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-[Film Reviews]-, EAST ASIAN CINEMA, Japanese Cinema

A 4-Way Takashi Miike Sampling: ‘Audition’ (1999), ‘Ichi the Killer’ (2001), ’13 Assassins’ (2010), & ‘First Love’ (2019)

Directed by: Takashi Miike || Produced by: Satoshi Fukushima, Akemi Suyama [1], Akiko Funatsu, Dai Miyazaki [2], Michihiko Umezawa, Minami Ichikawa, Tôichirô Shiraishi, Kazuomi Suzaki, Hisashi Usui, Takahiro Ohno, Hirotsugu Yoshida, Shigeji Maeda [3], Muneyuki Kii, Jeremy Thomas, Misako Sako [4]

Screenplay by: Daisuke Tengan [1, 3], Sakichi Satō [2], Masaru Nakamura [4] || Starring: Ryo Ishibashi, Eihi Shiina [1], Tadanobu Asano, Shinya Tsukamoto, Alien Sun, Sabu [2], Nao Omori [2, 4], Kōji Yakusho, Takayuki Yamada, Yūsuke Iseya, Tsuyoshi Ihara, Hiroki Matsukata, Mikijirō Hira, Gorō Inagaki, Masachika Ichimura [3], Masataka Kubota, Shota Sometani, Sakurako Konishi, Becky, Takahiro Miura, Mami Fujioka, Yen Cheng-kuo, Duan Chun-hao, Maimi Yajima, Masayuki Deai, Jun Murakami, Kenichi Takitoh, Bengal, Sansei Shiomi, Seiyo Uchino [4]

Music by: Koji Endo [1, 3-4], Karera Musication, Seichi Yamamoto [2] || Cinematography: Hideo Yamamoto [1-2], Nobuyashu Kita [3-4] || Edited by: Yasushi Shimamura [1-2], Kenji Yamashita [3], Akira Kamiya [4] || Country: Japan || Language: Japanese

Running Time: 108-128 minutes || 1 = Audition, 2 = Ichi the Killer, 3 = 13 Assassins, 4 = First Love

Few filmmakers alive are as prolific as Japanese phenom, Takashi Miike. Since his directorial debut in the early 1990s, the man has directed over a hundred (yes, 100) theatrical films, television episodes, and music videos, including 48 feature-length productions. He is sometimes described as a talented yet workmanlike director, an “anti-auteur” with a non-romanticized view of filmmaking craft and a frequent director-for-hire on numerous mainstream or family-friendly projects. His massive filmmography and rapid directorial output are matched only by his sheer eclecticism, transitioning from those aforementioned cookie-cutter projects to weird genre-hybrids and extreme, near exploitative grindhouse films. The closest Western counterpart may be Quentin Tarantino, who starred in Miike’s Sukiyaki Western Django (2007), an eccentric, charismatic filmmaker with a penchant for black comedy and over-the-top, stylized violence.

Where Tarantino is deliberate and selective with his cinematic influences, however, Miike is chaotic and manic; where Tarantino’s films are expansive and indulgent, Miike is fast-paced and efficient, an artistic approach that mirrors his industrious work ethic and gigantic library. It can be difficult to spot a Miike production from afar even if you’re a hardcore cinephile or a fan of contemporary Japanese cinema, given the man’s wide genre range and casual disdain for auteur theory. On the other hand, it’s hard to miss the latest Tarantino picture even if you only watch a handful of films a year.

Top: Prepare for one of the greatest jump-scares ever in Audition. Knowing what’s coming doesn’t help. Bottom: Masataka Kubota (right) stands up for Sakurako Konishi (left) in the hardware store showdown of First Love.

Miike does retain specific directorial touches and cinematographic overtones from film to film, though, even across disparate genres and incomparable budgets. The following four movies are a brief overview, a small collection of highlights from an otherwise inexplicable career in cinema: Audition (1999), a subtle horror film about patriarchal society and gender stereotypes in romantic relationships; Ichi the Killer (2001), an infamous grindhouse crime drama featuring a sadomasochistic yakuza enforcer meeting his match in a psychologically stunted, deranged serial killer; 13 Assassins (2010), a violent, gory update of classical samurai epics; and First Love (2019), a young adult romantic comedy wrapped within a kooky, story-driven crime comedy reminiscent of the works of Guy Ritchie.

For starters, Audition is a great example of Miike’s general approach to dramatic cinema and dialogue-driven scenes. Most film buffs are at least familiar with the poster imagery and marketing of this film, as it’s credited with introducing Miike’s work to a global audience (his “breakout movie,” if you will), and to this day remains his most recognizable feature. Audition is further notable for how its true horror nature is obscured for 2/3 of its running time by a well made yet mundane, wholesome romance, a peculiar yet ingenious narrative structure that culminates in one of the greatest third-act twists in modern cinema. The film’s dark yet subtle thematic overtones, delicate social commentary, and rare yet precise jump-scares are all a function of director of photography Hideo Yamamoto’s emphasis on ensemble staging in wide focus, as well as Miike and editor Yasushi Shimamura’s deliberate, rare close-ups. Most sequences remain in a wide master for the majority of their run-time, often with characters framed by windows, doorways, or corridors, if not partially obscured by the set-design, itself. This allows castmembers to interact more freely than with excessive close-ups or medium shots, particularly in the film’s romantic drama portions, yet this also heightens tension during the horror climax and frames characters such that they are dominated by the scenery. Miike’s visual style and preferred editing rhythm feel like David Fincher, in this way.

