Keywords: Japanese horror, cult video

Title: Agitator: The Cinema of Takashi Miike

Author: Tom Mes

Publisher: FAB Press

Media: Book

Reviewer: James Marriott

Shoot! Don't fucking talk to me! Shoot! Takashi Miike has stated in interviews that you can only be described as a director when you're actually making a film. By this definition Miike is one of the only full-time directors around, having made over fifty films since 1991, and shows no signs of slowing down. In a salutary lesson to the likes of Terry Gilliam, who lurches from one fatally grandiose project to the next, Miike accepts almost all of the proposals offered to him, as long as he feels he can do something with the material. He does not stick religiously to scripts, preferring to let his films evolve on set, and makes a virtue of his characteristically low budgets, using audacious claymation sequences ostensibly for scenes too expensive to shoot live, and filming wild on the streets to avoid dealing with Japan's restrictive authorisation processes.

Miike is best known abroad for his more visceral work - Audition, described by the director as a film 'about cutting off someone's foot', the Dead or Alive trilogy and Ichi the Killer. But while he has returned again and again to yakuza films, he has also made films (and TV series) in pretty much every other genre going, bar 'pink' films: from pop-group promo (Andromedia) to demented musical (The Happiness of the Katakuris).

This exhaustively researched book charts Miike's film career from production assistant on a TV crew through to international festival favourite, giving detailed synopses and some analysis of each of his films. While the difficulty of even seeing most of these films makes such an account indispensable in working out the true nature of Miike's achievements, the synopses begin to pall after a while - if you're not intending to track these films down, the entries will often be of severely limited interest - and the analyses are sometimes sketchy and repetitive.

Mes lacks either the fannish enthusiasm of a Steve Pulchalski or the incisive commentary of a Kim Newman or Stephen Thrower, and his prose (which could, incidentally, have done with a better copy-edit) is too dry to go down very easily. Audition and Ichi the Killer, as two of Miike's more interesting films, fare better than most of the others in terms of analysis, but Mes's workmanlike style is thrown into stark contrast by the final sections of the book. There Miike's 'making of Ichi' diary and an in-depth interview allow the director's ebullient unconventionality to add full-spectrum colour to what is otherwise an often lifeless read; and the director's response to a criticism of misogyny - 'Generally if the audience feel that it's like that, then they are right' - makes a refreshing change from Mes's contorted justifications of the violence in Ichi.

While Mes draws on previous Japanese critical commentaries of Miike's films as the basis for his own critical analysis, the book could do with more details of the critical reception of his films, especially in Japan. What analysis there is skips over what (with my limited experience of Miike's films) has seemed a key stylistic element: his audacious use of non-narrative imagery. Mes's reductive view of Miike's claymation sequences as being simply ways to cut live-action costs glosses over their high weirdness; other startling images, such as those at the end of Dead or Alive: Final, meet disapproval for not fitting the film's 'tone'. This, it seems to me, is to miss the point: Miike's films are about breaking rules, confounding expectation. As he writes in his Ichi diary,
What good is life without adventure? We don't need a manual for making a movie? we make movies but we're not authentic filmmakers. We are artisans and amateurs rather than professionals. We are agitators fiddling around with something that gives us enjoyment.

These caveats aside, if you're interested in Miike Agitator is still an indispensable guide, offering a complete and detailed filmography, hundreds of stills including a colour section and details of the director's films available on DVD. And a great cover. But some of the excitement of watching Miike's films seems to have been lost along the way.


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