Tuesday, September 26, 2006

Agitator - The Cinema of Takashi Miike

If you like me were lucky enough to get swept up in the tide of contemporary Asian cinema that rocketed out from the smoky residue of the Ring of Fire a few years back, then the name of Takashi Miike will probably have some resonance in your mind. The seemingly sudden onslaught of fresh cinema raised it’s head just as time finished it’s creaking journey over the millennial horizon; about a half decade ago it was, back in the days when Christian Bale was only a psychopathic American, and not a factory-floor, proletariat Batman.

Although probably on the whole it’s more accurate to call it an industry renascence (it’s not like films ceased to be made), or an international renascence (since it’s about the awareness of English language audiences), nevertheless the unsoiled sheets became thoroughly soaked with spectres of ladies with long, dark hair, other ladies with long, dark hair, the occasional scary child bearing corpse-paint, and more ladies with long, dark hair.

In between the royal battles for the ring and murky waters and corridors, Miike showcased his oeuvre, directing a number of films to shock and surprise and do all that good stuff that gives publicists a litter of outrage to utilise in mad spasms of PR. The infamous torture of Audition, the masochism of Ichi the Killer, the whirlwind pace of Dead or Alive, all and more cemented a reputation for the little goggle-eyed man from Osaka.

Agitator – The Cinema of Takashi Miike, as the name suggests, is a book all about Miike’s films, with various excursions into biographical territory. Authoring this exclusively on his lonesome, Tom Mes tackles every flick up to Deadly Outlaw: Rekka in 2002 (the book was published in 2003), dealing with each individually and working chronologically through a period of just over a decade. Segregating proceedings into chapters, he treats us to some preliminary words on Miike’s own background, as well as the prevailing thematic elements to recur in the exposition to follow; that exposition being the chapters three and four, which make up the great bulk of the book by acting as the canvas for Mes’s examination, one covering the early years in video, the other the post-1995 material.

From the outset little can be faulted here, comprehensive coverage of an entire filmography, along with specific details like cast and crew and DVD information suffixed as appendixes. His analyses evoke the proper level of depth, drawing from cultural and biographical context, as well as being sufficiently critical (this isn’t a fanboy writing an ode to his favourite filmmaker). He lambastes the director for his continued partnership with screenwriter and Manga artist Hisao Maki; one almost gets the image of a sweaty-browed Mes sitting in a darkened basement room, surrounded by wafts of transcript and draft chapters, frantically yelling at an abstract projection of Miike as he is forced into viewing another, as he would have it, “deplorable” and “dissonant” movie.

This is all fine as far as I’m concerned, attempts to hide the subjective are in general awry from the offset, and he backs up any opinions with a concise collective of reasons, judgements and comparisons. He dedicates more space to some films than others, understandably so as some just elicit more scope for discussion, via featuring more issues and so on. Notable here is that recent, more commercially and critically successful films garner more pages than their ancestors from the V-Cinema days, some of which have yet to even been given the English language title treatment. But these are not areas of contention.

Where Mes seems to fall down slightly is the at-times monotonous and repetitive nature of his discourse. Recurring themes are one thing, to continually return to the outcast protagonist and the psychological conflict of rootlessness is to underline things doubly where only a single line would be enough. His analysis has accuracy and he interacts with prevalent outside readings to a worthy extent, but it’s difficult to move away from the blockade that signposts a warning that ideas are being constantly recycled, with notions simply being conceptualised differently as the film in question warrants. And even then, often the rehash is barely distinguishable from the preceding method of communiqué; his writing frequently dips into banality, despite a perceivable endeavour to resist such, admittedly, easy pitfalls to fall into. His buzzwords are of particular annoyance, one cannot skirt over more than a few pages without coming across the likes of “apogee”, or “emphasise”, words that I can only assume are in high regard by him. Sure they’re decent words, although I’m not too hot on the former as I can only sound stupid saying it, but this regurgitation, this prosodic vomit, makes for unpleasant reading.

