In the black and white opening sequence of Takashi Miike’s 100th film, Blade of the Immortal, a samurai named Munji fights a small army of men to the death. He gets shot in the chest with an arrow, only to pull it out and fling it back at the archer, killing him. His eye gets slashed out, and he yells “Aye yay yaye!” as if it were a minor annoyance. At some point, he loses a hand and gets run through with a sword at least once. He lays upon the ground, waiting to join his enemies in the death he has sent them to, when a 900-year-old witch shows up, stabs him in the stomach, and drops some worms in his stomach. As Munji writhes in pain, his wounds close, his severed hand reattaches itself to his wrist, and the black and white is displaced by the shock of color. It’s brutal, funny, beautifully shot, and manages to pay homage to classic Japanese samurai cinema while simultaneously pushing the genre forward.
At 57, Takashi Miike is by no means a household name in America, but for a certain type of movie fan, he’s an easy sell — think Quentin Tarantino if his movies actually had a point, and if he made them at the pace of a workaholic on meth. His earlier films were off-kilter, hyper-violent gangster flicks made with an auteur’s eye and a B-movie’s budget, and as his career has progressed, his utter unpredictability and ability to achieve a balance between the poignant and the extreme have helped him become one of Japan’s premiere directors.
Adapted from the manga series of the same name, Blade of the Immortal (which sees its DVD/Blu-Ray on Tuesday, February 13), was one of three projects Miike released in 2017 — he also directed JoJo’s Bizarre Adventure: Diamond Is Unbreakable (Chapter 1), another manga adaptation, and served as the showrunner on a television series called Idol x Warrior Miracle Tunes! — and the director already has a JoJo’s Bizarre Adventure follow-up and a film titled Laplace’s Witch on his slate for 2018.
While his films are known for their intensity — his 1999 thriller Audition helped inspire the “horror-porn” style of Hostel and Saw, and his 2001 film Ichi the Killer was banned in multiple countries upon its release — in conversation, Miike comes across as philosophical, even sweet. He considers each of my questions carefully, often vigorously puffing on a vaporizer before responding. When I ask if he prefers any of the hundred-plus films he’s made, he tells me, “If there's a critic who's looking at my movies, I might say, ‘Well, this critic should watch this movie and not this other one.’ But me personally, I love all of my movies in the same way.”
This interview was conducted with the assistance of a translator and has been edited for length and clarity.
Blade of the Immortal is your 100th film, which is quite a feat. Did that weigh on you at all during the filming process?
Takashi Miike: I never set out to make 100 movies. And I never never have a personal motto to make lots of movies, either. I just started making movies, and kept making them at my pace, and eventually got the chance to make Blade of the Immortal. Someone at Cannes said, “Oh, this is actually your 100th movie!” It was then that I realized, “Oh, yes.” I guess in a way it was my destiny.
To me it almost seems like a personal film. The protagonist, Manji, is on this quest for redemption that quite literally cannot end.
TM: We felt that as well. As we filmed, I did start to feel like there was some parallel between what was going on in the film and what was in my career as a filmmaker — as if I was fighting a fight in parallel to what was going on with the film.
Do you consider making films your job, or is it an artform for you?
TM: It’s interesting. I never really thought I was absolutely born to be a filmmaker or that being a filmmaker was my innate character. But when I became an adult, I realized both that I had to find a job, and that it’s very difficult to achieve your dreams. I didn’t really plan to become a director at all until finally I ended up becoming an assistant director and it was really fun. But at the same time, I’m lazy. I feel like there’s an artist side of me that has to focus on these small successes — those little serendipitous encounters with people that you meet along the way. Film helped me find the joy in that.
I find it ironic that you feel like you’re lazy.
TM: [Laughs] When I make films, let’s say I have some extra time. I think, “Okay, well there’s this thing I should study up on because I need to learn about it to make this film.” I will probably go and take a nap instead of doing that. I never liked studying when I was a child, and I’ve always felt a great deal of guilt about that. That leads me to overcompensate by trying to stay busy. It’s kind of a way to pay for my own sins. I’ve never really had this constructive attitude about anything. But if I like to do something, I will make an effort at it.
This is actually really related to the question that you asked me about whether I see filmmaking as my job or if I see myself as an artist. I don’t really think of it as a job because I feel like I’m just playing. I feel very fortunate and very thankful to have found a calling that lets me do that kind of work.
There’s an almost childlike sense of play in your films, even amid a lot of extreme violence.
TM: That’s totally subconscious. As a film director, sometimes I say, “Well I have made 100 movies, so maybe I should go in this new direction.” And the moment I start thinking like that, it becomes work to me. It becomes a job.
And so instead of thinking like that, I let go. I try not to be and not be in control of that. I feel like what I’m doing is going and playing with these characters. Because of that, these playlike themes naturally occur. It’s not that I’m trying to give them importance. But I feel like film is a tool for enjoyment for people, and I feel like it should be even more fun for us who are making the films. When I get up, I don’t think, “Where am I gonna go work tomorrow?” I think, “Where am I gonna go play tomorrow?”
And it’s a child, Rin Asano, who serves as the moral center of Blade of the Immortal.
TM: I’m 57 years-old, but I don’t look down on characters because they’re younger than me. I try to treat them with the respect I would give them if I’m a middle-school student. That too naturally brings about these concepts of being young and acting a little bit childish, lost in play.
What draws you to make the kind of films you make?
TM: When you have a script, you have to adapt it for actors from different backgrounds, who then act it out in part based on their perspectives. And then the crew comes with their own perspective as well. So it’s not until the edit phase that I know what it is I want to make. It’s as if everyone’s there in the same room and they’re facing off, and themes naturally come up and the film produces itself.
I don’t see filmmaking like a lot of filmmakers. I see it more as a sculpture. A sculptor is going to take a piece of stone and they’re not going to say, “This is what I want to make.” They just start sculpting it, and the stone turns into what it wants to be. So I’m not actually there creating what I see. I’m just setting free what’s already there. To me, that’s filmmaking.
It must be a strange experience to base your process so heavily on discovery, and then watch as critics assign specific intentions to your work.
TM: It’s absolutely very strange. A critic’s perspective is very subjective. They’re giving this meaning to my film, or maybe they just don’t understand it. But then I also think, “Wow, here’s this other perspective!” It’s very interesting for me to see the range of interpretations of my work as well.
Is there an overlap between how much your own your own film surprises you and how much you you enjoy the film itself?
TM: There’s not really a point in the process where I come away totally surprised. What happens, I think, is that gradually, the persona that was being depicted based on what we had filmed ends up developing this little side personality, or even being depicted in a completely different way. That doesn’t happen in a single cut — it builds up over several thousand takes and all these different cuts of a film. Sometimes it becomes bigger than you can actually be aware of, and you don’t know what the end product’s going to be. As a director, I let it happen naturally and let myself get sucked in. I love that process.
Do you have any advice for how a person can make the most out of life?
TM: There’s a concept in Japanese culture of getting totally lost in doing something to the point that it doesn’t become about you anymore. I really recommend that. To give you an example, when I’m making a film, instead of thinking that my film exists for me, I try to flip and think, “I exist in order to be a part of this.” Whether it’s an extra or a main actor in the film, I want them to think, “I’m not here because of the director. I’m totally present in this moment, just existing in order to enjoy my life as part of this film.”
I can’t expect that from everyone. Everyone should be should live their lives in the way that fits them the best. But what I mean is that it’s important to forget yourself and your own ambitions. If you’re totally lost in doing something, totally focused and concentrating on the pleasure of doing some activity, you lose the concept of yourself and become present in the moment.