Takashi Miike was making straight-to-DVD movies for almost a decade before Audition hit the festival circuit and earned him worldwide notoriety. Just a few years after that movie’s entrance into cult-dom, he was sufficiently renowned to earn a wry cameo as a businessman in Eli Roth’s Hostel, a movie influenced by Miike’s sadistic flourishes. With a directorial filmography swiftly heading to a century (bear in mind he started directing features in the early 90’s), Miike is one of the world’s most prolific filmmakers and, although he has dabbled in everything from Sergio Leone-infused westerns (Sukiyaki Western Django) to knockabout children’s films (Zebraman) and cheesy teen movies (Andromedia) he has earned his stripes with a select few movies from a vast filmography that gleefully cross the bad-taste barrier and demand attention. Most fans will have caught his most famous flicks on DVD, a format so dragged down by anonymous interchangeable fare with titles like Zombie Blowjob and Mega Mouse Vs Uber-Ferret that even lesser Miike titles tend to feel like revolutionary works. This year’s theatrical release of 13 Assassins seems as good an excuse as any to reflect on his greatest hits.
Miike is best known for extreme violence, warped sexuality and (to his critics) rampant misogyny, but many of his movies – including the languid, underrated Agitator- are more interested in character study and underworld vignettes than outrageous images and ultra-violence. Naturally, though, it’s the more extreme movies that tend to stick in the mind, and, in any case, even the mildest of Miike outings still tend to be shot through with his distinctively warped sense of humour.
Coming up with ten stand-out works from a career encompassing more than 80 movies is always going to leave interesting sidelines neglected. Even some of Miike’s most outwardly conventional movies have fabulous moments : his entry in the J-horror craze, One Missed Call, for instance, punctuates its fairly standard narrative with mischievous comedy (the severed arm of a teenager dismembered by a train accident still clutching a mobile as if trying to send one final text along the lines of “tell mum I’m dead lol”) and child abuse overtones echoing Audition.
In addition to his full length features (the most memorable, insane and plain entertaining all making it to this list), the following countdown includes a short movie and a notorious contribution to an American TV series. It’s worth noting that among Miike’s small-screen work, the six-part mind-fuck MPD Psycho is also essential viewing. Boasting episode titles like “The Crushed Ant” and “Life Is A Constant Double Helix”, it’s an incredibly inventive, often incoherent free-wheeling tumble through plot strands and nutty imagery, featuring dozens of gun-licking, murderous schoolgirls, body-hopping spirits, a comedy double act named Pan and Tease, robot dogs and a very Miike moment involving an eyeball on the end of a very long tongue. Within MPD Psycho is a moment that seems to nicely sum up Miike’s fabulously demented film career : a character takes cover under an umbrella to avoid arterial spray from the girl whose throat he has just slashed.
10 .Three Extremese (2003) Ironically, the most restrained episode of this outstanding anthology of short movies is directed by Takashi Miike (the other stories “Dumplings” and “Cut” from Fruit Chan and Park Chan-Wook, are also excellent), proof of the filmmaker’s diversity. Japan’s “The Box” is a deliberately paced, understated mood piece showcasing the kind of surrealistic, David Lynchian visuals and eerily dream-like ambience that helped define some of his odder pictures. Its fragmented narrative shifts between past and present as young novelist Kyoko Hasegawa (heart-breakingly good) finds her adult life haunted by guilt following her twin sister’s fiery demise, for which she blames herself.
Occupying a unique space somewhere between creepy J-Horror and dark art-house fare, “The Box” is a languid combination of unsettling flashbacks, recurring nightmares and ominous imagery: contorted dolls, music boxes and red-dominated colour schemes all enhance the drip-feed creepiness. Its horrors are subdued, almost subliminal, but there are two stand-out shuddery moments: a slowly ascending, spectral girl lurking in the corner of the frame and a solitary eye on a skinless face peeking out of the eponymous, partially opened box. The punch line, rendering the whole story a distorted nightmare or perverted wish-fulfillment fantasy, is marvelously off the wall in the Miike tradition.
9 .Full Metal Yakuza (1997) Miike’s reliably warped rendition of Robocop, shifting effortlessly from slapstick to pathos to OTT arterial spray, centers around a lowly, inept Yakuza who’s limp dick is mocked by an unkind hooker and whose run of bad luck is completed when he’s beaten up by yobs and subjected to multiple gunshot wounds. He wakes up post-mortem with a refreshingly huge, circumcised penis which, along with his heart, arms and legs, have been inherited from an ex-con blown away at the same time ; in a sly nod to Superman he transforms yet more into a Robocop-type figure in a phone box. The self-created genius responsible for this is a black market eccentric fulfilling a dream of creating a “Roboman” with detachable eyes, superhuman muscles and great hearing.
