For those who enjoy their genre cinema blood-soaked, calculated to shock, and layered with only the darkest of comedy, Japanese director Takashi Miike has been a cult favourite for decades. He earned a sizable cult audience in North America somewhere in the early 2000s when his beyond bad taste masterworks like Audition, Ichi The Killer, Visitor Q, Gozu, and The Happiness Of The Katakuris left film festival audiences giggling in disbelief before sneaking into the suburbs on DVD. Miike specializes in the type of movies passed quietly between genre fans who want their boundaries tested. He likes to push buttons and has made at least one movie guaranteed to offend everyone. That’s why we love him. Someone has got to find out where the line is and push it a bit farther.
Takashi Miike is also one of the most absurdly prolific directors on the planet, on average making three to five movies a year. As a result his latest film marks Miike’s 100th directorial credit and the guy has only been active since 1991 (if that doesn’t make you feel unproductive, you’re likely about to die of overwork and exhaustion). Though the filmmaker probably doesn’t keep count of his credits as ardently as his fans, the man’s 100th project is a big one. He’s adapted Hiroaki Samura’s popular manga Blade Of The Immortal into a long awaited feature film. The comic has run for 18 years in Japan and the regional chapter of Warner Brothers stepped up to produce the movie. So this is no tossed off genre outing. It’s as close as we’ll likely ever get to a Takashi Miike epic.
Japanese star Takuya Kimura leads the cinematic assault as Manji, a skilled samurai who was cursed with immortality when he strove for revenge. We get the origin in beautifully bloody black and white, shot and edited in a style reminiscent of the ground-breakingly brutal finale of the samurai classic Sword Of Doom. From there the movie jumps ahead an unknown period of years when Manji takes on a young woman apprentice Rin (Hana Sugisaki) and her in a new quest for revenge. Miike then pits his heroes between wild battles with increasingly deranged villains brandishing increasingly insane weapons. It’s a wild ride peaking in an unforgettable finale where Manji carves his way through a whole army of baddies, a wild climax that required over 300 extras to facilitate all the bloodshed. For those who enjoy the extremes of Japanese genre cinema, Blade Of The Immortal certainly represents a milestone of samurai sword slashing.
Dork Shelf recently got a chance to speak with the great Takashi Miike about his 100th feature Blade Of The Immortal, the insane challenge of mounting the epic climax, and how the twisted sense of humor of his film bleeds into his life. Join us for a brief journey in to a mind of one of contemporary cinema’s greatest madmen.
Given the sheer volume of films you make, how do you choose your projects? I can’t imagine you accept everything, but you make so many that you can’t be turning many down either?
The main factor to determine whether or not I’ll take on a film is timing. When I say that, I mean that I may be offered a project that I’m interested in but the time frame overlaps with another project. So if I can’t move one of them back in the schedule or change the timing of the next production then, I’ll turn it down. Of course there are also scheduling factors related to the actors’ schedule or the release dates needed to secure theaters. For example, I may finish a horror project and get a request to direct a children’s TV series. If the schedule works out, I’ll do it. I really like to let myself naturally take on whatever project falls into place at the right time and go with that.
Since the manga Blade Of The Immortal has been around for years, was it something that you’ve been interested in for a while and was it difficult to condense that wealth of source material into a single film?
When I started the project I was really only making films and wasn’t paying too much attention to other media and potential source material. So, I wasn’t really aware of it but I had heard about it from younger actors who I was working with. I was often told that it was an interesting manga that I should read. So eventually I did read it, but it was so expansive that it was difficult to imagine how to turn it into a film. It was an interesting challenge.
Some other producers and filmmakers had explored the material before, but a few issues kept coming up. One of them was budget, because it would take quite a bit of money to adapt this story. The other was that young audiences in Japan are not particularly interested in period pieces. Eventually a producer approached me and said that they had a lot of problems with Blade Of The Immortal and asked if I had any ideas. I suggested that we approach Takuya Kimura to play the protagonist and we were miraculously able to get him involved. His star power was what allowed us to move forward. The project had floated around the film world for a while, but it wasn’t until recently that I got involved and was able to pull it together.
The way you shot the opening sequence very much reminded me of Kihachi Okamoto’s Sword Of Doom, was this an influence on you at all?
Honestly, you might be surprised to here this but I really don’t watch all that many movies. There’s was no intentional homage being paid to Mr. Okamoto’s work in that scene. But I definitely absorb a lot of themes, ideas, and content subconsciously. Often it’s not even clear to me where I absorb that content from. So it’s definitely not overtly intended as homage, but in some sort of roundabout way it’s entirely possible that I was influenced by that.
The finale of the movie is a battle scene involving hundreds of extras and I must say, it’s absolutely amazing. How do you choreograph something on that scale? Obviously you can’t talk to each extra individually, yet they’re all important to pull off your vision. So what’s the approach for something like that?
That’s a very interesting question and I’m going to start answering this by saying that it’s very important for the cast to be able to connect directly with the characters in order to pull off a sequence like that. I’ll tell you what I mean. As you probably know, Japanese movies often suffer from budget slashing and time crunches during production. There are always budgetary pressures to do things as cheaply as possible. So there were requests from the production company to cut as much as we could and be as bare bones efficient as possible. I said, “Ok, well we have to get this battle scene and we don’t have enough time left to do it. Maybe we should all quit.” However, Manji can’t quit in that battle scene. He literally cannot stop until he has killed all of those enemies. So as a cast and crew we said, “Well, if Manji can’t quit then we can’t quit.” Time was against us and I’d look around and say, “We still have to kill this many people.” People would say to me, “That’s impossible.” But I said, “We have to do it. We have no choice. We can’t quit because Manji can’t quit.”
So right then and there, Manji’s battle became our battle. No matter what it took, we had to kill everyone. He had to get all of it done even though he was exhausted and had no energy left and so did we. I felt like our story and Manji’s story moved together in parallel during that battle and that’s how we were able to accomplish it.
I love the humour in your work, which tends to derive from the darkest and bleakest possible places. Does that also describe your sense humor in life?
Well, personally I want to feel that at the end of my life no matter what happens and how terrible it gets, I can look back and feel no regrets. In life, you can go through terrible times, but they are still your experiences. I want to die laughing. In my movies, there are times when characters go through horrific moments and then there are scenes where natural laughter comes through in reaction to the extreme circumstances they are portraying. Some filmmakers are concerned with maintaining a specific tone and might feel like that humour is inappropriate and doesn’t belong and cut it out. But when I’m editing often I’ll find that dark humour that emerges as quite true to life even if it goes against the tone of the scene and I’ll leave it in. So, in terms of my own sense of humour, I feel the same way.
I want to be able to look back at my life and laugh about everything, even the darkest times. I want to laugh at everything and never feel any regrets.
*Note: This interview was conducted through a translator and edited for clarity.