Today, Blade of the Immortal hits UK cinemas, and it’s a bloody blast: a frenetic orgy of sword fighting, gore, and tongue-in-cheek dialogue. Its energy is so punk-rock and youthful that you might expect a fresh, young face on the scene to have directed it; but you’d be wrong. This is, in actual fact, the 100th film (though it’s debatable) of legendary director Takashi Miike. I went to speak with him ahead of the film’s London Film Festival screening in October about the process of making it, and his reputation as a filmmaker.
Note: This was a round table interview with three participants: the other two I’ve called ‘IM’ (Interview man) and ‘IW’ (Interview woman) for your convenience. I am JW. Questions and answers were conveyed by translator.
IM: You’re not a stranger to adapting manga into live action movies. Could you talk about the pleasures and difficulties of translating manga, specifically Blade of the Immortal, which is quite a big manga?
This [Blade of the Immortal] is a very long story, and there are so many different characters, each with [their own] different stories. So, sometimes, it veers off into one character, and the protagonist doesn’t appear for a long while. But when I read it, I could see that it’s about the main story between Manji and Rin, and instead of making it into a series, you know, one or two out of the whole thing, I felt instinctively that this should be condensed into just one.
The original story is about eternity and immortality, but I felt that it should be treated in one moment, one film.
JW: What attracted you to Blade of the Immortal as a subject for adaptation?
Rather than myself choosing the manga to film, I think it’s the manga that chooses me. It just happens this way: people say that this should be made by me, and maybe that’s why it happens. But with this story, the artwork is so beautiful: I think that for this manga, particularly, the storyline is just for showing off the artwork. The moments depicted… are so good, especially the moments of death.
When somebody is dying, especially the villains; you know, they’re the villains, but they’re humans, so they’re not one hundred percent pure evil. I feel for the villains, and they’re being killed, and you think “Oh, that’s terrible”, but there are beautiful moments in their death, and it’s that beautiful artwork that really attracted me to it.
IW: What was it like building the sets for the film? Ageing the wood, and the process of building a whole [immersive] set?
We had to make huts, but a lot of it was filmed at a film studio in Kyoto which [already] has period sets. Because the studio sets are usually used for TV dramas, they didn’t look old, they looked new. So we had to make it look old, and the set designers got told off by the studio managers. But it was great fun, I really enjoyed making the film on a period set.
IM: Can I go back to you saying about the character Rin, and how he is the villain. One of the things I like about your films is how you balance this outrageous, over-the-top action with quite sympathetic characters, and you like characters that are outsider characters. How do you achieve this?
I used to watch lots of films when I was younger, and I’ve always enjoyed watching the villains, not the heroes: they were always more attractive to me. And I think they’re more human to me. Audiences enjoy watching bad people doing bad things; and even in this film, the protagonist is a dark hero: he’s not purely good at all, he’s done bad things and has killed many. It’s not straightforward.
I think the way people behave is the thing that makes people. You don’t need to explain for every character why they are like that. Doing bad things is very human, and you don’t need to explain why people are like that, but when I’m reading a script, I feel more for the baddies than from the hero. I’m naturally attracted to those characters, but if the bad characters are purely just bad, then I feel like they need some more humanity put into them and sometimes I adapt some characters to make it more interesting.
If a story had only good people in it, then it’s not fun to watch: it’s not a good story. In life too, even if you think you’re right, from other points of view, you’re wrong, and it’s not straightforward. Nobody wants to watch a film with just good people.
JW: Going back to the final fight scene, I was wondering, first of all, what was it like to film it: it’s a crazy, epic scene? And second of all, you’re often typecast as a very violent director. Do you agree that you have a responsibility to keep violence realistic, even if the extent of it verges on the comical?
It was really hard to film, but that made it fun, because it was so hard. We enjoyed that process: it’s much more fun than just sitting in front of a television, for instance.[With regards to violence], the actions are dictated by the characters themselves, not what I dictate to the character. I know they’re not real, they’re obviously imaginary, but if we think about them and what they would do, that dictates how they move and their action. We can imagine the character saying “I can kill more”. How would I kill if I was him? That’s how I see it: it’s not myself directing the characters, they move themselves.
IW: It’s been about ten years since Audition came out. How does it feel reflecting on that from a full decade later?
In the original novel, I think she’s [Asami Yamazaki] there, but I think being played by that actress [Eihi Shiina] it became a lot scarier than the original novel. She really solidified that fear, and it’s the fear that every man would probably see in her. It’s somebody that you wouldn’t want to meet in real life, but she obviously lives on.
IM: It’s very popular and successful in this country, and is regarded as incredibly influential. Is it as popular in Japan?
It was actually very small. It’s a lot more well-known overseas than in Japan.
IM: So you obviously direct a lot of films, how on earth do you decide which films to get involved with, and in what stage do you get involved?
It’s very different from film to film. After I finish a film, all I want to do is do nothing. Because I do nothing, then people do approach me, because I am doing nothing. I think there are directors that have specific things that they want to do, and this is a different approach. Having that passion is something that requires a lot of energy: you need to use a lot of your energy for that. But being very lazy, it makes it easier to approach me. There are so many film companies and producers anyway in Japan. There are things I do want to do, but I do not waste my energy on insisting on doing those. So people approach me and my job is to take that and make a good film. It’s not the way I’d recommend to someone to make films, but this is the way I am.
If you say that there is something is very Miike, [I would be careful, because] I don’t waste my time putting my stamp on stuff. It’s an original story: I think it’s disrespectful to put my own stamp on it. I think it’s wrong. As a director, I feel I am just a vessel, and when I’m making a film I work so hard, and I lose myself. When you immerse yourself in a project, that’s when whatever I have comes out unconsciously. That’s how I work with all my work, but I wouldn’t dare think of putting my own mark on any of the projects. It’s nothing you can escape from.
JW: As we’re wrapping up, I was wondering, on the way home from seeing the film, how do you want your audience to feel?
Nothing too obvious, but I think our time is limited. We don’t know when [we will die], but it’s a finite time we all have, which is sad, but because it’s sad then we need to be happy about now. I think that’s how I would like people to feel.