Takashi Miike Discusses the Hard Slap of the Yakuza film and Why We Need More of Them [Fantastic Fest]

We chat with the filmmaker about the state of the Yakuza film in the world and his desire to return a little shine to the genre.

First Love Poster
Well Go USA Entertainment

After 88 films, you would think Takashi Miike could predict what an audience will think of his films, but he has no clue, and he dare not think of us when he plants himself on set. The filmmaker just wants to have a good time, and he’s only interested in pleasing himself, and he’s happy if a few others join in on the fun. That’s not to say he is not a man on a mission. Miike is determined to prove the worth of the Yakuza film at a time when they’re dwindling from the conversation. His latest effort works like a slap. Wake up, dammit! Gangland sagas are an arena where artists can relish in every emotion from the hot-blooded to the cold and calculated.

First Love is another violent delight from the director, and our own Rob Hunter declared the endeavor as one of Miike’s “most consistently raucous, creative, and entertaining” flicks of his absurdly eclectic career. A boxer with a brain tumor stumbles through the night and into the heart of a woman on the run from multiple crime syndicates. With each severed head and limb, Miike chops through society’s apathy and delivers a film that is as equally life-affirming as it is gloriously gory.

Through the aid of a translator, I spoke to Miike the afternoon after First Love screened at Fantastic Fest. The conversation begins with the state of the Yakuza film in Japan and his desire to return some shine to the genre. We discuss his constant surprise regarding an audience’s response to his films and why he cannot think of them while he’s making the movie. First Love is both the culmination of every film that has come before as well as just one more link in the chain. From his perspective, he’s completed a task, and it’s time to get on to the next one. I happily accept his seemingly endless pursuit.

Here is our conversation in full:

You’re making a Yakuza film in a time where Yakuza films are going out of fashion. Were you actively looking to resurrect the genre for a new generation?

So, it’s funny because even if that had been part of my intention, there’s no guarantee that there would be a new Yakuza film boom or anything like that. I honestly do feel like the Yakuza film genre is going away. And I don’t personally feel like there’s any meaning in trying to artificially extend the life of the Yakuza film genre. But, because it may be going away, there’s a particular significance in doing the film. We can let it go out with a bang. To kind of bring back these Yakuza characters and let them go wild one last time.

At the same time, the true Yakuza in Japan can’t really survive anymore. They really can’t exist anymore in Japan. They’re not allowed to exist. Even the film-Yakuza, meaning Yakuza within the films, aren’t doing that great either, including the characters in the films and maybe even the actors involved. I felt like it’s still worth it. It’s still enjoyable to make a film in the Yakuza film genre, and I kind of wanted to prove that to myself. I wanted to experiment and prove to myself that it was still worth doing this.

First Love is a wild and joyous cinematic experience, jumping from genre to genre to genre. Do you find that the more films you make, the more you relish the blending of genres?

I feel like Yakuza films may be a little bit different. In film, in general, you have just so many cliché themes or stories that are told over and over again. The director of a hospital is fighting, is struggling for power, a power struggle at a big organization. Or a political power struggle, or even a family, a couple with marriage problems. But at the same time, I feel like a Yakuza film is maybe a little bit less common. It has to incorporate little bits and pieces of so many other genres. That’s just kind of the way that I feel that a Yakuza film is.

So, the Yakuza film frees you to explore more emotions than a samurai picture or a horror movie?

Yes, I think so. What I feel is that it’s actually more like a major film or more like a commercial film that’s acting like a genre film in a way. Going for something that fills a genre but it still incorporates some universal themes. And honestly, I think that is actually maybe the ideal role for a commercial film, personally. It’s still an independent film, and because of that, I think that myself and the actors that I was working with, we were all very free. We had a lot of freedom in making this film.

What I found so beautiful about the film is that it could be life-affirming amidst so much death and how I could walk out of the film and just feel lively, vivacious, and ready to seize anything. Do you think that kind of next-level joy has to be adjacent to death and misery?

Well, I don’t think that it was really intentionally incorporated into my filmmaking as an artificial construct or trope. It was really just because that’s part of who we are as humans, right? So, all of us have to face death: a parent that loses their child or a child that loses their parent and then later faces death themselves, right? All of us are in that human condition, we have this life that we always know has an expiration date. Yet, we are able to encounter or meet other people; in this case, it turns into this love affair. We have this desire for that balance between death and life or death and joy. We want to believe that something we can also have. So, in a sense, I’m just simply taking this very basic thing and laying it out very straightforwardly.

