In the West, Takashi Miike is probably best known for gritty, gory thrillers like Audition, Ichi the Killer and 13 Assassins. With 100 movies under his name, the Japanese director qualifies as a cinema demigod. Fittingly, his newest movie, Blade of the Immortal, revolves around a long-lived samurai who's damn near impossible to kill.
Adapted from the manga of the same name created by Hiroaki Samura, Blade of the Immortal just came out this week in theatres and on digital on-demand platforms. The film's story focuses on lead character Manji's grouchy promise to be a bodyguard to Rin, a young girl seeking revenge against her father's killer. It's got the same darkly funny, searingly violent signature of much of Miike's work, with idiosyncratic characters who embody the fractious class conflicts of feudal-era Japan. I had the chance to talk to Miike — with the help of a translator — over the phone last week and was surprised to find that the creator of envelope-pushing cult genre work wasn't as caustic or rowdy as I expected.
In the edited and condensed interview that follows, Miike talks about how immortality might change a person's priorities, working within the samurai swordfighting genre, and the poignant reason why he can't read manga anymore.
Gizmodo: I saw the movie and I quite enjoyed it and wanted to start with a bigger, philosophical question. I wondered if you think about how making art can give a person immortality and if that immortality can free of burdens? Or are the burdens simply different?
Takashi Miike: So that's a very difficult question. But, I do think that, for me, it's very important for people to live their lives as they are and without too many external concerns. And what I mean by that is, I'm not sure I have fully grasped the concept of art, itself, in the sense that you're speaking of. But what I can say is don't believe that the humanity of any person or character should be denied. I think that every character, no matter how different they may be perceived, they all have their beautiful moments. All humans do. All people do.
And I think it's respect for those characters, and the character of those people that is important for me. For example, Manji, he may have completely different goals than your typical human, but I also think that what we can see in the film is that there are no right or wrong answers about what is right for Manji. He has the curse, or gift, of not dying; he becomes immortal. And honestly, we would think, "Oh, that's great. He can go on living. Perfect. He'll just continue to be happy." But it actually [brings] him suffering. So, instead of saying, "if I have immortality, I could live this really long life the way I want, and be happy for even longer," I think it's important for people to really live their lives the way that they want, the way that they are, authentically, in the here and the now. That, for me, really is what happiness is. So, I hope that answers your question.
Thank you for that. Why were the moments of tenderness and gruffness between Manji and Rin important for you to put into the film? We see that he cares about her but he's harsh and dismissive, even after he agrees to become her bodyguard.
Miike: Within Manji, I believe that there is this intention to not reach too much of an understanding with Rin. Or, what I mean is, that there's some distance between them, and he doesn't want that distance to be closed any more than it is. He doesn't want to get too close to her, or her too close to him. And the reason why is very instinctual on the part of Manji. Manji knows that the tenderness of being too close, for example, could turn into a relationship where it's more like she really becomes his sister. And when that happens, when there's affection and tenderness, that turns into some violence. So, I think, there's this part of Manji that wants to keep that distance, because he knows that this separation is what's going to keep her safe, and maybe him safe. The people he gets close to, they die.
Did you feel like you had room to play with what seemed to be established chambara (samurai cinema) genre boundaries?
Miike: Yes, absolutely I feel like there was some freedom there. But, that freedom was not really freedom that I created. That was really brought about by Manji and the character that he was. So, as a character, within the story, there are some elements of common sense and your stereotypical elements of that story. But I think that all the characters were freed from that by the nature of their characters. My personal feeling is that it's not that I take those characters and lead them to where I want to go. I feel the opposite happens. Those characters come in, take us by the hand, and lead us outside to a different world. And they guide us into a completely different universe, if you will. In that sense, I think that the author of the original manga, [Hiroaki] Samura — and Manji — deserve our thanks for doing that.
I wanted to switch to the film adaptation of Jojo's Bizarre Adventure and ask what was it like working with Araki and that source material. How did you visualise the Stands — the physical projections of the characters' psychic powers — for the characters?
Miike: So, this is interesting, because the stands, in a sense, represent this energy for the original author, [Hirohiko] Araki. Honestly, I didn't want to make Jojo for the stands. I didn't want it to be all about that. And the author of the original work gave me a lot of freedom to do whatever I wanted. And I thought, "I don't really want to see a JoJo without those." I don't want to see a JoJo without those stands. And so, when it came down to it, we decided to use minimal CGI effects in order to make those happen.
You seem to be a big anime fan. I'd love to know what you're watching this season and what your favourite anime is.
Miike: So, that's a good question, and more than anime, it's manga that has really been the big influence in my life. And let me tell you a little bit of a backstory so you can understand it: so, now I'm 57, and in post-war Japan, it was very, very poor. The very first entertainment we got was kind of black and white TV. So once parents had finally secured enough food for the kids, the next step was "let's give our kids some entertainment, some fun." For most kids in that era, the most accessible and cheap and easy to find and easy to use entertainment was really manga. So you had manga, and you would exchange manga with your friends, and it became a communication tool. It became a social element. A social thing. And honestly, that was my salvation.
That was the salvation for many Japanese kids. Because it's what made life fun again, for the first time in a really long time. And everyone wanted to be a manga writer at that point. Everyone. Every child. "I want to be a manga writer", or, "I want to be a manga artist." Because we all thought, "Wow, I would love to do a job where I was just giving people enjoyment. Where my job is to give people this fun." So, in terms of manga, there is no manga that I'm reading right now because there is no manga that can reproduce that feeling of satisfaction and fun I got from reading manga as a child.