Thursday, August 1, 2013

Catching Up with Takashi Miike

Takashi Miike just seemed to explode in world cinema in 2000 and 2001. The door may have been kicked open by movies like Ring (which itself brought many a Japanese horror film to foreign shores in its wake) and Battle Royale, and the hunger for the new and strange genre cinema coming from Japan was insatiable. More remarkable than the movies that seemed to magically appear in abundance to sate that hunger was the fact that all of them (Dead or Alive, Fudoh: The New Generation, Audition, Ichi the Killer, City of Lost Souls, Visitor Q, etc. etc. etc) were directed by one man.

Though Miike's themes included a thoughtful examination of the lives/plight of foreign residents of Japan (and a heartfelt earnestness in depicting the family values of that country), his cinema was most popular for its embrace of a high level of extreme (and politically incorrect) violence and sex, as well as an anything-goes spirit of unpredictability that sent even the most bland, by-the-numbers gangster story into fantastic realms. No one who saw the apocalyptic final shootout in Dead or Alive is likely to forget it, or the harrowing climax of Audition. Miike's unpredictability left audiences curious about what he'd cook up next, and his insanely prolific output during this period meant they wouldn't have to wait long.

There seems to be a deeper than usual bond between Miike and his San Francisco fans; Miike wound up stranded in California in the days after the attacks on September 11, and wound up making several impromptu appearances at screenings of Dead or Alive and Audition, which were both screening theatrically at the time. Though his reputation at home has grown to the point that he's a helmer of populist, downright mainstream fare as 13 Assassins and the charming kidpic Ninja Kids!!!, and his output slowed to a mealy 2 features a year, there continues to be a cult-like audience in the States for whatever Miike project escapes to these shores. I'm one of that cult, so naturally I took in a local screening of his recent opus Lesson of the Evil.

Adapted by Miike himself from the novel by Yuusuke Kishi, Lesson of the Evil chronicles the exploits of Seiji Hasumi (Hideaki Itoh, seen above), a popular high school teacher dealing with the usual problems - cheating students, problematic faculty relations. But Hasumi's solutions to those problems become more and more extreme, and his students come to realize that there's much more to their beloved teacher than they could have imagined. - with some disturbing secrets in his past.

There was some pre-screening buzz that this was a return to form for the old, more transgressive Takashi Miike, and those longing for the gonzoid days of yesteryear were surely rewarded by the free-wheeling carnage in the movie's final third. But some of Miike's more outre flourishes, from the talking shotgun to the present but under-articulated anti-Americanism, here dilute some of its impact. The bewilderment caused by such flourishes in early films served to juice the experience of them, but they feel extraneous here. To be sure, the carnage has been built to meticulously and logically (and, unlike Variety, I hadn't even thought of its resonance with recent violent events in the U.S., and am not ethnocentric enough to think Miike was making light of those events.) So it's more in the slowburn of the movie's first thirds, which escalate the menace with subtlety and sureness, that the pleasures and craft of this Lesson lie. (Mention should be made of the fine performance of Mitsuru Fukikoshi as Tsurii, an unpopular teacher whose toadlike, unassuming demeanor and inferiority complex make him a surprisingly dangerous challenge to Hasumi.)

But if the movie fails in certain ways, it's only because Miike hasn't lost his willingness to take chances and push his material. It's not the first of his films I haven't loved, and as long as he keeps making movies I'm going to see them where/when I can. Pleasing to read that he's making an English-language feature with Tom Hardy (though it's not his first work in English) - I eagerly await The Outsider and any of the half-dozen other projects Miike's surely working on as I type this.

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