Perhaps this is where the crux comes rolling in: how to treat the book? As an encyclopaedia, a resource mixing factual and analytical, it works well. The extended synopsises are lacklustre as a piece of dinnertime reading, but viewed as purely referential, then the book functions on a better level.

Easily the best chapter is the sixth, which is a publication of Miike’s actual production diary from the creation process of Ichi the Killer. It’s a suitably unusual assemblage of snapshots from various points on the production, from the genesis (exhibited as a verbatim of Miike getting a phone call from the producer) to his arrival in America-land to promote the finished product. His stream of consciousness prose, eccentric and eclectic, is a joy to read, bounding in and out of dialogue, internal debate and philosophical digression. One moment he’s quantifying the amount of semen to have been expulsed in the city during the previous night, then he’s giving a rather dry bio of his screenwriter, then he’s off on some mad tangent about an dream allegory that seems to suggest CGI/digital filmmaking crushing the antiquity of bygone filmic techniques. His lack of linearity harks back to some of John Cage’s unrestrained writings, especially observable (visually as much as anything else) in a section where he goes into a double-spaced declaration about the creation process, a metaphysical mission statement about how the screenwriter adopts his project and “becomes Ichi the Killer.”

During the diary, Miike shows himself to be an intelligent and cerebral fellow, yet in the same instant retaining a down-to-earth realism, his self-deprecatory asides bringing amusement and an air of comfort. Directors tend to be mythologized according to their films, their output mirroring their own perceptions, and it goes without saying how erroneous this usually can be; certainly Miike seems far removed from the debauched, violent yakuza that regularly inhabit the space inside his camera lens. He’s as free from deluded ideals and prima donna posturing as you want from such a titan of Japanese cinema, like when he says, “the yakuza in my films are not real yakuza, they’re movie yakuza. Because the only yakuza I know are from watching movies.”

Let’s hope the honest and prolific (49 feature films in 11 years) director can continue executing his profession with as much panache and vigour as he has already shown. And let’s also hope that superior books, those not impaired by poor writing, can someday be summoned from the craters of Miike’s shaven skull and given a righteous place on a pedestal somewhere, maybe in Shinjuku itself.

Sunday, September 24, 2006

Steven Seagal Turns Orange

So there I was, sitting mid-row in screen number one of the Odeon up the road, slight agitations accentuated by the streaming graphics of behemoth Pepsi cups and rampaging popcorn containers strafing all over the widescreen, the faint memories of bygone minutes when I had inadvertently walked into the screening of Clerks 2 not at my allotted time of 19:00, but one hour prematurely at 18:00. How that ever foul British Summer Time was to smite me, showing me the twenty worst minutes of sappy drivel the film had to offer, and then afflicting me a monotonous wait in the foyer as the staff swept away the guffaws of Kevin Smith fanboys from the aisles. Never leave the house without a book, that is the lesson I have taken from the incident; and I thought I was doing so well, having spent much of yesterday’s commute devouring Agitator: The Cinema of Takeshi Miike.

But anyway, a serving of trailers for what looks set to be a nauseating season of filmic dreck later, and I was met with a mighty metaphorical whack in the face, an audio-visual tomahawk to the scrag. The strips of cine dirge passed by leaving an advertisement for phone network Orange on the screen. Any potential enticement of my senses at this moment had been nullified by a previous Orange ad, one that presented little worth. However, this second commercial attracted not only fleeting attention, but mirth, hilarity and a superabundance of serenity.

The piece begins by having a generic corporate executive out on the golf greens, eyeing up oversized confectionary with a big stick, when suddenly Steven Seagal arrives with a movie pitch about a romantic comedy involving a single guy who falls for his daughter’s schoolteacher. The exec knocks down this idea, clinging too readily and stubbornly to the accepted notion of Seagal as Hollywood action man. The minute-long advert then proceeds with Seagal pursuing the suit, pleading his scenario across a battlefield of bunkers and tartan trousers.

