Takashi Miike chuckles when you ask him if he’s a feminist.
“Maybe I’m not exactly, because when I use the word as a man, it feels like it might be condescending, or anti-woman,” he told Variety on the sidelines of the International Film Festival and Awards Macao, where his latest feature, the high-octane crime thriller “First Love” is screening. “I actually think women are stronger and more capable than men, that men are actually dancing in the palms of women, who are running the show.”
His latest film features three key female characters enmeshed in the hyperviolent, patriarchal underworld of the yakuza, who each bloodily fend for themselves. It’s a love story, but it’s also the tale of a girl sold into a life of prostitution and drug addiction by her abusive father overcoming how he (literally) haunts her.
Another character, a gangster’s girlfriend who narrowly escapes a planned death and sets out for furious revenge, is played by Becky. The mononymous, formerly beloved TV idol in Japan with a sunny, girl-next-door image had a rising career that was torpedoed in 2016 by news of her relationship, while single, with a married man — a pop singer whose own career carried on without consequence. After a gauntlet of very public, teary media apologies, she has only just started to see a comeback.
“Becky and this character overlap for me,” Miike said. “I don’t slot actors into the image of a character that’s already built. I build characters by listening to the voice and the story inside the heart of each actor. Art and life are linked, and expressed through my actors.”
For Miike, filmmaking is fluid. It flows out of him organically, from the gut, and molds itself around the raw material at hand rather than as a blueprint or a set of ideas he wants to express. He describes himself almost as an accidental auteur, for whom each film isn’t so much a statement as it is a “bringing to life” of whatever unborn script is at hand.
“Maybe many directors are trying to create their own style of filmmaking, or to respond to audiences that come expect a certain style from them. But I don’t care about that — I don’t intend to have a ‘Miike’ style,” he said. “I just pour myself into each film, enjoy it, and then what comes out just seems to have a ‘Miike’ style. I always find another version of myself in each of my films.”
The famously prolific director, who has more than a hundred films under his belt, compared his work ethic to an insensate compulsion. He relates most to the “First Love” character Kase, the gangster who sets the plot in motion by double crossing his own triad and at one point, high on drugs, loopily wonders aloud to himself how many people he’s even killed that day.
“I just do what I want to do, and that’s what leads me to shoot many, many movies in a single year. It’s unconscious; I don’t mean to,” Miike said.
In a world where the threat of losing access to the China market has all but erased the presence of Chinese bad guys from global filmmaking, “First Love” is a rarity in its portrayal of a rival Chinese-speaking triad.
“It’s kind of a sensitive thing,” the director admits, although the gangsters are actually played by Taiwanese, not mainland Chinese, actors, due to his connections to producers there from past films.
“Beijing says there are no triads in China, so I don’t insist that this story is about Chinese triads, because none of their festivals would screen my films if I did,” he said. Chinese director Jia Zhangke had sought to include “First Love” in the line-up for his Pingyao Int’l. Film Festival in October, but it was refused by Chinese censors. Macao is technically a part of China, but has more leeway in its programming selection thanks to the “one country, two systems” model that shelters it from many of the mainland’s draconian policies.
Miike notes that Japanese films have generally performed quite dismally overseas, and embraces the fact that his own bloody oeuvre will almost certainly never screen in the world’s second-largest film market. Yet he is not unknown in China, where he knows many young people have his DVDs or have watched his works illegally online.
“Young Chinese people who perhaps don’t feel so great about their current circumstances or political system are the ones who watch my films. My role in the China market is an underground one,” he said.
“I hope I made something that’s enjoyable for both Japanese and Chinese people, but I would never limit myself in my filmmaking just to screen in China.”