So, then, what is the creative force that drove you to make First Love? How did it differ from your other projects?

What was really behind the creative motivation of this film was that I was approached by Toei, the film distributor and production company in Japan, about doing something that harkened back to the low budget indie film or B-cinema in Japan. Where you were depicting these outlaws or these losers or people who are just nobodies but they depicted these interesting stories. That was the way B-cinema used to be in Japan, but nowadays the films that are being produced there are all about the masses. As many movies as possible are trying to get as many fans to watch, to stretch as wide of a reach as possible. So like, a sick person in a hospital, this tragedy or something that everyone will go, “Oh, look at that poor story, oh what a sad story,” or, “I cried when I watched this story.” So, the idea was, well, let’s do something different. Let’s kind of rebel from that a little bit and try a different angle.

That was the start, but also, part of it was just my own personal enjoyment. I wanted to make something that was interesting for me and that I could watch it and it would be interesting. I don’t know if audiences will watch it and think it’s interesting but that’s really not my main focus. I’m not thinking I’m going to make something that as many audience members or viewers are going to love as possible. I want to make something that I personally just love making it. That may end up turning into something that gets recognized or has some level of success, but it may not. And some people may get it and some people may not, but our goal was to make something that we were just interested in making ourselves.

But you’ve made many, many, many movies, and I would think you would know what an audience wants at this stage in your career. You can’t predict how your fans will react to your movies.

Well, first of all, when I end up being present and they’re playing a film of mine, sometimes I’ll see the viewers reaction like, “Oh, they laughed in the same place that I laughed.” Or they were like, “Oh, that’s terrible,” in the same place that I had that same reaction. It’s very interesting for me when that happens because if you’re making a film and you’re targeting every scene to the reaction you think you’re going to get, it just gets a little bit hokey. Fans are very savvy to that these days and they’re like, “Oh, he thinks we’re going to laugh at this scene; he’s trying to get a laugh here.” It just gets very fake and hokey and so you’re going to get a fake laugh there.

So, instead of going in there and just calmly and coolly calculating the reaction that you’re going to get from every scene or that you’re going to get from every movie, my focus is to just purely have fun. There’s me and the actors and we’re working with these time constraints and then we have to focus on the weather or whatever. But whatever happens, we’re just trying to have fun with it. That is what we’re trying to do. And that honestly leads to this personal and emotional connection with the fans, because we are just generally trying to have fun with it. Some of these fans will end up liking my work, but the fans who like my work, they are not naïve. They are very savvy to this and so my focus is just on completely enjoying it. The people who like my work, I know that I can’t trick them into laughing someplace where there is not a genuine reason to laugh.

Where do you go after First Love?

Right now, what’s very clear to me is that I’m very excited about collaborating with Chinese and American filmmakers and actors. And another thing that is on the horizon that I’m really focusing on full speed since we finished with First Love is a girls TV show that is called Idle Warriors or something to that effect. Basically, it’s a girls TV show that, through song and dance, these girls encounter these bad guys or these terrible twisted people, and through song and dance, they bring them back from the dark side, if you will. It’s a film about the way to overcome violence is not with violence, but it’s actually by softening people’s hearts. It’s very a different type of thing to what I’ve done so far. It’s a TV series and we already have a film adaptation, and the film adaptation is what’s next. It’s just this very fun project. We did that and then we went to First Love and now we’re going back to the film adaptation of that. So, it’s completely different to what I’ve done so far.

For an old guy like me to try to design a show that three to six-year-old girls are going to think is fascinating or be really interested in, it’s impossible. That’s exciting to me. There’s just no way for me to think that through, and so we just have to observe and do something that’s more active at a visceral level. We can’t overthink it. It can’t be intellectual. We just have to do something that they’re involved [in]. We feel like that may also be applicable to other people as well. If we don’t take that approach then it’s impossible to do something like that, right? So, that’s been a completely different thing for me. And I’m enjoying that as well.

Trekkie, Not Trekker. Weekly Columnist for Film School Rejects, co-host of the In The Mouth of Dorkness Podcast.