Miike’s distinctive touch helps overcome the obvious plagiarism of the Paul Verhoeven movie. There are plenty of grisly diversions into mutilation, weird sex and graphic splatter, including a bravura beheading, a guy sliced in half, a violated female corpse and a uniquely nasty sequence in which the hero has to watch the woman he loves being raped because the villains have his disembodied eye (said woman bites off her own tongue soon after, shifting the movie into uncomfortable territory after a mostly breezy few reels). Too bad the usual ludicrous Eastern fogging of genitalia prevents us from fully enjoying a key scene involving the Roboman’s stupendous todger.
8 .Dead Or Alive (2000) A typically unpredictable Miike foray into Yakuza territory set in the midst of ongoing war between the Chinese Triads and the Japanese Yakuza, with cop Sho Aikawa desperately needing $200,000 for his daughter’s life-saving operation, and going undercover in the criminal underworld in a bid to make it happen. The first of a diverting trilogy, this never quite tops the disorientating brilliance of its high-speed opening : a frenetically cut montage featuring a naked woman plummeting to her death, a guy snorting the world’s longest line of coke, casual police brutality and buggery and the artery spraying killing of a gay dude in some public urinals.
It’s ultimately more low key and sensitive than much of its director’s work but still shot through with his unmistakably skewed outlook on the world. Off the wall set pieces and bad-taste humour dominate. Recently consumed noodles explode from a dying man’s tummy; a clown hurls knives at a near-naked guy tied to a bicycle powered wheel; a nude woman is drowned in a paddling pool of her own shit after anal sex with a small-dicked gangster (“It’s genetics!”) and sleazy porn merchants have problems getting their canine star to achieve the erection it needs to fuck the female lead. It’s a somber crime story at heart, with a downbeat twist to match, but the ending is as batshit-crazy as they come: heralded by a character knowingly asserting “Here comes the last scene”, the flick takes a last-minute detour into super-hero territory and culminates with a casual moment of apocalyptic destruction!
7 .The Happiness Of The Katikuris (2000) This would be an oddity in any normal director’s flexography but, somehow, coming from the man who made Audition and Gozu it seems a natural choice. Lacking the physical horror and outré violence that made Miike’s name, it’s an overlong but often funny kitsch/dark twist on the Hollywood musical.
The Katikuri family run a cursed guest house in the Japanese mountains, where it is not unusual for guests to either commit suicide before check out or perish during oral sex. Guest bodies are buried nearby and sub-plots involve the oldest daughter falling for a dubious half-English Navy pilot who claims to be the Queen’s nephew (“Diana! If only I was there!”). Claymation and animation interludes alternate with musical set pieces that revel in their own intended cheesiness, including a colourful, Eurovision-like number about the magic of love, a mock-Sound of Music family sing-a-long against the mountainous backdrop and an “Always Be Positive” ensemble piece featuring singing cadavers.
It’s among Miike’s most aimless and leisurely movies, but some of the throwaway gags (check out the bug crawling up a reporter’s nostril while he’s on camera) and random surrealism (a guest house in which animals serve coffee and port luggage - “The pigs thought it’s either work or become sausages!”) are terrific.
6 .Fudoh The New Generation (1996) An extended pre-titles sequence involving a washroom massacre, severed head deliveries and the coming of age of the teenage hero (Shosuke Tanihara) establish the escalating rivalry between the Fudoh family, its patriarch and the prominent Yakuza gang. Tanihara builds his own criminal organisation in between supplying his teachers with drugs, intending to usurp the old Yakuza generation of gangsters, while his double-crossing dad sends his half-brother undercover into the school to halt our hero’s plans.
A potentially humdrum gangster saga is here elevated to must-see status by Miike’s love of spectacular gore, offbeat characters and wild black humour. Miho Nomoto is unforgettable as a schoolgirl stripper who shoots darts from her vagina, at one point assaulting a would-be victim and unwittingly unleashing a torrent of blood at the same time (“Sorry, my period just started!”). By the time Nomoto is revealed to be a hermaphrodite (early clues : zip-up panties and peeing standing up) and twenty something “pupil” Aizoma - who has an “egg-plant dick” - has emerged from an explosion like a low-budget Phantom of the Opera, you realise we’re in anything-goes territory.
The violence is wonderfully excessive, with primary school kids gunning down mobsters and playing football with dismembered heads, while a gangster erupts in geysers of spurting blood after sharing coffee with a deceptively innocent young girl. Amidst all the exaggerated bloodshed and visual gags with vibrators, one sequence crosses the line to disturbing effect: a schoolgirl assassin pisses herself while being throttled and is punched in the stomach / crotch before plummeting out of a high-storey window; this sadistic interlude led to BBFC cuts for its UK DVD release.
