While an exciting new name for many outside of Japan when Audition (オーディション; Ōdishon, 1999) reached various prestigious international festival screens at the end of the ‘90s, Takashi Miike was already a veteran of the Japanese film industry. Having directed a variety of Japanese direct-to-video, or “V-Cinema”, titles and television projects in a multitude of genres prior to his earliest theatrically distributed films in the mid-90s, Audition was in fact Miike’s first foray into horror. Miike’s emergence in the west also perfectly coincided with the early-to-mid-2000’s window where western fanfare of east Asian genre films, particularly films featuring upfront transgressions or controversies, was at its height. Miike quickly became one the most internationally recognized eastern transgressors with Audition and subsequent titles which achieved immediate cult notoriety upon being imported to the west like Ichi the Killer (殺し屋1; Koroshiya Ichi, 2001) and Visitor Q (ビジターQ; Bijitā Kyū, 2001). Of course, shock value became a brand for many distributors of Asian films at the time, with home video labels like Media Blasters subset “Tokyo Shock” distributing Miike’s Ichi the Killer and Visitor Q. The newfound opening in the 2000’s western marketplace for “shocking” or “extreme” fare from the far east also saw distributors Tartan, who first released Audition in North America along with the likes of Kinji Fukasaku’s Battle Royal (バトル・ロワイアル; Batoru Rowaiaru, 2000) and a number of titles from Shinya Tsukamoto, deliberately brand the “Tartan Asia Extreme” label as such, also providing distribution for provocative South Korean titles such as Kim Ki-duk’s The Isle (; Seom, 2000), Park Chan-wook’s Oldboy (올드보이; Oldeuboi, 2003) and Kim Jee-woon’s A Tale of Two Sisters (장화, 홍련;Janghwa, Hongryeon, 2003).

With his films some of the most well-traveled and hotly discussed at the time, Miike inevitably became the name most associated with not just new cult Japanese films but for all of “Asian Extreme”. This despite Miike’s body of work when taken as a whole presents the biggest challenge to pigeonholing, the most appropriate context in which Miike is an “extremist” director being his going from one extreme to another in terms of material and potential viewing demographic. Western audiences became acquainted with Miike’s versatility and prolific work ethic rather quickly, with some of his most (in)famous titles spoiling western genre fans in fairly rapid succession in the early 2000s. 2001 alone, for instance, saw Miike at the helm of six feature films, three of which include Visitor Q, Ichi the Killer, and zombie horror/musical comedy/claymation hybrid The Happiness of the Katakuris (カタクリ家の幸福; Katakuri-ke no kōfuku), three of Miike’s biggest cult titles abroad. Horrors such as Audition and Imprint (インプリント ~ぼっけえ、きょうてえ~; Inpurinto ~bokke kyote~, 2006) and bizarre works like Visitor Q may have turned the most heads and churned the most stomachs. However, international audiences were also introduced to Miike’s adeptness at other genres such as crime thrillers, action, and drama with the Dead or Alive (Deddo oa araibu) trilogy (1999-2002) and The City of Lost Souls (漂流街; Hyōryū-gai, 2000). An earlier, pre-Audition V-cinema work such as Full Metal Yakuza (FULL METAL 極道; Full Metal gokudō, 1997) highlighted the already well-established and eccentric genre mash-up style of Miike’s western audiences became accustomed to, whereas productions shot during the height of Miike’s early international cult success like Salaryman Kintaro (サラリーマン金太郎; Sarariiman Kintarō, 1999) or the superhero parody Zebraman (ゼブラーマン; Zeburāman, 2004) register on the more commercial, and even family-friendly at times, end of the spectrum. 

