In an age when directors can consider themselves fortunate to muster ten movies across a career, Takashi Miike is like a bizarre statistical anomaly. The cult Japanese director’s latest film, the explosive Samurai fantasy Blade of the Immortal, has seen him join the 100 Club – that rarefied list of filmmakers who have notched up a century of credits.
Admittedly, the 57-year-old Miike has better things to do (like make films) than keep track of his body of work. “I think somebody else counted,” he tells me, speaking through a translator, when we meet at London’s Mayfair hotel. Some films went straight-to-video in Japan, he explains, but were screened by festivals. “So there is maybe a film print of it. Whether you count that or not... it depends what you define as film.”
Either way, it’s a remarkable feat for a director who began shooting in earnest since 1991. That’s an average, roughly, of four films a year – enough to make even the prolific Steven Soderbergh look like a slugabed.
“I feel I haven’t really done much at all!” Miike says, curiously. In 2001 alone, he directed eight films, including yakuza drama Ichi The Killer, which became a cause célèbre for its controversial scenes of violence and torture.
Today, dressed in a shiny black suit and trainers – you’d expect such footwear, given the speed he works at – he doesn’t come across as particularly hyper.
“I just feel my body clock is different when it comes to making films than other directors,” he says. “Being on set, and sweating, that feeling eases me more than actually when the movie’s over; being on set, moving around, to me feels more relaxing than being done with the movie.”
Born to working-class Korean immigrants just outside of Osaka, Mikke’s father was a welder and his mother a seamstress, which might account for his workman-like approach.
After graduating from film school, under the guidance of two-time Cannes-winning director Shoheo Imamura, he began working as an assistant director – firstly on Imamura’s 1987 movie Zegen. Four years later, he began directing straight-to-video fare, before making his theatrical debut with 1995’s The Third Gangster.
Just as adept at working in family movies (like 2011’s Ninja Kids!!!) as he is in the yakuza or samurai genres, he denies that he’s a speed demon on set. “It’s not that I work particularly faster than anybody else.”
Citing the opening blood-drenched scene of Blade, with its super-high body count, he just points to the brisk efficiency of his team. “If it had been [legendary Japanese director Akira] Kurosawa, I don’t think he’d have even started at this stage!”
When it came to crafting the story for Blade, Miike went straight to the heart of Hiroaki Samura’s long-running manga series, which produced 30 volumes across a staggering 19 years.
Far removed from his more classical samurai effort 13 Assassins (2010), it’s a dazzling blend of fantasy, swordplay and philosophical musings set in feudal Japan. It focuses on the adventures of Manji (Takuya Kimura), a samurai who has been given the curse of eternal life; anytime he is sliced and diced, his body self-heals.
Doomed to walk amongst us for all eternity, Manji only finds renewed hope when he meets Rin (Hana Sugisaki), a little girl whose parents were killed by a group of swordsmen. He promises to exact revenge on her behalf, and so a series of bloody killings ensue.
“It’s the story of somebody who is discovering life, the purpose of life, by finding a reason to live,” he says. “He doesn’t want immortality, he finds it a burden. But he finds a purpose in his life to live through his encounter with her.”
One of the more intriguing elements comes with the ‘bloodworms’: sacred creatures that have been put in Manji’s bloodstream by a curse-wielding crone and cause his wounds to heal and even severed limbs to reattach.
Animated almost Ray Harryhausen-like (“We had fun trying to give it a period feel,” says Miike), it’s yet another example of the director’s squeamish body-fascination. Even now, the sound of the female killer in 1999’s Audition sawing off her male victim’s foot with cheese-wire still gnaws you to the bone.
This year, he took Blade to Cannes, playing in a midnight screening slot. The reaction was positive from critics, more used to reviewing Michael Haneke and Paolo Sorrentino at the world’s most prestigious film festival. Was he surprised?
“I was surprised it was shown in Cannes itself – that was a surprise!” he admits. “I don’t set out to make a film for festivals abroad.”
He then proceeds with an elaborate simile. “The way to describe it is like sports day at school. Normally sports day is once a year for kids, where you have fun, and everybody is jostling. For us, making movies is like having sports day everyday: competing with each other, doing your best. It’s like that except we don’t get awards every day in our sports day. But perhaps we get praised by a parent; they say, ‘Well done!’ That’s how we feel; it’s like sports day.”
As innocent as this makes it sound, Miike has seen films mired in controversy. Ichi The Killer was banned in Norway, Germany and Malaysia (and at the Toronto festival screening, vomit bags were handed out as a promotional gimmick).
He still remembers screening a film in Rotterdam one time. “I won’t forget the face of the lady who came up to me [and said] I was ill.” Does he enjoy tormenting his audiences? “It’s not really intentional.”
Already since Blade, he’s shot Laplace’s Witch, a scientific mystery that begins when two bodies are found dead from hydrogen sulphide poisoning. The thought of taking longer on a film occasionally enters his mind, he admits. “I just know in my experiences, working as an AD and as a director, it’s become a normal thing for me, a normal flow, and that I’m going with that flow.
“I don’t think I’ll ever get tired of making films. I wish I could make so many that it would make me get tired, but I don’t.”
'Blade of the Immortal' opens on 8 December