5 .Gozu (2003) Perhaps the most David Lynch-like of Miike’s movies – though it also has dashes of Cronenberg-derived body horror and Fargo era Coen Brother eccentricity (“You aint from Nagoya, are yah?” is a defining line) – this subdues the extreme violence of Ichi and Audition though it does open with a hilarious bad taste visual joke involving the spectacular demise of a tiny, inoffensive Chihuahua mistaken for a “Yakuza attack dog”. Estranged from his gangster family “brother”, Hideki Sone is stranded in the peculiar town of Nagoya and quickly finds a universal strangeness. Men in the local café have endless, repetitive conversations about the weather that go nowhere. An American woman runs a shop but talks in Japanese with the aid of strategically placed cue cards. An inn is overseen by an excessively lactating old woman whose milk-squirting tits provide some of the grosser moments.
This loosely structured road movie from Hell often looks like Miike made it up as he went along, but it’s also a beguiling, frequently funny one-of-a-kind experience. Characters appear and disappear suddenly, randomly odd dialogue dominates (“What’s a dead guy doing serving coffee?”) and the title is relevant for a surreal nightmare interlude featuring a guy with a cow’s head and an obscenely long tongue. Incidental black comedy features tattooed skins hung up like clothes in a dry-cleaners, and a mob boss who can only get it up if a wooden spoon is shoved up his arse. The inn sequences, with an unforgettable Keiko Tomita as the melancholic, horny proprietor, are among Miike’s most quietly harrowing moments and play like sketches from a never-seen Japanese remake of The League Of Gentlemen.
4 .Visitor Q (2000) You know you’re in for a good time when a movie opens with a father- daughter sex and ends with a junkie mother breastfeeding her teenagers to signify a sense of order has been restored to their home. Among Miike’s most consciously outrageous movies, this satire of tasteless extreme reality TV (and pessimistic commentary on contemporary Japan’s declining family unit), is alternatively repulsive, laugh out loud funny and absolutely baffling. Often it’s all three at once.
It revolves around the deeply dysfunctional Yamazaki family, Dad’s embarrassing premature ejaculation during sex with his child is just one of their debauched “issues”. The mysterious “Q” of the title is invited to stay with the family, where he quietly, ambiguously observes events, striving to intervene in their decline. Bullied son Takuya beats his zombie-like mum with a selection of paddles for crimes such as buying the wrong toothbrush or failing to cut the ads out of a taped TV programme. The TV mogul dad Kiyoshi is anally raped with a boom microphone on air and cures his sexual dysfunction by screwing the corpse of a female reporter he has throttled (sure, it’s a big step, but, hey, he lasts MUCH longer!). Meanwhile, Mum discovers orgasmic pleasure from endlessly lactating (prefiguring a key character in Gozu).
Visitor Q might be Miike’s most consistently gross movie, with characters routinely drenched in breast milk and cum, plus a massacre / dismemberment finale before a black-hearted mockery of a Hollywood happy ending. The movie’s centerpiece is a long, sickening, hilarious extension of necro-slapstick sequences from splatter movies like Re-Animator and Braindead : Kiyoshi films his own necrophilia (“I don’t come early anymore!”), briefly mistaking the cadaver’s post mortem defecation for vaginal wetness. Naturally, the scene culminates with his dick getting stuck in the corpse as rigor mortis sets in and a vinegar bath is the only option. Amazingly, the BBFC passed this movie uncut – though, don’t worry, all the pubic hair is fogged out.
3 .Masters Of Horror : Imprint (2005) Adapted by Audition writer Daisuke Tengan from the Japanese horror novel “Bohee Kyotee”, this never-transmitted episode of the American Showtime TV series is unmistakably a Miike movie, with a torture sequence as hard to watch as anything he has ever done, and much indulgence of his penchant for warped body horror and brutality against women. It’s also among Miike’s most visually stunning works : despite the pitch-black subject matter, cinematographer Toyomichi Kurita gives it a gorgeously rich and colourful look. Imprintearned instant infamy when Showtime refused to air it due to extreme content of the kind that would have been no surprise to established Miike fans but went much further than his fellow directors working on the show.
Like many Miike stories, this one hinges on a mind-fucking narrative unspooled by an unreliable narrator, disfigured courtesan Youki Kudoh, a stand-out in a cast of Japanese actors struggling with phonetic English line delivery. U.S. journo Billy Drago is in 19th century Japan searching for the love of his life, the fate of whom Kudoh promises to relate, with notably horrific results.
