Whenever someone watches a Takashi Miike movie, an angel and a devil sit perched on his shoulders. "Goodness," whimpers the angel, peering through laced fingers. "Was that a severed face smacking against a wall, with a sound like wet steak?" "Yeah," cackles the devil, excitedly rubbing his pointed tail. "Eat your heart out, John Woo." In the middle sits the viewer, torn between two responses. Should he recoil from Miike's atrocity exhibitions--showcases of hyperbolic splatter and transgressive depravity--or succumb to their giddy excess?
Miike doesn't make it an easy choice. He treats incest and necrophilia comically; he attacks every fear about the vulnerability of flesh. Heroin-addled housewives find happiness in gushers of lactation, and a schoolgirl assassin apologizes when she accidentally sprays a target with menstrual blood from her vaginal blowgun. The cinema hasn't faced a taboo-buster this potent since John Waters--not the rehabilitated IFC-mascot Waters of awards shows and speaking engagements, but the punky little art terrorist whose idea of family values was a blow job from tranny Mom. That Waters always pushed his audience a little farther than they were willing to go, and the same can be said for Miike, whose most extreme work is the subject of Walker Art Center's four-film retrospective "Tokyo Underground: Takashi Miike's Mad Bad World."
"Retrospective" may be too sweeping a word for a program that represents roughly one-fourteenth of its subject's filmography. In just 12 years, Miike, still only 42, has cranked out 55 films and videos (as of press time) at a rate that rivals the production of amateur porn. In 2000, Steven Soderbergh was regarded with open-mouthed awe for getting two movies in theaters; the following year, Miike made seven. Among these were a musical with claymation interludes (The Happiness of the Katakuris); a grotesquely funny, shot-on-digital study of family discomfort (Visitor Q); and a gangster-movie gross-out, Ichi the Killer, unrivaled in its grisly excess. All three are screening at the Walker, along with Miike's 1996 breakout film, the nastily inventive yakuza yarn Fudoh: The New Generation.
Working fast, cheap, and out of control within commercial genres gives Miike all but unrestricted freedom, especially now that his films have reached an audience outside Japan. As with Soderbergh, his feverish working pace reduces the risk of individual projects, allowing him to experiment with form, tone, and offbeat material. If you don't like a current Miike--his somber, loose remake of Kinji Fukasaku's yakuza classic Graveyard of Honor, for example--just wait three months for the next. (Not one but two new Miike movies surfaced in Cannes last month.)
Ironically, the combination of Miike's notoriety and his emerging international status make him a marginal figure in the States. His best-known film, the psychological shocker Audition (not showing at the Walker), builds from innocuous romantic drama to an unforgettably sick torture-as-gender-revenge finale worthy of Polanski. It's easily the scariest movie of recent years, as well as Miike's most sustained work. And yet, because it was a subtitled Japanese film from an indie distributor, it never reached America's built-in audience for horror.
At the same time, as part of the shadow zone of "artsploitation" (i.e., unrated foreign or indie work with often outré genre elements), Audition lost a lot of bookings at stodgier art houses. So did Dead or Alive, Miike's gonzo riff on Asian cop-socky, a movie that vacillates between muted misery and apocalyptic mayhem as if off its meds. According to indieWIRE, a critic asked Miike why one character suddenly produced a bazooka from the ether during a showdown. Replied the director: "Why shouldn't he have a bazooka? Don't all guys fantasize about bazookas?" They do, but judging by DOA's DOA performance stateside, Americans need Jerry Bruckheimer's approval first.
It may be that highbrow and lowbrow entertainment have more in common with each other than either has with the middle. Indeed, the tides of attraction and repulsion in Miike's movies can make both hipsters and fanboys seasick. It's not that Miike is a scold like Michael Haneke (Funny Games), who makes torturous movies to chastise audiences for watching torturous movies. Nor is he a brutalist like Gaspar Noé (Irreversible), who punishes viewers for the hypocrisy of wanting both violent titillation and happy endings. The word that's always yoked to these directors is "implicate"--e.g., "In Funny Games, Haneke implicates us bourgeois slobs in our passive voyeurism"--which means their movies are evidence to be used against us, and planted evidence at that.
