Prolific,” “controversial” and “bad boy of Japanese cinema” are some of the tags often attached to Takashi Miike. With more than 70 productions to his credit, there’s no doubting his work ethic, but categorizing a director who has made horror, gangster flicks, fantasy, action, comedies and a 3D samurai drama is not quite so simple. His 2003 Gozu, a yakuza-horror movie, was the first straight-to-video production selected for Cannes’ Directors’ Fortnight section, while in 2011 Hara-kiri: Death of a Samurai became the first 3D film in the main competition.
This year, Shield of Straw (based on the book Wara no Tate by Kazuhiro Kiuchi) sees Miike back in contention for the Palme d’Or. The film follows a special police unit’s 750-mile trek across Japan protecting a suspect with a 1 billion yen ($10 million) bounty on his head offered by the wealthy grandfather of the 7-year-old girl he murdered. The single Miike, 52, spoke to THR in Tokyo about the film, his unrelenting schedule, why making comedies is even tougher than making horror and how Japanese cinema has become too safe.
The Hollywood Report: Shield of Straw is an action-thriller and quite different from a lot of the films usually found in competition at Cannes. Were you surprised when it was announced?
Takashi Miike: Yeah, very surprised. And not just me. I think everyone was like, “Really, in competition?” And it’s a Japanese action film, which is a genre that has been largely forgotten. Now, if you think of action, it’s Hollywood or Korean films. But Cannes selects a wide range of films: That is one of the great things about the festival. But even an action film, it’s not just about showing action, it’s the characters involved and the sequence of events that leads to those happenings. The thousands of people that come to the theater have a lot of different reasons to watch a movie, so if I can hold their attention and keep them all entertained, then I’m satisfied.
THR: How did the idea for Shield of Straw come about?
Miike: The producers at Warner asked me about it, but I looked at it and thought it was full of parts that were impossible to film in Japan. You basically can’t get permission to film on the bullet train or the highways. We looked into building a full set for the bullet train, but that was too expensive. So we decided to try and go to Taiwan and shoot on the high-speed trains there, but they hadn’t let anyone film on those before either. But after a lot of hard negotiations, the authorities in Taiwan gave us permission. When I was making straight-to-video yakuza gangster films at the beginning of my career, I shot a few of them in Taiwan. I got back in touch with some of the producers I’d worked with back then, and they really helped us out.
THR: When you were doing those straight-to-video movies, you naturally made a lot of films every year. Most directors slow down after they move out of that world, but you’ve pretty much kept going at the same rate. Why?
Miike: If there’s an opportunity to make a film and my schedule allows it, I don’t see a reason not to do it. Of course there are directors who choose not to make so many films, and that may be right for them, and stops them from making mistakes. But for me, being on set and solving problems of how to shoot a scene, that’s everyday life and what I need to be doing. Even when there seems to be things that can’t be done — like with Shield of Straw — until you try, you don’t know.
THR: You’ve said that you don’t think about how a film will be seen by audiences when you’re making it. Is that really the case?
Miike: Even if you think about how people will see a film, I don’t think that’s possible. For example, if you think this is the kind of film that will go down well with salarymen [Japanese office workers], there are a hundred different types of salarymen working for a hundred different companies and with a hundred different personalities. So I think it’s rude to think that “an audience” that comes to the theater whom I’ve never met and don’t know will like this part or this film. I can only concentrate on getting the best performances and shooting the best scenes possible.
THR: You’ve made films across such a wide range of genres. Do you have a favorite?
Miike: Firstly I made horror, and that’s tough. Always thinking how to scare and shock people, it’s almost like bringing a curse on yourself. Though there’s a strange kind of pleasure in that too. Actually the hardest films to make are comedies. In normal life, funny things happen by accident; to re-create those by design in a film takes real technique. If you take those two out, then for me, it’s gangster films. I don’t want to be involved with the yakuza in real life, but they can do in an evening what politicians take 10 years to do. The yakuza are straight-up beings, they want what they want; if they betray people — it’s absolute betrayal. Japanese of my generation try to get through life without stepping on anyone’s toes; in some ways that’s unnatural and stressful. The yakuza are different: They live short lives but live and die on their own terms — it’s exciting to portray that.
THR: Talking of horror and yakuza films, you’re famous for shockingly violent and grotesque scenes. Do you ever worry about the effect it might have on people?
Miike: Regarding the responsibility that a director has to society, first of all, there are ratings. There’s freedom to make films, and freedom to watch them or not. It’s not like I take those films to a school and force kids to watch them. In Japan now, films are very safe. When I was young and went to old cinemas, they had a distinctive feel, an adult smell about them. As you got in your seat and the lights went down, there was a feeling of excitement: What if the film is scarier than I thought it’s going to be? You’re taken into that world. Nowadays, you can sit in the theater and know it’s going to be safe. That’s good for business, but not for filmmaking. I have lines in my mind about what is too violent or shocking to show. It’s a difficult issue. I don’t think a film that has no effect on people or society is a good film.
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