But hang on a second, where’s the context? Well, seems that in this skewed reality Orange are in the business of film funding, alongside all the various preoccupations with textual messages and wireless application protocols and so on that we know them for. Thus we have creative masterminds like Steven Seagal inundating the company with proposals for what are sure to be cinematic masterpieces.

It’s a riveting experience, exhilarating down to the second. Seeing Seagal pilot a golf-cart, while at the same time he expatiates on his narrative, batting off suggestions that the two romantic leads would communicate with each other via something as trivial as text message, brings a reservoir of pearlescent flows to my eyes. Witnessing Seagal recreate the highlight of Nico in a scene where he commandeers the roof of the exec’s golf cart, especially on the big screen, will reverberate through my dreamscapes long into the twilight.

Refreshing and surprising this casting decision is. Let’s face it, Seagal does not garner such a reaction nowadays as he may have back a decade ago. Mentions of Belly Of The Beast can be expected to be met with chagrins and mystification, whereas an underhand reminder of, say, Hard To Kill can be enough to spark someone into an intense recollection of the intricacies of the beardedness that Seagal burrowed his way into in that particular flick.

Due to my lack of television viewing, I cannot say if this phenomenon is exclusively an object of the cinema. I would assume that it is, Orange seem to have some nationwide cinema promotions on the go at present, plus a quick correspondence to an associate in the north informs me that he too had seen this very majesty in a movie theatre.

What does this mean for Seagal? Is he to tread the beaten highway of kitsch appeal, the one walked recently by William Shatner and David Hasselhoff? Will we get advertisements for Head & Shoulders where Seagal caricatures the beatific opening sequence to Out For Justice, complete with smashed windscreen freeze frame, perhaps this time with a pause as Seagal nourishes his ponytail with the lathered goodness of lemon extract and the “essence of the rainforest”? Hell, he already has the music angle tied up!

Only time will fill in the blanks. Yet, if the possibilities do indeed evolve into something tangible, do remember I, the one who took the effort to speak so hyperbolic about the mores of Out For Justice and Submerged in the past.

And here, by the magic of Youtube, is the commercial in question:

Friday, September 22, 2006

Also of note

I've recently changed my email to the following: aaronfleming1[at]gmail.com

Expect writings in the near future...

Tuesday, September 12, 2006


Spot of housekeeping here, or admin, or news, or just a quick mention of something deemed relevant, whatever you wish to call it. Generic Mugwump is moving. It's transferring its offices from the urban banality that is Coleraine - located on the northern hemisphere of Northern Ireland - to the metropolis of London. As of Monday 18 September, Generic Mugwump will be operating out of some south-eastern London commune, alongside a view of Canary Wharf and the finest second-hand book shops the British capital has to offer.

Now, as with all moves into the unknown, a large dollop of ambiguity accompanies it, a good dose of mist to conceal that clarity you know is just over there, but can we see it? Beyond a rough outline, a furry few edges, it remains thoroughly in the obscure. How will Generic Mugwump cope in this bustling conurbation? Will it’s reviewing fall deep into the wayside? Short stories into the abyss? All that other assorted ephemera chucked into a black bin-liner and given the rail death treatment?

Well hopefully not. I promise to at least endeavour not to let this place be forgotten like Pantera’s first four albums. The glistening chaos of The City mile, the Ballardian high-rises, the collage of humanity painted using a truly global palate, all will undoubtedly inspire and motivate, all will give the necessary shove to excommunicate that panoply of thoughts from the head onto the page. There may not be as many masterpiece movies viewed, but with every experience lessened comes fresh, nascent ones to enthral and enrapture.

One assurance I do give is that I will restrain my more pretentious tendencies and resist a horde of articles beginning with such nauseating dreck as: “I was standing in Tate Modern yesterday, staring deep into the belly of a Max Ernst, when suddenly…” or “There I was, standing adjacent to Will Self in Waterstones.” That braggart ostentation would scrape the bile from the walls of my stomach in less than a second.

I’ll be in touch.