Miike, by contrast, isn't trying to convict viewers of sharing a yahoo's sweet tooth for sensation. But neither will he compromise his own fascination with extremes of desire and devastation. Ichi the Killer (screening Wednesday, June 11 at 8:00 p.m.), a duet for meat hook and boiling oil, is either the jumping-off or jumping-on point for Miike's excessive visions. Imagine Love Story with the world's biggest sadist as Ryan O'Neal and the world's biggest masochist as Ali MacGraw, and that's just the subtext. The text involves dueling hit men who are perfectly matched opposites: Ichi, a crybaby killer who weeps before pureeing foes with his bladed shoes, and Kakihara, a blond punk with slit cheeks who craves nothing more than punch-drunk love.
An early scene establishes the three-dimensional cruelties of Miike's universe. While a thug beats and rapes his girlfriend, he's startled by a noise at the window: the sound of a furtive masturbator getting off on the show. What kind of person would watch such a thing--I mean, besides us? Ichi the killer, that's who--a character whose title card rises from a puddle of semen. The girlfriend will spend the movie bouncing from beating to beating; the thug will get a Stride Rite bisection; and Ichi will remain haunted by memories of a schoolgirl's rape that he was powerless to prevent (or join?). As Ichi and Kakihara draw closer, limbs fly, bloody geysers spew, and pain and violence become all that's left of love and sex.
Miike's most indefensible showstoppers (two words: nipple slicings) are exactly that. But would we really want to accept everything the director throws at us? If we did, we'd either be just like Ichi, jacking off to the world's horrors, or, even worse, we'd feel nothing. In a perverse way, films as severe as Ichi--or the merrily nihilistic Fudoh (Wednesday, June 4 at 8:00 p.m.), with its schoolgirl assassins, Cub Scout killers, and shock-value brinkmanship--help us realign our moral compasses by getting us lost.
The flip side of Miike's gore-hound exhibitionism is a backhanded but unironic regard for the nuclear family, celebrated in the daft The Happiness of the Katakuris (Thursday, June 5 at 8:00 p.m.). Surely the first movie musical to open with a claymation imp snatching a woman's uvula, Katakuris concerns a luckless clan whose woebegone country inn gets a boost from customers who quickly turn up dead. Miike's movies are frequently less than the sum of their wild set pieces, and Katakuris is at once the most fanciful and uneven of his movies to screen in the United States. Even so, its production numbers of floating lovers and chorus-line corpses--Stanley Donen, meet George Romero--are grounded in a basically affectionate portrait of family resilience.
So, too, are the jawdropping outrages of Visitor Q (Friday, June 6 at 8:00 p.m.), the most divisive film in the series--and, to this sick bastard's mind, the funniest. A comedy of degradation and renewal, equal parts Man Bites Dog, Pasolini's Teorema, and Down and Out in Beverly Hills, the movie begins with a garish cartoon of a troubled household: Bullied teenage son smacks around Mom, who's hooked on smack; newscaster Dad starts out interviewing his schoolgirl-hooker daughter for a social exposé and winds up screwing her on camera. (It goes better than his previous foray into youth activism, which ends when a teenage gang rams his microphone up his ass on live TV.)
Into their lives comes a mysterious visitor who conks Dad with a rock, sends Mom into sprays of orgasmic eruption, and inspires the household's miserable members to resume their traditional roles in the family. All ends happily ever after, thanks to the single most disgusting plot twist of this newborn century. It is impossible to defend except as the ultimate provocation of a director who sees the goriest, ghastliest extremes of human nature as steam rattling the lid of sweet domestic mundanity--a lid that could blow at any second. In the dangerous cinema of Takashi Miike, the family that slays together stays together.
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