Miike’s rapid-fire method of working as well as the chameleon-like nature to adapt any material and still retain a signature stamp stems from his early assistant directing jobs and working in V-Cinema where standing out was crucial in a crowded field. “I was an assistant director for 10 years,” Miike told fellow director Guillermo Del Toro (2). “…I was freelance and we shot many things studio people did not want to work on like tight deadline stuff, TV shows which they thought was too low to do. So,  freelancers like me took anything we could get… Still today, the films I make run at that speed.”(2) Commenting on himself being labeled as a genre director, Miike interestingly said in 2001 “I don’t think about genre at all. My films are categorized as being in a certain type of genre. But myself, I don’t make the movie thinking about which category the film belongs in.”(3) After being selected to participate in the first season of Showtime anthology series Masters of Horror (2005-2007), Miike himself joked “Me, a master of horror? I’m the guy that made Salaryman Kintaro!”(4) Nevertheless, Miike again demonstrated not simply his capability of working in any genre early on, but also his wildly different approaches taken with each film within any specific genre. This is illustrated particularly well in Miike’s work within the horror genre despite Miike’s joking about his own title as a “master” of it. In spite of the reputation of its jolting final third, Audition, Miike’s most famous horror title, is at its core a deliberately paced drama defined much more by loss and tragedy than shock tactics. Considerably more grotesque and surreal, the Cronenbergian body horror of Gozu (極道恐怖大劇場 牛頭 GOZU; Gokudō kyōfu dai-gekijō: Gozu, 2003) was birthed the same year as One Missed Call (着信アリ, Chakushin Ari), Miike’s most commercial horror film and contribution to the massively popular “J-Horror” subgenre [ii] of films such as Hideo Nakata’s Ringu (リング, 1998) and Takashi Shimizu’s Ju-on: The Curse (呪怨, 2000).       

Even when specifically isolating the violence or more transgressive content of certain films, Miike proves far from one note in his approaches to violence and disregarding of taboos. An admitted admirer of Paul Verhoeven, Miike even cites Starship Troopers (1997) as his favorite film. He is similarly multifaceted in his presentation of violence. Like Verhoeven, who in a film like RoboCop (1987) could direct scenes of horrific violence such as Murphy’s death scene, Miike’s violence can leave similar, troubling images lingering long after. Two of the most obvious are Asami’s methodical needlework in Audition and the unflinching torture of Kimomo in Imprint. Both Verhoeven and Miike also share wicked senses of humor, and Verhoeven can also handle violence in a scene such as the ED-209’s boardroom malfunction in RoboCop or much of the action in Miike’s favorite film Starship Troopers in such an so over-the-top fashion it crosses over into comic book hysterics. Here too Miike often seems to be channeling Verhoeven, with the exaggerated action and arterial splatter of films like the explicitly RoboCop-influenced Full Metal Yakuza and literal live-action manga Ichi the Killer as fantastical and comical as shocking or “extreme”. Similarly, many of the other bizarre aberrations or bodily functions are seen in films like Fudoh: The New Generation (極道戦国志 不動; Gokudō sengokushi: Fudō, 1996), Visitor Q and Gozu have a sardonic quality, but like Miike’s violence are also constantly inventive and surreal enough to “astonish” and “surprise” the likes of Alejandro Jodorowsky.   

Miike continued to surprise while working in the genre following Imprint and its banning from premium cable channel Showtime, perhaps Miike’s most high-profile controversy in the west. Though it received little distribution outside of Japan, 太陽の傷 or Sun Scarred (Taiyo no kizu, 2006) was Miike’s take on a Death Wish (1974)-esque revenge scenario, restricting the majority of violence until the film’s climax, instead focusing again on human drama and loss. Remaining oddly under the radar despite North American distribution from Tokyo Shock, Detective Story (探偵物語; Tantei monogatari, 2007) could be considered for Miike what The Suspicious Death of a Minor (Morte sospetta di una minorenne, 1975) was for Sergio Martino. That being a rather dark and tragic crime genre piece with absurdist comedy nonchalantly weaved into the proceedings. Post-Detective Story, Miike did take a hiatus from horror and darker genre fare, no doubt to the chagrin of many. However, as Tom Mes, author of Agitator: The Cinema of Takashi Miike attests, Miike essentially continued on the same course he’d been on since his early days, Mes stating outright, “…there is no such thing as a return of the old Miike, since he never went away in the first place. It’s mostly the industry around him and the material it prefers to churn out that did the changing for him.” Miike adapted to the various changes in the Japanese film industry quite successfully with mainstream fare such as live-action anime adaptation Yatterman (ヤッターマン; Yattāman, 2009) and Ace Attorney (逆転裁判; Gyakuten Saiban, 2012) as well as a high-profile festival title like Hara-Kiri: Death of a Samurai (一命; Ichimei, 2011) before putting his stamp on horror again. 