Given free rein by a network who subsequently banned his work, Miike made a show for U.S. T.V. rife with cruelty and envelope-pushing images. A half-naked woman is strung up and has needles thrust under her fingernails and into her gums. A gruesome abortion scene involves root vegetables, and moments involving bloody aborted fetuses dumped into rivers cross the line which mainstream American horror would normally not dare approach. Unbalanced by the miscast Drago’s annoyingly hammy performance, Imprint is disturbing and often brilliant, with some extraordinary Basket Case-inspired grotesquerie involving a malformed “twin” sister.
2 .Ichi The Killer (2001) Perhaps Miike’s most infamous movie, and certainly the one that emerged in the UK with the most BBFC cuts (the Board specifically objected to the brutalisation of various female characters), this demented, mean-spirited adaptation of Hideo Yamamoto’s Manga comics is packed with graphic nastiness veering from cartoonish splatter - a freshly removed face slides down a wall, wounds spray blood like hosepipes - to hard-to-watch masochistic beatings.
The title character is a notorious assassin with an absurd cheap super-hero costume and a reputation as a “100% sadist”. He cries when mad, gets erections from voyeuristically watching real rapes - but can’t ejaculate -, has bladed shoes and a mind full of fake childhood memories installed by a hypnotist, putting him on a mission to rid the world of all bullies. Ichi is assigned the task of tracking down a terrifyingly sadistic blonde Yakuza killer named Kakihara, the kind of guy who slices his tongue in half just to prove a point.
It’s a rough ride, even for Miike fans : as if to compensate for the female-on-male tortures inflicted in Audition, Miike abuses the female characters to an alarming, if compulsive degree. Typical of the movie’s overall approach, one masochistic woman expresses her yearning to be raped by Ichi, who doesn’t oblige but does slice her lower leg off and slash her throat; in one of the nastiest moments, a tortured girl’s nipples are sliced off in grim close-up. These moments, in a movie where women are either die-hard masochists or self-resigned victims, are tough to defend, though no one of either gender gets off light (so to speak) in Miike’s harsh world.
The movie itself has definitively Miike moments of absurdity and inventive ultra-violence. Characters learn the whereabouts of another person by sniffing a bound woman’s crotch, faces and arms and heads are pulled off with wild abandon and gang leaders are suspended from ceilings from multiple hooks while being scolded with boiling water. Few films are as unforgettably bloody and queasily thrilling, and it all winds up with a hallucinatory battle between the two memorable killers, played with relish and power by Tadanobu Asano and Nao Omori.
1 .Audition (1999) Miike’s most beloved movie has echoes of the mainstream Hollywood domestic slasher movie, in which ordinary folk get mixed up with the wrong lover / babysitter / flat mate and wind up with their home invaded and secure lives threatened. The director’s hour-long misdirection and the grueling home-invasion that everyone remembers at the climax, however, distinguish this from a mere variation of Unlawful Entry and the like.
Only oblique hints of the horror to come are present in the opening stretch, which plays as a poignant tale of loss and grief. Likable middle aged father / widow Ryo Ishibashi strives to finally move on with his life seven years after his wife’s death with the help of his film-producer pal. By setting up a series of auditions for a fake project, he hopes to meet the intelligent, well-trained young woman he seeks, eventually meeting 24 year old former ballet dancer Eiki Shiina, a soft-spoken beauty who seems to be The One.
Deftly blending melancholia with montage-comedy and gentle romance, Miike slowly introduces a sense of dread via Shiina’s propensity for bleak philosophy (“Living is just another way of reaching death”), creepy discoveries and disquieting scenes of Shiina alone in her apartment slumped near to a burlap sack containing Something that occasionally moves. When the extent of Shiina’s disturbed mind becomes apparent, the movie launches a horrifying backstory of extensive abuse and a protracted torture sequence that prefigured the Hostel led trend of post-9/11 sadistic splatter movies (“Pain can be trusted…”).
Shiina’s unforgettably cute, child-like torturer (trilling “deeper…deeper…as she turns Ishibashi into a human pin cushion) and the images of cheese-wire mutilation are among the highlights of the past 25 years of horror cinema. The pay-off to the relatively light-weight first hour transforms a low key story of loneliness into a hallucinatory descent into Hell signified by the revelation of a tongueless man, his feet and fingers removed, lapping at a bowl of milk provided by Shiina. Even in the deceptively quiet early scenes, however, a melancholic sense of despair lurks and pre-empts the truth of Shiina’s mission : watching a tape of a live rock concert, Ishibashi’s producer-friend laments “the whole of Japan is lonely.”