Takashi Miike is back with a pair of films that promise to shock
Maverick Japanese director rejects the horror label for his latest offerings
Mention the name Takashi Miike to film fans, and transgressive works such as cult horror film Audition (1999) and the notoriously gory Ichi the Killer (2001) usually come to mind. But with close to 100 films under his belt, the 54-year-old Osakan is an amazingly versatile director whose filmography includes children's films along with movies about yakuza and samurai; he has also ventured into the realm of science fiction and wild comedies.
WATCH: trailer for Miike's film As The Gods Will
At the 9th Rome Film Festival, where he received the maverick director award last year, Miike spoke about how, having begun his career making direct-to-video films for what's known as Japan's V-Cinema in the 1990s, his imagination and productivity were boosted by having to work with extremely low production budgets but with considerable creative freedom.
"For a long time I was free. I didn't belong to any type of studio, or any company. I kept a sort of freedom and a light touch," he says.
"Now there are TV companies that need a sort of compliance to society. They have to be very careful not to be sued, to conform to all the rules and regulations. I would like to be even freer, but I don't always get that amount of freedom," he says.
"Of course I'm very pleased to have so much work, but this involves some constraints and I'm not always happy with it. Freedom involves value and value is very essential to me."
Miike says an appreciation of Italian cinema in his youth led to him realising that he should concentrate on making films informed by his own culture. "When I was a kid, many Italian films were shown on [Japanese] television. I loved spaghetti westerns but besides these pure entertainment movies, there was also something different," he recalls.
"We all fell for [Federico] Fellini. He was considered highly elegant and smart. You could not imitate Fellini. His beauty was above anything else, but that intelligence was typically Italian. This helped me to realise that I had to create something that was distinctively Japanese," the director says.
Over the years, different strands of Japanese culture have been a source of inspiration for Miike. His two most recent films, As the Gods Will and Over Your Dead Body (both to be screened in Hong Kong), draw materials, respectively, from "a very popular manga with young people" that contains echoes of Battle Royale and The Hunger Games, and a venerable kabuki play.
Based on Muneyuki Kaneshiro and Akeji Fujimura's Kamisama no Iu Toori, As the Gods Will revolves around a group of teenagers who are forced to participate in a series of games with deadly consequences. Early on in the story, lead character Shun Takahata (Sota Fukushi), a high school student tired of the monotony of his life, prays to God to free him from his boredom - and he promptly gets his wish in spades.
From out of the blue, a huge daruma doll comes alive and shows up in Shun's class to force the student and his classmates to play a game. Meanwhile, all over the world, classes full of teenagers are subjected to similarly lethal games by other ghastly creatures.
The survivors - who become known as "God's children" - are then gathered within mysterious white cubes floating above various cities, visible to everybody below. Having survived to contest that final round, Shun must make a difficult, radical decision.
"Manga, as a medium, is very different from cinema. Its creators are free to express themselves with harsh, cruel stories, and they enjoy vast distribution throughout Japan," says Miike, who in the past has fallen foul of film censors.
"I wanted to tackle the huge challenge of bringing this manga to the big screen, but honestly, I never thought I would meet a producer crazy enough to want to produce this film. I never expected a company as important as Toho to give me the thumbs up."
"God, give me back my boredom!" Shun screams soon after falling into the nightmare of the deadly games. That's the film's underlying theme: "It's very important to be careful what you wish for and appreciate what you have. You don't know what you have until it's gone," the director says.
"In Japan especially, society is becoming richer and richer. It seems as though everything is completely peaceful, but under this apparently serene facade are some disturbing things that could ruin our lives from one moment to the next. But we pretend not to see them. We pretend everything is fine. We are talking about the calm before the storm and this is something that truly frightens me. For me this message is the most important thing about the film."
After so many years in the business, Miike has a clear idea of what he wants when making a film. "Creating a film means that I can have my own experience, I can go through a process, and I can meet new audiences," he says.
Ever eager to work on new ventures, he prefers not to dwell on his older movies. "I tend to move forward to the next set for the next film, which is completely different from the previous one. Each individual film originates in a certain time and space," he says.
Over Your Dead Body, scheduled for release in Hong Kong in May, "is based on a traditional story written 200 years ago [and] its story has been adapted for the big screen more than 30 times already", Miike says, before underlining his belief that he can give the old story a new spin.
Miike's version retains the original story of supernatural betrayal, murder and revenge, but he doubles the action, projecting the sinister and bloody shadow of the events that take place onstage into the lives of the actors offstage.
Onstage, a drama troupe is rehearsing a kabuki play by Tsuruya Nanboku IV about a poor samurai who resorts to murder in order to rise in society - first by murdering the father of the woman he seduces and marries, then by getting rid of her in order to marry a nobleman's niece. The murdered wife returns as a ghost bent on wreaking revenge on him.
As the kabuki troupe work on the show, little by little, the play and real life begin to blend together, leading to a nightmarish finale.
After forays into genres as diverse as action comedy (2013's The Mole Song: Undercover Agent Reiji) and romantic musicals (2012's For Love's Sake), the filmmaker may seem to have returned to making horror films. But Miike questions such categorisation.
"I don't know if [ As the Gods Will and Over Your Dead Body] can be considered horror movies," he says. "The genre they belong to is something that is decided later on, by others. As a filmmaker I just do my best in terms of shooting. But maybe it's my fate, or my karma to make these kinds of films."
As the Gods Will opens on Thursday