Miike’s first full-on horror affair since Imprint, Lesson of the Evil (悪の教典; Aku no Kyoten, 2012)  found Miike returning to the genre with an approach similar to his horror beginnings with Audition. Slowly building to a jaw-dropping, blood-splattered climax, the boldness and audacity of Lesson of the Evil, a film which only grows more so in the years since its release with its school-shooting perpetrated by a teacher finale, certainly reminded many of Miike’s 90’s and 2000’s cult and horror favorites. Miike himself even promised a film with a similar attitude as some of his earlier works with 2015’s Yakuza Apocalypse (極道大戦争, Gokudō Daisensō). Crossing vampire horror with outrageous comedy and martial arts action, Miike emphatically stated in a press release for the film “Say good-bye to wimpy and boring Japanese movies. Nobody asked me, but I’ve decided on my own to return to my roots and start a riot!”(8). Sandwiched in between Lesson of the Evil and Yakuza Apocalypse, the North American release of Over Your Dead Body or 喰女-クイメ- (Kuime, 2014) was similar to the strange case of Detective Story in that despite distribution from a known and respected entity in Scream Factory, response to the film was curiously muted. Certainly the most understated of the three horror films Miike shot from 2012 to 2015 in terms of tone, Over Your Dead Body nonetheless saw Miike reaching new heights in the genre. Fusing various temperamental aspects of some of his previous horror films from the more dramatic to even some of the “extreme”, Over Your Dead Body also adds an entirely new layer of another arena in which Miike had previously directed, theatrical stage drama.  

Over Your Dead Body also saw Miike working within a longstanding tradition in Japanese horror since the Edo period, the film being Miike’s take on the Yotsuya Kaidan (四谷怪談) ghost story in both a traditional and more contemporary manner. Known throughout all of Japan, the tale was first written in 1825 by playwright Tsuruya Nanboku IV and first staged the same year as a Kabuki play under the title “Tōkaidō Yotsiya Kaidan” or “東海道四谷怪談”, “Ghost Story of Yotsuya in Tokaido”. Like many stories of its kind, various aspects of Yotsuya Kaidan have been altered with each new generation. However, the core story elements and themes have always remained in the subsequent staged variations and well over twenty film adaptations. Typically beginning with Lemon, a drifting “rōnin”, or masterless samurai arguing with Samon, the father of his wife Oiwa, over their marriage, the argument leading to Lemon’s murdering of Samon. Lemon and Oiwa’s life together is soon revealed to be less than ideal with Lemon’s rōnin status, though Iemon is soon lured by Kihê Itô, the wealthy grandfather of Oume, who has fallen for Iemon. The Itôs concoct a plan for Lemon to leave Oiwa by slowly poising her with what she is told to be an expensive medicine to aid a reoccurring sickness, deforming her face. Lemon then attempts to convince a servant to rape Oiwa. The servant, however, is unable to commit such an act. Lemon and the Itôs’ betrayal is finally revealed to Oiwa upon the servant’s insistence that Oiwa look in the mirror, with vengeance from beyond commencing upon her accidental death by the servant’s sword while attempting to flee. 

