Robert Horton is a Scarecrow board member and a longtime film critic. He will be contributing a series of “critic’s notes” to the Scarecrow blog—a chance to highlight worthy films playing locally and connecting them to the riches of Scarecrow’s collection.
This weekend brings the release of a new film by the prolific Takashi Miike, the well-reviewed First Love. I haven’t seen this one yet, but it sounds as though Miike is on point, something that’s not always true in his wildly varied career.
But when he’s good, he’s good. Scarecrow probably has the largest selection of Miike films anywhere outside Japan (I’m spitballing here, but I feel good about the statement), so if you want to find out why people shiver when they mention Audition or Ichi the Killer, check out the selection.
Below I’m reprinting impressions of a couple of my own Miike faves. One is a rarity: Miike’s installment of the Masters of Horror series, which was deemed too much to actually be broadcast. Plus, a review of Gozu, with appropriate warnings, published in the Herald in 2004.
Imprint (Masters of Horror)
“Have I got your attention, mister?” By the time you reach this line in Takashi Miike’s Imprint, the answer will be a resounding, horrified “Yes!” This much-rumored-about episode of Showtime’s Masters of Horror series became notorious as the first installment to be denied an airing. Now that the hour-long episode is out on DVD, it’s not difficult to see why the network balked (although on the other hand, if you have a series called Masters of Horror and you hire the outrageous Takashi Miike to helm a show, nobody should really be surprised). The story follows an American (Billy Drago) on a journey to a ghostly island bordello in Japan; he’s searching for a girl he lost years before. The prostitute he meets has stories to tell—and they abound in incest, abortion, murder, and one of the grisliest torture scenes ever produced for a mainstream outlet.
Anybody familiar with Miike’s films (Audition, Visitor Q) knows a couple of things about him: (1) there is no affront against civilized behavior he won’t put on film, and (2) he’s a heckuva filmmaker. Imprint confirms this, on both counts. The only weak spot is the English dialogue reading by the Japanese cast—and by Billy Drago, for that matter, although he does look very cool. The story may or may not make sense, but what stays with you are the pregnant, eye-filling images (cinematography by Toyomichi Kurita) and the truly shocking violence. It is really what the Masters of Horror series seems designed to do: give a director complete freedom to merge style with story. Take this to heart, oh ye of low nausea thresholds: Imprint will seriously mess you up.
Somewhere right now, David Lynch is looking over his shoulder. There’s a new wacko surrealist in town, and he’s taking no prisoners.
Sure, Lynch mystified us with Eraserhead and Mulholland Drive. But what about Takashi Miike, who has churned out a score of outrageous, bewildering, and imaginative films during the last ten years?
If you saw Miike’s Audition, you know what it’s like to be put through the wringer. If you saw Happiness of the Katakuris, you enjoyed the singing, dancing corpses. And if you saw Visitor Q, well … let’s agree never to talk about Visitor Q.
Miike’s Gozu takes a back seat to none of these experiments. I will now try to describe Gozu, but at some point I promise you I will give up, out of sheer exhaustion.
We begin in the world of the yakuza, Japan’s gangsters. Ozaki, a veteran mobster, is acting weirdly, which we witness in the opening sequence as he beats a tiny dog to death. (I suppose this is a useful way of weeding out the audience right at the outset.) The boss wants Ozaki eliminated, and assigns the younger Minami (Hideki Sone) to the task. Oddly, Ozaki is killed in an accident on the road to the hit. Minami stops for coffee in the weird town of Nagoya, but when he returns to the parking lot, Ozaki’s body is gone.
After that, it’s David Lynch time. For one thing, Ozaki seems to return, alive, but in the body of a beautiful young woman. Also, Minami has a meaningful encounter with a creature with the body of a man and the head of a cow, and is propositioned by a middle-aged woman who offers him breast milk. We also check in periodically with the mob boss, who uses a large soup ladle as a sexual aid. I’m leaving out the weirder stuff here.
As bizarre as Miike’s material is, he works hard to make each sequence compelling. He’s actually a very careful director, putting some elaborate visual coup or deadpan gag into every scene.
That said, even cultish fans of Miike’s style might get impatient with the pokey pace, and the two-hour-plus running time. But there are few directors around who so gleefully want to open Pandora’s box.
And anybody looking for a way into this movie should recall the words of a character in the opening scene: “Everything I’m about to tell you is a joke. Don’t take it seriously.”
Robert Horton, the longtime reviewer for the Daily Herald and Seattle Weekly, is a member of the National Society of Film Critics.