique cinematic experience. Though his career at this point is well established, age has not shown the director to be growing complacent. To be sure, the work of Miike remains as controversial and visceral as ever. That same disgusting fervor that brought me to my knees with Audition is still present in the master’s more contemporary works. In fact, Miike sparked something of a minor controversy amongst the genre community when he was asked to participate in the Masters of Horror project being developed for the Showtime network by horror auteur Mick Garris. The concept, that each week Showtime would air a new short film by a different “master of horror” seemed a perfect fit for Miike, placing him alongside such peers as John Carpenter, Stuart Gordon, and Dario Argento. In the company of such luminaries of fright, it seemed Miike would hardly be the one to stand out…
…and then he delivered Imprint.
Miike’s entry into the series proved to be so shocking to network execs at Showtime, they refused to air the episode. Imprint was still included in the Masters of Horror DVD collection, but remains the one episode of the series that has yet to see airtime in the United States. His tale of feudal Japan and the horrors a girl working in a brothel had to suffer proved too shocking, even for his peers. Clearly, if this is a man who could scare John Carpenter and disturb Mick Garris, don’t you think he deserves his place at horror’s table?
I certainly do.
I had the unique opportunity two years ago to actually meet Takashi Miike in person when he came to the New York Comic Con to preview scenes of his latest film, Yatterman (a farcical superhero flick…with bone splintering), and follow with a brief Q&A. Far from the intimidating beast I had imagined such a perverse and violence-enthused individual to be, Miike was a small, affable Asian man with smartly spiked hair and sunglasses that would rival Bono’s. I watched as Miike warmly greeted fans, shook hands, and discussed some of his influences (Kubrick, various manga that I did not know). I had decided, because Miike’s works had provided me with such guttural reactions when I first saw them, that I had to at least shake the man’s hand before I left the convention center that day. In a minor way, it was my own need to face my fears…which, admittedly seemed far more foolish when actually face-to-face with such an unassuming character as Miike appeared.
After a short while, I made my way to the man himself, communicating through his interpreter what a savage mark his films had left on me. Calmly, Takashi Miike took my hand and smiled. It was not the smile of an artist pleased to hear his work was appreciated, but rather, as I said earlier, the smile of a man who recognizes his victim. Takashi Miike made my flesh crawl that day…
…and god, did I love every second.
For being one of the few men on the planet that still scares the holy hell out of me…and more so, for being an artist of such unrelenting vision, Takashi Miike is truly a Cult Filmmaker You Should Know.
Discover him, my dear children of the popcorn, but be warned: He’s waiting…
…and he wants to do terrible, terrible things to you.
Until next time.