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Japan’s Hothouse Fetishist

Deep-fried body parts, hermaphrodite schoolgirls, radioactively endowed super-yakuza and the world‘s most terrifying laundry bag: 10 feature films ago, those were a few of director Takashi Miike’s favorite things. For many filmmakers, 10 features could easily constitute a lifetime‘s work, and a mound of fetishes as fragrant as these would probably be sufficient to fertilize an entire career. But in the hothouse culture of current Japanese cinema, where filmmakers such as Miike (pronounced “Mee-kay”) and his aesthetic opposite, Cure director Kiyoshi Kurosawa, churn out movies more often than their Hollywood compatriots change socks, nothing stays fresh for long. “I only made three or four films in the year 2000,” the 41-year-old Miike admitted during a recent visit to the American Cinematheque, where his 1999 spine-jabber Audition had its Los Angeles premiere. “But,” promised the blond and deeply tanned director, excitedly tapping the toes of his red-hot running shoes, “I’ll finish seven more by the end of 2001.”

For the most part, Miike specializes in extraordinarily sordid, low-budget crime flicks that typically pack moral mayhem, mortal danger and nine different kinds of visual pizzazz into the five minutes it takes for the opening credits to roll. Hookers are beaten, rent boys get buggered and outlaws fall from the skies before social science rears its head: No other filmmaker in Japan pays more attention to race relations than Miike, who hails from the southern extremes of Kyushu, where international (in particular, Korean) exchange has flourished for centuries. An Okinawan version of Uncle Remus and Hong Kong hottie Michelle Reis (the fishnet-twisting toss-artist in Wong Kar-wai‘s Fallen Angels) have both made appearances in Miike’s cosmos, as have Brazilian disc jockeys, Russian travel agents, Taiwanese drug tyrants, four-legged porn stars and the occasional turd-sniffing midget. Mandarin, Portuguese and African-American “jive” are all spoken here.

By comparison with most of Miike‘s output (nearly 50 features), the relatively sedate Audition is yet another breed apart. Adapted by screenwriter Daisuke Tengan (son of Shohei Imamura, the veteran iconoclast to whom Miike was once apprenticed) from a story by cult novelist Ryu Murakami, the film is a slow-to-boil portrait of misguided mating rituals. A lonely widower (played by suave former rock idol Ryo Ishibashi) holds a casting session for potential date-mates and meets a pellucid former ballerina (ex-fashion model Eihi Shiina) with a haunted past who knocks him -- or, more accurately, saws him -- off his feet. The last 30 minutes of Audition will toilet-snake your nervous system, but Miike disagrees with those who describe it as a horror film. “It’s a simple human drama,” he explains, “a film about basic instincts, like desire. But if everyone actually followed their desires, things in life would begin to look more like a horror film.”

Not everything the filmmaker touches is new. His exhilarating yakuza workout, 1999‘s Dead or Alive, culminates with the end of the Earth -- a little impracticality that hasn’t stopped Miike from sequelizing the film twice. And, as critic Donald Richie points out in his recent book A Hundred Years of Japanese Film, on close inspection Miike‘s 1997 Rainy Dog is really just an update of Tsunekichi Shibata’s Armed Robbery -- a silent short from 1899. Still, the filmmaker is ever truffle hunting for fresh fetishes. In one of the five features Miike has completed this year, a digitally shot black-and-white, self-proclaimed “home drama” called Visitor Q, a hyperlactating heroin addict continually spritzes her co-stars with real breast milk. (“She‘d just had a baby before we began shooting.”) Meanwhile, in his latest, the way-beyond-hyperbolic manga adaptation Ichi the Killer, the film’s title is written in a foamy glop of fresh ejaculate. Audition may not be typical of the excesses he‘s been indulging in lately, but Miike can’t think of another film he‘s made that would have given international audiences a more effective introduction to his work. “All my films put together,” he says with a wet grin, “are like one big river. Every time I make a new one, it’s like I‘ve added another drop to the stream.”

Audition opens today at the Nuart, Dead or Alive at Sunset 5; for reviews, turn to Film Calendar.


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