Miike’s appearance on the Starbucks-saturated streets of Seattle comes courtesy the 28th Annual Seattle International Film Festival, where two of his most recent efforts, “Happiness of the Katakuris” and “Agitator”, are making their U.S. onscreen debuts. In addition to providing northwest cinemaniacs with a chance to sample the cult favorite’s latest off-kilter projects, the festival has selected Miike for Emerging Master status. The honor acknowledges new voices in cinema that are poised for mainstream, high-visibility success.

As flattered as the prolific auteur is with such recognition, Miike makes it clear that if the mainstream is truly interested, it will have to knock on his door. He’d prefer to succeed on his own terms. “I’ve got a certain audience that likes to see my movies,” he proclaims, “but such films are not for everybody.”

The black jacket that gives Miike the appearance of a rabid motorcycle enthusiast is a clue to his past. Before eking out a reputation in Japanese film with a cluster of T.V. and direct-to-video releases that started with 1991’s “Lady Hunter”, Miike attempted to make ends meet as a motorbike racer. “I was in the top three bike racers in my area,” he explains, “but then I tried to get a professional license. I found out that there was a lot of competition, and lost interest.”

Meanwhile, Miike’s stabs at continued education were sabotaged by a short attention span. “A lot of times, I didn’t study too much,” he confesses of a forgettable school history. “I went to the movies, instead. Movies ultimately helped me in two ways. They gave me escapism and enjoyment, and later on, they also gave me a livelihood.”

In 1995, “Shinjuku Triad Society” emerged as Miike’s first theatrical feature and was the initial installment of a gangster trilogy that also includes “Rainy Dog” (1997) and “Ley Lines” (1999). Miike’s fearless penchant for strong violence and lurid sexuality was enforced by the yakuza revenge actioner “Fudoh: The New Generations” (1996).

By 1999, Miike’s unusual films had begun making waves at festivals across the world. His warped aesthetic was compared to that of David Cronenberg or David Lynch, with dreamlike imagery and graphic shocks colliding in such twisted masterpieces as 1999’s “Audition” and “Dead or Alive”. Arguably his piece de resistance, “Audition” traces the sad plight of Aoyama (Ryo Ishibashi), a successful businessman and dedicated father still smarting from the death of his wife seven years ago. With his adolescent boy observing, “Dad, you look old,” and a secretary announcing her engagement, Aoyama attempts to diffuse his aching pangs of loneliness by finding a new wife.

At the suggestion of a film industry friend, Aoyama stages a phony audition, where aspiring young actresses are summoned to apply for the bogus project’s lead role. However, the ulterior motive behind this scheme is to allow Aoyama his pick of the bunch, for wining, dining, and romance. It’s an underhanded plot, and the shy widower soon pays penance for such deception. He falls hard for Asami (Eihi Shiina), an ethereal waif whose fragile appearance masks a fierce psychopathology borne of past betrayals.

“Audition” takes its own sweet, leisurely time to lure us towards its camouflaged venus flytrap. Initially, we’re lulled into passivity by the film’s breezy blend of romantic comedy, like stuffed diners relaxing in the afterglow of fine wine and full bellies. Suddenly, Miike reveals the black widow’s web that we’ve been trapped in, by unveiling a prolonged, agonizing torture scene involving needles. Lots of needles. We’re lurched out of the safe confines of what has come before, and the disorientation is only matched by the graphic horror that lingers on the screen. “Audition” emerges as the most harrowing, unforgiving jolt of shock cinema since Henry: Portrait of a Serial Killer.

After being told that audiences left in droves when “Audition”’s difficult-to-stomach third act premiered at SIFF two years ago, Miike isn’t surprised. “That’s a very natural reaction,” he confesses. “There are some audiences that don’t want to see that kind of thing. However, there are also people who stayed there. They made some connection. That’s important to me.”

When asked which country hosts his most loyal following, Miike states that he doesn’t perceive his audience in terms of geography. “For me, it’s not about country, but about people,” he explains. “There are special people in every country that identify with my movies.”

Other Miike films twist tired formulas around in similarly unexpected ways. It’s doubtful that another director has ever framed a scene from the bottom of a toilet bowl, as Miike did in 2000’s “City of Lost Souls”. If someone else can lay claim to such an unusual feat, it’s doubly doubtful that they’ve done it in a used commode, complete with two chunks of fecal matter floating aimlessly in the foreground.

It’s also a safe bet that no film lunges out of the starting gates with an opening sequence as excessive as that of “Dead or Alive”, which somehow stuffs a gay bathroom murder, gleeful, “Scarface”-style cocaine-snorting, a restaurant shootout, and gyrating go-go dancers within its first frenzied ten minutes. “My inspiration for scenes always comes from music,” Miike explains of “Dead or Alive”’s kinetic beginning. “I listened to the soundtrack of the film “Spawn”, which inspired the fast pacing. It gave something to me, an aggressive attitude. My musical preferences are very different day by day.”

Music certainly sets the helter-skelter tone in “Happiness of the Katakuris” (2001) another molotov cocktail of a movie that combines the upbeat spirit and family values of The “Sound of Music” with the mysteriously growing body count of “Motel Hell”. At one point, the deceased actually spring back to life and plunge into a lively musical number.

Another recent Miike movie is “Agitator” (2001), a work that revisits the filmmaker’s early roots with more “Godfather”-style gangster action. This time, Miike appears both behind and in front of the camera. Playing a hotheaded yakuza punk whose short-fused temper sets a string of messy mob wars into motion, he can be seen instigating a perverted karaoke party and devising creative uses for a microphone.

There is much debating over the almost unbelievably prolific number of films Miike has churned out in slightly over a decade. One Japanese filmography featured on a fan web site credits the workaholic with 45 entries. Another lists 48. However, Miike sets the record straight, stating, “A British writer recently told me that I had made 52 movies. I was surprised. I don’t start out thinking, let’s make a lot of movies. The numbers don’t mean much to me.”

Currently, the fast-working talent is piecing together another guns ‘n gangsters actioner. However, he’s quick to point out a fear of repetition. “Some times, I make love and romance,” Miike explains. “Other times, I want to do action movies. Then I feel kind of guilty. Too much action. Then I think, maybe I should put action and romance together.”

Until this next attempt to graft a fresh face onto a familiar genre, Miike’s fans can stock up their collections with two recently released DVD’s. American Cinematheque’s digital transfer of “Audition” features top-notch packaging, an interview with Miike, director’s commentary, photo galleries, and detailed liner notes. Nearly as impressive is Media Blasters release of “Fudoh: The New Generations”. Other Miike titles are not as readily accessible, found only through persistent haunting of the film festival circuit.

When asked which of his early works would be recommended for the uninitiated, Miike is characteristically humble. “Previous movies are very good for me,” he stresses, “and they give me good memories. But what I want American audiences to see are my next movies.”

From a filmmaker who has played maniacal matchmaker to a would-be ballerina and a reluctant human pincushion, while stockpiling crumbling cinematic corpses into a cozy, countryside lodge, the sky is the limit.

Posted on January 20, 2003 in Interviews by

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