Miike’s take on Yotsuya Kaidan in Over Your Dead Body differs with Lemon murdering Oiwa after idly standing outside while not a servant, but Oiwa’s former masseuse, commits the rape perpetrated by Lemon. Nanboku’s original play also featured the vengeful spirits of others wronged by Iemon acting alongside Oiwa in her retribution which Miike omits. Focusing solely on Iemon’s betrayal of Oiwa, Miike also tells an overlapping story, Over Your Dead Body being a “play-within-a-film” centered on a  theatrical production of Yotsuya Kaidan. Playing the leading roles of Oiwa and Iemon are real-life lovers Miyuki (Kō Shibasaki, her second role for Miike following One Missed Call) and Kousuke (Ebizō Ichikawa XI), the later conducting an affair behind-the-scenes with Rio, the young actress cast in the role of Oume (“Ume” in the film). As rehearsals for the play continue, so too does Miyuki’s jealousy as the contents and themes of the play begin spilling over and confusing the real lives of the principal players. The spillage and confusion are seamlessly handled by Miike, Over Your Dead Body being both one of Miike’s most accomplished exercises in the macabre ambiance as well as from a purely technical, directorial standpoint. Featuring characteristics again found in Miike’s previous horror films, Miike’s execution for the majority of Over Your Dead Body is most comparable to Audition, Miike favoring a tense and unsettlingly slow build to the final act with some of the more visceral horrors hinted at along the way. However, where Audition was very much grounded in real, tangible drama, Over Your Dead Body begins with a decidedly strange, almost somnambulant, and legitimately Lynchian disposition. Miike renders the most innocuous moments surrounding the production of Yotsuya Kaidan as dreadfully unnerving and potentially threatening with long, uncomfortable stretches of silence in between dialogue, and a noticeable, again very Lynchian, focus on distressing sound design. 

Taking place on a massive revolving stage with performers in period costume against intricately designed theatrical backdrops, the rehearsals resemble an authentic filmed stage production of Yotsuya Kaidan. Despite the visual distinctions, the rest of the film looks strikingly modern, the Yotsuya Kaidan rehearsals retain the slow motion, nightmarish ambiance as well as the fluid, drifting editing of the early offstage scenes. Like other films featuring similar intertwining fantasy/reality dichotomies such as Lynch’s Inland Empire (2006) or Abel Ferrara’s Dangerous Game (1993), the visual signifiers of the infringing works of fiction versus the reality of the lives of the participants ultimately become irrelevant as the narrative distinctions are obscured. Miike’s more contemporary Yotsuya Kaidan that develops outside of the rehearsals, which also obscures perceptions of fantasy, is also where the film bears traits of Miike’s previous genre work. Audition is again recalled with Shibasaki giving a similarly fascinating and enigmatic performance as Eihi Shiina as Asami in Audition. Miyuki’s obsessive romantic jealousies also mirror those of Shiina’a Asami, the film’s most “extreme” or graphic visual moments born from Miyuki’s particular obsession over a phantom pregnancy, the resulting “abortion” procedure via kitchen utensils and its after-effects reminiscent of the similarly controversially-themed moments in Imprint. Miyuki/Oiwa’s offstage haunting of Kousuke/Iemon also bears traces of One Missed Call while Miike concludes the stage portions of Yotsuya Kaidan in keeping with the general tradition of the story while also indulging once again in arterial spray and fetal horror imagery. Intangible as Shibasaki’s presence and the general mood of the film may seem, Shibasaki’s deadpan rebuffs of her co-star’s unwanted romantic advances are the source of most of the film’s very slight humor, Miike even ending the film with a morbidly hilariously, though a similarly quiet nod to Verhoeven’s The Fourth Man (De vierde man, 1983)     

Despite the stage-set Yotsuya Kaidan scenes of Over Your Dead Body being ultimately shot and edited for the screen, the film’s setting of fantastical Japanese theater does make the film somewhat kin to Demon Pond (夜叉ヶ池; Yasha-ga-ike, 2005), Miike’s first production for the Japanese stage. Similar to Yotsuya Kaidan, Demon Pond has its roots in Japanese theater, first written as a Kabuki play in 1913 by Kyōka Izumi, one of Miike’s earliest literary influences (10). “In my middle and high school days, I wanted to look like an “adult” and looked to the works of Yukio Mishma, Kyōka Izumi, and Junichiro Tanizaki.” Miike stated in 2005 (10), continuing “When I was a kid I thought “Wow, Kyōka Izumi’s writing is so traditional and really cool. I just happened to be reading his work and something pinched me.”(10) Demon Pond was first made into a film in 1979 by pioneering Japanese New Wave filmmaker Masahiro Shinoda. “I felt that if it was my film, I could turn it into a play,” Miike said when discussing his staging of Demon Pond which he was “determined” to successfully mount with an entire potential cast already in mind, which included some of Miike’s film regulars such as Kenichi Endō and Tetsurō Tamba. “I wanted so badly to turn it into a play, Miike recalled, describing his determination behind the project as “personal”, “as if to fill a distorted void,” which was filled in late 2004 for Tokyo audiences.   