Unlike the restrained, dictatorial command of Fincher, however, Miike is not above striking, consistent handheld camerawork, often without the use of a SteadiCam or similar motion-controlled gear; this contrast with his aforementioned ensemble staging with static cameras is exemplified by Ichi the Killer, one of Miike’s more controversial, quasi-exploitative features. An ostensible crime drama about warring yakuza gangs in Shinjuku, Ichi is in truth a psychological character drama about dual leads and narrative rivals, Tadanobu Asano (now the lead in the upcoming 2021 Mortal Kombat remake!) and title character Nao Omori. The former is a sociopathic torturer extraordinaire in the vein of Game of Thrones (2011-2019) Ramsay Bolton, while the latter is an infantile, brainwashed hitman under the reins of shadowy, manipulative handlers like Shinya Tsukamoto.

Throughout Ichi’s seedy, absurdist character study, Yamamoto’s handheld tracking shots and pervasive overexposed lighting feel at odds with the film’s gory set-pieces and unsettling torture sequences. The movie feels like the artistic equivalent of an undercover journalist exposing the dark underbelly of an otherwise cosmopolitan, white-washed community, and somehow this combination of cinema verite aesthetics, observationalist ensemble staging, and hyperbolic characterizations works.

What doesn’t work, however, are the film’s occasional yet memorable digital FX, which portray cartoonish gore from several of Omori’s comical rampages, as well as a sequence where Tsukamoto’s head is grafted onto a bodybuilder’s torso (think Chris Evans’ head projected onto the body of a 12-year old in The First Avenger [2011], but with far, far worse FX). Like any filmmaker, Miike has his weaknesses, and utilizing computer generated imagery (CGI) is one of them.

One of the best showcases of Miike’s action choreography and creative (re: non-digital) gore FX is also one of his most straightforward genre films. 13 Assassins, a remake of the 1963 classical samurai Western of the same name by Eiichi Kudo, is a wonderful contemporary update of the sort of romanticized, larger-than-life period tales on which Akira Kurosawa built his career (e.g. Seven Samurai [1954]). Epic and violent, yet not bloated or overindulgent, 13 Assassins will remind action fans of similar contemporary action extravaganzas like Fury Road (2015) and The Raid (2011), which feel modern in terms of camerawork, coverage, and editing, yet traditional in terms of minimalist story structure, relatable characterizations, and thematic imagery. The main drawbacks of a film like this are a function of its simple, single-minded premise: A bunch (13, to be exact) of samurai badasses try to eliminate an iron-fisted clan leader and his posse in feudal (re: 19th century Edo Period) Japan. That’s it. If you love action, there’s enough solid filmmaking and effective pacing to keep you invested, while those uninterested in watching severed heads fly by the dozen on film aren’t missing much given the narrative’s verbose exposition and repetitive visuals.

Top: Ronin clash with shogun bodyguards in 13 Assassins. Bottom: Tadanobu Asano (left) and Nao Omori (right) come to blows in the finale of Ichi the Killer.

Last but not least, Miike’s latest feature, First Love, demonstrates the director’s fluency at mixing disparate genres and opposite tonal flavors into a seamless whole. The most “Tarantino-esque” of this bunch of films, First Love is perhaps the easiest to recommend to general audiences given its wholesome, relatable human core (a cute romance between male and female leads Masataka Kubota and Sakurako Kunishi, respectively) that holds its various crime thriller subplots together; much like a Pulp Fiction (1994) or the recent Once Upon a Time in Hollywood (2019), First Love is a meandering, lackadaisical genre-blender, building its central human relationship around an entertaining yet often superfluous framework of gangsters fighting over various MacGuffins. The film’s reasonable length (108 minutes) and extensive action comedy also leave impressions of Guy Ritchie’s Cockney gangster flicks.

Perhaps the ultimate irony of Takashi Miike’s prolific, influential career is how it coincided with the live-action Japanese film industry’s decline in global popular culture. While Japanese animation remains as popular as ever, the nation’s soft power may have been pushed aside by its peninsular East Asian neighbor as K-pop, Korean soap-operas, and a rising feature-film industry dominate overseas. Then again, contemporary Japanese cinema has given birth to and in large part been shaped by the works of Miike, a nonstop workhorse who has dabbled in every genre and worked with every budget imaginable. As exemplified by this small, yet, I would argue, representative sample, Miike is truly a filmmaker for all audiences — though often not all audiences at once.

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SUMMARY & RECOMMENDATION: Audition is the best of this bunch, far and away Miike’s most successful and famous international picture, featuring an enigmatic narrative structure and restrained dramatic cinematography that pay dividends through its insidious, bonkers finale; Ichi the Killer has perhaps the most limited appeal of these films, mixing black humor and extreme, gratuitous gore with gleeful abandon, yet is cinematographically one of the most dynamic films I’ve seen in years; 13 Assassins is a contemporary homage to the classical samurai epics of yesteryear as much as it feels a stylistic precursor to the Indonesian New Wave; First Love, the most approachable of these films, combines the genre-blending antics and heartfelt character development of Quentin Tarantino with the nonchalant comedy and story-driven screenplays of Guy Ritchie.

However… Ichi’s CGI is terrible, 13 Assassins’ first act is stuffed with exposition and has virtually no appeal beyond action enthusiasts, and First Love’s supporting cast, including and especially its Chinese triad and yakuza characters, are underdeveloped.

—> I HIGHLY RECOMMEND Audition, am ON THE FENCE with regards to Ichi the Killer and 13 Assassins, and RECOMMEND First Love to most audiences.

? I don’t care how hard you kick; no razor blade boot-heel is going to cut through bone.

About The Celtic Predator

I love movies, music, video games, and big, scary creatures.

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