The meeting with Japan’s great auteur Takashi Miike takes place in the conference room of a Marriott Residence Inn in Toronto where Miike has come to screen his latest genre exercise, First Love, as the Toronto International Film Festival’s Midnight Madness program. The bland anonymity of the space is at odds with the man who makes a vibrant entrance in a ruched leather coat, beaded bracelets on both wrists. At 59, Miike describes himself as an “elderly” man, but the spring in his step, the fashion-forward duds, and First Love belie that assertion.
Miike’s 103rd IMDB entry, prodigious output dating back to 1991, is a mashup of sorts, blending yakuza, romance, black comedy, and even, in one arresting sequence, anime. A kind of riff on the Quentin Tarantino co-scripted True Romance, First Love spins the action-packed tale of a drug deal and heist that comes to involve yakuza, Chinese triads, and a corrupt cop and pulls into its orbit a young woman coerced into prostitution and a boxer living under the cloud of a terminal diagnosis. For the latter, the meet is anything but cute as they are forced to flee for their lives.
For the maker of Audition, Ichi the Killer, and more recently, Blade of the Immortal, First Love was in some ways, just another day at the office. But in others, as Miike explains through an interpreter in this conversation, it was a trip back to his old neighborhood, a return to a favorite genre in the film’s yakuza elements, and a reckoning with the realities of the Japanese film industry and his own limited budgets.
Q: You have said that, “This film gives me joy like returning to my home ground.” Can you expand on that?
A: I grew up in a place that was very rough and tumble. There were a lot of rough characters. There was a lot of misery, a lot of poverty going on. There were some opposing forces of pride and love and resentment and hope. In this film, those same elements exist and a lot of people lose their lives. What I mean when I say this film is like going back to my hometown is that even in circumstances that are that dire, two humans can meet and escape together and find this love story, this profound love story. That’s something that I think unites us as humanity, that we have this strength that we can draw from, that even in those situations, we can find something good and find something positive from it.
Q: Do you see your story as a fairy tale? One of the things that struck me about the film is that there are these two innocents caught up in this world of violence and poverty, yet they are somehow able to transcend that.
A: I agree with you and I think the reason it became the movie it did become is because you have these fairytale-esque elements in there; you have these themes, also, that are almost too beautiful to express. It’s almost difficult for a shy Japanese person to express this beautiful love story and yell-at-the-top-of-the-mountains-type thing. We have to find a more subtle way to express that. As humans, we have these things we’re trying to hide. We have our own skeletons in the closet. But we have to believe there’s a reason why we’re here. There’s a reason why we were born and there’s a reason for us living. Maybe that reason does exist and maybe it doesn’t exist—it’s hard to say for sure—but we have to believe that there’s something like that that’s moving us forward. Once you start talking about those kinds of themes, you’ve already gone into the fantasy realm. You’re talking about hate and resentment versus love and hope and all these ideal values, they’re pushing up against each other. That leads you to this story, this fantastic love story. By going through this yakuza theme or motif, I felt that would give us a very interesting background that would allow me to express a very beautiful love story.
Q: Expanding on that, yakuza stories are ones you’ve returned to again and again in your work. What is their appeal to you?
A: I think what is attractive about the yakuza film genre as opposed to other film genres is that you basically have a straightforward premise. Somebody wants something and they want it fast and they want it now and the other person doesn’t want to give it them and then they fight. They have these contrived conversations, but within these contrived conversations—you don’t want to make them seem contrived, you want to make them realistic, but they are contrived because it’s fiction—you have this speed. You have this condensed version of life, right? Somebody wants something, the other person doesn’t want to give it to them and they fight. If you think about it, over 10 years, that’s probably happened to any given person, they’ve been through that situation on a micro-scale. This condenses that. With a yakuza theme, you can do all of that, all that might happen to a person in 10 years, in one night. It creates a compressed or compacted version of real life. If you extract some of the most tense and climactic moments from real life, you’re probably going to have a film that seems like a yakuza film. Any human being will have something like that, where you have betrayal; you have love; you have bickering or fighting between romantic partners. You put all that together and compact it together, and you look back at it, “Wow! My life is kind of like a yakuza film.” Yakuza movies are just a miniature version of life.
I actually feel very uncomfortable watching a normal film, a mainstream film. The reason I feel uncomfortable watching a mainstream film is because—in every film, you have bad guys, the antagonists, but the reason they exist in most mainstream films is just so they can make the good people look better. They’re there to convince everyone in this disgustingly fake way that the good guys are perfect and the bad guys are horrible. That, to me, is so absolutely fake. There’s a part of me that wants to reach out an olive branch and extend a hand to these people that are being labeled as bad guys and help them out a little bit and say, “Actually, we’re all human. The good people aren’t that great, either.” I have a kind of twisted love, in a way, for these rough-and-tumble characters.
Q: Within the film, there is a wonderful animated sequence that takes the place of a big car stunt. Most directors would have stuck with live-action throughout and accomplished what that scene does with camera tricks and green screens. Why did you opt for anime?
A: It’s very easy to create a stunt like that in Hollywood. It’s not actually technically complicated at all, but right now in Japan, we’re in a situation where the traditional car stuntmen are all getting older. Most of them are in my same age range. I love all of those actors, but there is an aversion to risk and physical danger that we have to put them through, so there’s this thinking that, “OK, you want this big fancy stunt film, well go watch a Hollywood show. We’re not going to do that here.
Part of that is also based on the fact that because most of the traditional stuntmen are getting so elderly and very little new blood is coming into the stuntman-actor category, these elderly gentlemen are kind of a national treasure. They’re an endangered species. I personally love those people and I want to protect them. We decided to do an anime scene and it worked. At the same time, there’s this burning desire within me to come up with a story idea where I can present some of those people, those aging actors, so that they can take part in that, as part of their legacy. I want to be able to pay them their guarantee fee that they really deserve and have this amazing car stunt scene or action-packed film with these elderly Japanese stunt actors and pull out all the stops, not pull any punches and really give them a film they can be proud of with the kind of structure and the kind of story arc where they would be able to say, “You know, even if I die when I’m doing this, I’ll still be glad that I did it.”
Q: Did you consider jettisoning that scene altogether before you hit on the idea of animating it?
A: When you come up to these obstacles, you really have two choices. You have budget constraints and you have other constraints but you have to find a way to work around them. You can either run away from that and say, “We’re just not going to do it. We just won’t film that scene or that movie; we’ll move on to the next thing.” Or you can say, “This is a story worth telling, so we’ll find a way to make that happen.” If you take the first option and run away, you will end up missing the opportunity to develop your ability to find other people that are making low-budget stuff that is great and they still have to work within budget constraints and you have to find a way to work around those issues and still make a great film. If you run away, you’re not going to make those connections and finding those people you can collaborate with and still make really good films even with a limited budget.
That being said, very few people have been willing to invest enormous amounts of money in my productions so far, so I guess we’ll see what happens. –Pam Grady