For all the spiritual similarities, Miike’s approach to actual stage direction in Demon Pond aesthetically contrasts the theatrical scenes of Over Your Dead Body. Where the stage dressing and backgrounds in Over Your Dead Body seemed immaculately designed down to the most minute detail, Demon Pond is a strikingly minimal production for a fairly involved and highly surreal, fantastical story. Izumi’s tale beings with Yamazawa, a school teacher from Tokyo traveling through a drought-stricken provincial village meeting Yuri, rinsing rice in a stream outside her and her husband Akira’s home which connects to Demon Pond, the village’s lone source of water. Upon meeting Yamazawa, Akira recognizes him as an old friend and explains his new task of ringing the village bell. Under fears that the village and surrounding areas will be flooded by a rising Demon Pond, which villagers believe is guarded by a dragon, should the bell not be rung, Akira rings the bell at specific times. Much like the somewhat abstract white lines representing the stream, the bell tower exterior and the steps leading to are central to the limited production design, both constant presences from the opening and closing acts. Wanting to see Demon Pond for himself, Yamazawa sets out with Akira guiding him leaving Yuri alone to roam the stage clutching and singing to a doll. Similar, though contextually very different, doll imagery was prominent in Over Your Dead Body as well, Iemon and Oiwa’s unfortunate child an inanimate, tear-shedding doll. Miike does briefly hint at horror following the light and rather humorous first few acts with two men peering into Yuri’s window foreshadowing the dark turn the play will take in later acts.  

Already set within the world of the fantastic, the following acts become even more so with the introduction and humorous banter of “crab”, “carp” and “catfish” characters. Then becoming a full-on adult fairy tale, the subsequent introduction of Princess Shirayuki along with her relatives establishes another layer to the mythology, the Princess wanting to destroy the bell as its presence and ringing has prevented her from seeing her beloved Prince of Serpent Pond with whom she’s long been separated from. As explained by the Princess’ head nurse, an “Onnagata” (女形/女方) or “oyama” (女形) in Kabuki, a man in a female role, due to a pact made by the Princess’ family, should the bell cease to be rung or the Princess flee from Demon Pond to Serpent Pond, Demon Pond will flood, killing all the villagers. It’s here where Miike also becomes a bit more visual with a fog machine signaling the arrival of the Princess, her entourage all donning large red feathered robes, extravagant wigs and Kabuki face paint, and the head nurse isolated in a box to the side of the stage. The prior threat of horror from earlier in the play is then manifested as a group of village men, led by Yuri’s uncle, dragging her from her home intending to strap her naked to the back of an ox as a sacrifice for rain before Akira and Yamazawa return. Though no blood is shed, the ensuing violent mayhem of the climax of the play echos many similar moments in Miike’s films as do the potentially perplexing, though emotionally resonant final moments prior to the cast’s final bow. These later acts also highlight a clash of traditional versus modern in Miike’s interpretation of Izumi with a fascinating debate between a villager lamenting the diminishing role of Bushidō and Yamazawa countering that such mindsets are holding Japan back.   

