Takashi Miike is one of my favorite movie directors. He’s prolific, with over 101 directing credits to his name since his first release in 1991 (or about four per year!) and unpredictable, capable of creating beautiful art films and unabashedly commercial garbage seemingly interchangeably. His movies have broken my heart (The Bird People in China), fascinated me with their weirdness (Gozu), held me in horrific suspense (Audition) and—most importantly—brought manga to life for me. Here, I want to offer a overview of the last point:
Miike’s intersection with manga:
Takashi Miike manga!
[One upon a time…]
A Human Murder Weapon
Takashi Miike’s career began in 1991, with the TV movie Shissō Feraari 250 GTO / Rasuto ran: Ai to uragiri no hyaku-oku en. Wikipedia tells me this, because I’ve never seen the movie. He then made two straight-to-video pictures, and followed that up with a third, A Human Murder Weapon, his first foray into manga adaptation. I know it was based on a manga by Ikki Kajiwara, but I’m not sure which one. The story is about a martial artist forced to compete in underground fights for the pleasure of the rich. Kajiwara died in 1987, so his manga are definitely on the retro side if you pick them up today.
Osaka Tough Guys
Four years later, Miike helmed Osaka Tough Guys, another video release, this time based on a manga by the artist collective Dookuman Pro. The movie, as the manga and its earlier anime adaptation, follows the antics of two boys who join the yakuza. But if you’re thinking this sounds like Takeshi Kitano’s excellent Kids Return, or any number of other thoughtful criminal youth films, you’re wrong. Miike’s movie is a straight up wacky comedy, and it’s a better comedy than it is a movie. It’s also not nearly as bizarre as Miike’s better known features.
Fudoh: The New Generation
Thankfully, things quickly get better. Because next up is 1996’s Fudoh: The New Generation, a worthy entry into the extreme action genre that spawned in Asia (and that Miike would later perfect in another manga adaptation.) This time the source material is Fudou, Hitoshi Tanimura’s seinen manga about a gangster teen who leads a band of kid assassins, with the ultimate goal of exacting revenge for a past killing by murdering his own father, a local yakuza boss. Many reviews point out the movie’s “manga style,” which is just another way to say that it’s totally bonkers! Visually and thematically. If the plot description alone didn’t send rebellious Freudian shivers down your spine, it’s hard to describe the amount of pure nihilism that permeates the frames. You’d be pardoned for skipping Miike’s first two manga adaptations. It would be a sin to skip this one!
Unsurprisingly, 1996 is also the year Miike’s career truly gained a head of steam. Having already made Shinjuku Triad Society in 1995, he made Ambition Without Honor in 1996, followed it up with a sequel the following year, along with two well regarded crime films, Rainy Dog and Full Metal Yakuza, which, although not based on a manga, wears its manga-styled inspirations right in its title. By this time, he was gaining international recognition, and with The Bird People in China he started getting nominated for, and winning, festival awards. In 1999, he made the first of his popular Dead or Alive action comedies.
And in the midst of all that, he made Man, Next Natural Girl: 100 Nights in Yokohama, an obscure action-horror TV series adapted from a manga by Tetsuya Koshiba about a fighting schoolgirl. I haven’t seen it and I don’t know anyone who has. More widely available is Salaryman Kintaro, from the same year. In this one, a one-time gangster keeps a promise to his wife by going straight and trying to secure a normal future for his son. Unsurprisingly, shedding past habits is hard, especially when they come in handy even in the “normal” world. The movie is based on a manga of the same name by Hiroshi Motomiya, but the source material is richer than the adaptation, which is a kind of salaryman itself: tame, tedious and tepid.
Far more interesting is another TV series, the wonderfully named Multiple Personality Detective Psycho—Kazuhiko Amamiya Returns. Unlike Miike’s first series, you can actually find this one, and it’s as surreal as it sounds. Nominally a detective thriller, albeit one about a detective with multiple personalities, Miike manages to transfer the weird from the manga, which itself blasts off into sci-fi conspiracy territory. Written by Eijii Otsuka, illustrated by Shouu Tajima and published from 1996, the manga recently concluded in 2016, after 155 chapters. The film obviously lacks the manga’s scope, but it’s an effectively Miikean stab at what is the best manga Miike had adapted so far.
The year 2001 saw Miike return to a more old school mangaka, Hisao Maki, who adapted his own manga into a screenplay for Family (and its straight-to-video sequel, Family 2.) Both outings are familiar terrain for Miike, with yakuza killings spawning vengeance and mobster bloodshed, but the results of all the plotting and carnage are not especially memorable. Miike had seen better days, as had Maki, and its a mystery why the second movie was ever made.
Ichi the Killer
But worry not, because Miike more than made up for this misstep with three varied but excellent films in the same year: the fascinatingly perverse Visitor Q, the bizarre yet endearing Happiness of the Katakuris, and with the feature that out-did Fudoh in the extreme violence genre: the manga-adapted Ichi the Killer, from Hideo Yamamoto’s seinen series, Koroshiya Ichi, that ran from 1998 to 2001 in the weekly Young Sunday. The film follows Ichi, a psychologically complex (note: tortured) anti-hero who’s very good at killing people with martial arts and blade-enhanced shoes, as he confronts Kakihara, the sadistic gangster buddy of a murdered yakuza boss. Added to this is Jijii, the man who controls Ichi’s impulses and knows how to flip his kill switch. The cauldron bubbles, the violence flashes and slashes, and Kakihara’s sadism consumes the blossoming chaos to his increasing satisfaction but ever-present frustration. There is never enough. Soon it becomes clear that these two freaks of nature must meet, but with what result? Miike deftly charts their spiraling meeting, indulging in B-movie excess and black humor as well as astute characterization and thematic agility. It’s trash—but how it sparkles and burns! To some this is the Miike movie. I don’t know if I’d go that far, but it’s certainly a quintessential one, and its cult status is honestly earned.
So ends Part I. On a bloody high note.
Stay tuned for Part II.