Flavorwire Interview: Takashi Miike on New Film ‘Yakuza Apocalypse’ and the Privilege of Creative Freedom


Yakuza Apocalypse, Takashi Miike’s new film that arrives in theaters Friday, is a genre-bending spectacle containing all the violence, unpredictability, and humor of the cult Japanese director’s canon. Vampires, yakuza enforcers, schoolgirls, and folkloric creatures embark on an action-packed showdown, in a story made for the midnight circuit.

Miike cut his teeth as a young filmmaker creating direct-to-video pictures, a genre known as “V-cinema” — fast, cheap, and out-of-control movies that provided a platform for experimentation. Eagle-eyed producers and film festival programmers quickly took notice of Miike’s smart and subversive style, seeing the potential for wider appeal. Films like 1996’s Fudoh: The New Generation quickly made their way to the big screen.

In the coming years, more than one Miike movie that seemed destined for home video obscurity played for esteemed audiences at Cannes. The filmmaker gained international fame with his devastating, cartoonishly perverse, and bloody best: Audition, Dead Alive, Ichi the Killer, The Happiness of the Katakuris, Visitor Q, and Gozu. And Miike’s frenzied V-cinema style followed him into these bigger-budget pictures. A typical Miike film features queasy kills and plenty of body horror, but his narratives are often more concerned with traditional subjects like gender, relationships, and sociopolitical corruption.

Flavorwire recently spoke to Miike (with thanks to translator Momo Podolsky) about maintaining his creative freedom throughout his career, the over-the-top violence in his movies, and what it means to “stay foolish.”

Flavorwire: Yakuza Apocalypse feels like a return to some of your early V-cinema films. There are some references to the yakuza movies of the 1970s, too ( Battles Without Honor and Humanity ). And the film was produced by Nikkatsu, which owns the Sushi Typhoon production company you’re associated with that is known for extreme horror. Why did you want to return to this retro style?

Takashi Miike: Yes, I tried to do that in this movie. I used to make low-budget movies, and I made quite a few of them. But more recently, I have been able to make big-budget pictures. I wanted to go back to my roots and have fun with it — be more free to do what I want. That’s why I went back there.

One of the messages of the film is to “stay foolish.” Is this a message to your audiences and the up-and-coming filmmakers who admire you, or is it a reminder to yourself to maintain your creative freedom?

Yes, I guess I wanted to say, “Let’s do it how we want it. Let’s be free.” It’s a great privilege to be free. I wanted to enjoy that. I’m really lucky to be able to do this.

The yakuza is a central presence in many of your movies. In Yakuza Apocalypse, you suggest that the Japanese people no longer feel threatened by their power or that they — and, perhaps, the world at large — are desensitized. Do you feel this is true?

Compared to the yakuza movies I used to watch when I was younger, really the yakuza have changed — but perhaps it’s because the world around us has changed. We live now in a world where yakuza can’t be like yakuza. It seems to me, perhaps, a world where that was possible might not have been that bad – [the things we used to be afraid of, maybe they weren’t so bad after all].

In Yakuza Apocalypse, you create a new family for all these outcasts — the nerdy guy and Kageyama, with his sensitive skin. They become powerful when they unite. It’s a theme in a lot of your work: outcasts or loners who are displaced. Do you connect this theme with your personal background?

My family was not that wealthy. I would call it an average family. I grew up in a time when Japanese society was in the throes of economic development after the war. My parents didn’t really have time to study for themselves when they were young. Everybody in their generation, at that time, it was their dream to achieve an average life, a middle-class life. When I was a boy, I was growing up in that kind of world. I don’t really have anything extravagant to talk about in my personal history. My parents are both still alive and well. My siblings are also alive and well. In a way, we should be really grateful for that kind of average upbringing. But perhaps because of that, ironically, we have a yearning towards something that is not average, but lacking in some way. Of course, if I could say something like, “In real life, my brother was a kappa [the mythological demon in Yakuza Apocalypse],” that might make a good article for you, but I have nothing funny like that. [laughs]

I’m interested in a certain character in Yakuza Apocalypse. The man with the coffin reminded me of Sergio Corbucci’s Django . Were you referencing that film?

Yes, you’re right. There was a reference to the spaghetti western, the Italian western. When I was growing up, we used to be able to watch those types of Italian westerns all the time on TV. They were always on TV. So, the people of my generation who are now in their 50s, that cool aspect of the spaghetti western has been ingrained in us. We all have that taste for it.

What do you think about the fighting style [known as “silat”] of your star Yayan Ruhian? A lot has been written about him since his appearance in The Raid.

As you know, he’s a real martial artist. What’s amazing about him is that not all real martial artists are good on the screen. The aesthetic of his fighting style was very important to him. The way he looked — also, his body. That was really amazing about it. He could make these things look good on the screen. The Japanese actors who interacted with him had a hard time keeping up. But because of their interactions with him, I think it brought out the best in the Japanese actors as well. So, my conclusion is that great guys make great movies. They look good on the screen.

The film balances a certain physicality and violence with bleak humor, like all your movies. You have always shown the ugliness of your characters. Violent scenes with women are often difficult for audiences to watch. Did you approach violence as you did in Ichi the Killer , where you ask us to form our own conclusions?

For me, the use of violence in my movies, it’s not my intention to surprise or shock people. I think it comes out pretty naturally in the process of making my films. I think that you have to have a certain amount of love, or that kind of emotion, in order to produce balance. For example, there’s a character that comes up in my movie and gets shot and killed in the first frame. Then, that actor goes home and says, “OK, it was my job to get knocked down in the first part of the film by this character.” It’s not much of a workday for him. In that sense, I think that violence in my movies and love, for me, are two sides of the same coin.

Are you resistant to your films being categorized by genre? You’ve said many times that you believe Audition is not a horror film, for example. Can you talk more about that?

That’s really the role of the people who watch the movie, the distribution companies, or people trying to sell the movie, right? For me, making the movie, it’s not really something that I’m aware of or worrying about too much. It’s really to tell somebody what kind of movie it is — it’s just a way of talking about a movie. It’s not really important to me.

Who are the filmmakers you admire?

For one, director Shôhei Imamura [Miike’s mentor]. I really do respect him — not just his work, but also his approach to filmmaking. He used to say that making films was, for him, like living itself. For me, making movies is a profession. So, I do admire someone who could say that about themselves.

You once said, “I am discovering myself as a director all the time.” What have you discovered recently?

One discovery I made was that perhaps I’m not such a bad guy after all.