Remarking on his motivations for directing for theater, Miike stated, “Well, I usually do a lot of movies. But I don’t feel that “this movie is for this person”. I feel every person wants the same thing. In other words, something new, you have to continue evolving from the past to find something new.” The “something new” is a contemporary take on Izumi for a modern audience. Discussing his approach to directing for theater as opposed to film, Miike remarked, “I seek something more ephemeral from the stage.” Noting the lack of technical camera trickery or CGI needed for theatrical storytelling or audience engagement, Miike continued by emphasizing the symbiosis between the performers and the audience, stating “Acting to me means space and the flesh and the raw relationship among the audience. That’s the fascination it has… It’s good because it’s real human beings expressing themselves”. Though Miike also recognized the importance of embracing the aforementioned advancements in film technology, for the stage “The core of that expression has never changed.”(10) for Miike. Miike would once again use the core expression of the stage to evolve in 2007 with a co-written original stage play, Zatoichi, or 三池崇史 × 哀川翔 『座頭市』(Miike Takashi × Aikawa Show: Zatoichi) based on the blind swordsman character created by Japanese writer Kan Shimozawa in 1948 in a similarly abstract and minimal style. Despite the limited western appeal, Miike’s theatrical works are more than curiosities that hold a unique place in the director’s canon. Demon Pond in particular, with the theater medium linking the play with a Miike horror masterwork like Over Your Dead Body, both titles being distinctive takes on two of the most legendary tales of Japanese dark fantasy and horror from one of Japan’s most singular and still most imaginative talents.

i. Though the “Asian Extreme” tag essentially became an umbrella term for a wide variety of filmmakers from across East Asia, some crossover was present, and even acknowledged, between some of the various filmmakers branded with the marker. There was the 2004 horror anthology film Three… Extremes (三更2; Sāngēng 2, 쓰리, 몬스터; Sseuli, Monseuteo,  美しい夜残酷な朝; Utsukushī Yoru, Zankokuna Asa) which featured Miike, along with South Korea’s Park Chan-wook and Hong Kong’s Fruit Chan each contributing three short films and the late, controversial Kim Ki-duk admitted to The Spinning Image in 2001 to feeling a certain kinship with Miike after seeing Audition.

ii. The “Edo” period (江戸時代) or “Tokugawa period” (徳川時代) represents Japan from 1603 to 1867 during which Kabuki is generally agreed to have originated.

iii. Much like “Asian Extreme”, “J-horror” became another contentious and catch-all term tossed around rather freely. While some group any and all Japanese horror under the banner, others view “J-horror” as its own subgenre within Japanese horror, best represented by previously mentioned films like Nakata’s Ringu and Dark Water (仄暗い水の底から; Honogurai mizu no soko kara, 2002),   Shimizu’s Ju-on: The Curse, Miike’s One Missed Call as well as Kiyoshi Kurosawa’s Pulse (回路; Kairo, 2001).    

1. “Art of branding: Tartan “Asia Extreme” films”. https://www.ejumpcut.org/archive/jc50.2008/TartanDist/#:~:text=%22Asia%20Extreme%22%20is%20the%20first,first%20of%20its%20kind%2C%20Tartan. 2008.

2. “Round Table #2 with Guillermo Del Toro Director of “Hellboy”, Eli Roth Director of “Cabin Fever”. Cinema Epoch. 2009.

3. “Midnight Eye interview: Takashi Miike”. May 1, 2001. http://www.midnighteye.com/interviews/takashi-miike/.

4. “Report: Japan Premiere of Miike Takashi’s Big Bang Love, Juvenile A.” Ryuganji: Japan Film News. May 26, 2006.

5. “Takashi Miike: ‘Manga was a magic that gave children dreams’”. https://www.irishtimes.com/culture/film/takashi-miike-manga-was-a-magic-that-gave-children-dreams-1.3314958. December 8, 2017.

6. “Alejandro Jodorowsky on contemporary cinema”. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=GCRCimMvF1w. April 26, 2010.

7. Mes, Tom. “Midnight Eye review: Over Your Dead Body (Kuime, 2014, Takashi Miike).” http://www.midnighteye.com/reviews/over-your-dead-body/. September 5, 2014.

8. “Miike Takashi to Direct Yakuza-Vampire Picture”. https://variety.com/2014/film/production/miike-takashi-to-direct-yakuza-vampire-picture-1201160028/. April 21, 2014.

9. “YOTSUYA KAIDAN”. http://www.kabuki21.com/yotsuya_kaidan.php.

10. “Director Interview”. Cinema Epoch. 2008.