Friday, 22 January 2010

Agitator: The Cinema of Takashi Miike

Writer: TOM MES
Publisher: FAB PRESS
Year: 2003

Since the advent of DVD the distribution of Japanese films in the UK market has improved markedly. Whilst distributors like the BFI, Tartan and Eureka continue to do good work in releasing major films by major directors, contemporary Japanese cinema (say from 1995 to the present) still remains an area of potential limbo. The films of Takashi Miike are representative of this. It doesn’t help that Miike is so prolific - regularly seeing four to six films released in a calendar year, and whilst UK audiences can enjoy his major works, a large swathe (most specifically his more recent work) remains unavailable here. It therefore becomes night on impossible to join the dots of meaning between his films and construct any sense of thematic continuity. Progressions of form and style and his attitude to genre are difficult to decipher when one only sees a handful of works, and despite academia’s best efforts, auteur constructions of filmmakers continue unabated.

Fortunately author Tom Mes has helped to bridge that gap somewhat with his timely study of Takashi Miike. Even though Mes is determined to pursue an auteur interpretation of Miike’s career, he wisely avoids stepping into the treacherous minefield of academic theory, and likewise dispenses with genre theory too. Instead Mes takes the route of detailed textual analysis in order to construct patterns and themes. Of course this means that the book only succeeds if one has seen all the films discussed, making it only a partial success until those interested gain access to the films Mes has. Whilst Mes argues for Miike’s authorship, he is reticent to use the word artist, something which Miike would no doubt approve. If there is any artistry in his films, it is in Miike’s ability to make violence an aesthetic element to the fabric of his film world. Miike like many of his contemporaries works in an industry in which many films are pre-written, pre-budgeted and in some cases even pre-cast, and one of the difficult tasks Mes undertakes is trying to argue for directorial authorship in generically diverse material amid the strictures of such an industrial climate. That Mes succeeds to a degree is testament to his skills of analysis and his closeness to the material.

As a result the chapter dedicated to the themes of Miike’s cinema is the most indispensable element of the book. Mes goes on to identify rootlessness (best exemplified perhaps in the thematic trilogy consisting of Shinjuku Triad Society (1995), Rainy Dog (1997) and Ley Lines(1999)), the outcast, the search for happiness, nostalgia (perhaps seen most impressively in The Bird People in China (1998)) and of course violence. It is true that these motifs do reoccur in a number of films, and often work in tandem with a visual style that places emphasis on montage sequences, interesting colour palettes, and a penchant for exaggerated behaviour - be it comedic or perverted. By the end of the book which sees an extended interview with the director, Mes’ quest to position Miike has an auteur has become persuasive. Fortunately for Mes he also avoids attempting to defend Miike’s ultra-violence and universe of perversions - Mes has no guilt in enjoying Miike’s cinematic antics and this is refreshing. This is not a quest to raise Miike’s cultural standing as such, as so many other auteur studies are, but just to illustrate that there is thematic continuity in the chaotic screen world of Takashi Miike, and in this regard the book succeeds and is highly recommended.

© Shaun Anderson 2010

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