Iron Attorneys and Singing Sukeban Girls: Two Films by Takashi Miike

Old-hat adjectives like prolific, violent, and extreme seem to always be bandied about when discussing the work of Takashi Miike. These terms have become literary shorthand to describe the man and his oeuvre, but with almost one hundred films to his name pigeonholing Miike as some sort of gonzo mad auteur walking on the razor’s edge of good taste ignores a large portion of the man’s family-friendly commercial fare that he’s been churning out since 2005’s The Great Yokai War. In fact, Miike’s career eschews closer to that of Classic Hollywood journeymen directors like Raoul Walsh or Howard Hawks, men who had prolific outputs, dabbled in a plethora of genres, but still retained an identifiable signature style in their work-for-hire assignments. Although Miike may not have to suffer the misfortune of being forced to work on projects against his will, the films he’s made, be they hit-or-miss with audiences, are products of the Japanese film industry, their money fueling Miike’s wildest dreams.

For 2012, Miike has taken a break from being a purveyor of extreme violence and embraced the bright colors and manic visual style of the musical and video games. The two films in question, Ace Attorney and For Love’s Sake, are not just straight adaptations or even rehashes of familiar genre conventions. With these two films, Miike assaults the audience with the inherent conventions that he is lampooning, 32-bit video games in Ace Attorney and the musical in For Love’s Sake, and though not completely successful in making something equal to his earlier masterpieces, they are nonetheless fascinating movies featuring some of the subversive qualities that Miike fans have loved about the his films. Whereas earlier films were designed to shock due to their subject matter and use of stomach churning imagery, this new batch plays more with audience expectations.

Be it for remakes (13 Assassins (2010) and Hara-Kiri: Death of a Samurai (2011)), superhero films, (Yatterman (2009)), the Western (Sukiyaki Western: Django (2007)), kids film (Ninja Kids!!! (2011)), or the high school melodrama, the Crows Zero films, whatever genre Miike dabbled in he always, for better or worse, added his unique stamp: the grungy violent work made by an attention-hungry auteur making way for the elder film statesman who unabashedly embraces the visual excesses of a Joel Schumacher or Baz Luhrmann.

A perfect example of this is evident with the first film Miike released in 2012, Ace Attorney, a film based on a series of popular Capcom video games. Wasting very little time in establishing any context to setting or place, the film thrusts us media res into a retro-futuristic Japan where the judicial system has been transformed into an Iron Chef-style spectacle in which prosecutors and defense attorneys do oratorical battle with each other for a maddening three days until a verdict is reached. As per the game, we follow the exploits of Phoenix Wright (Hiroki Narimiya), an inexperienced defense attorney straight out of a Frank Capra film, gaining experience points with each case he solves. The somewhat episodic plot quickly gets going though with the death of Phoenix’s mentor, Mia Fey (Rei Dan), which prompts our titular ace attorney to defend the killer who coincidentally enough happens to be the victim’s own sister, Maya Fey, played by Mirei Kiritani.

If that sort of plot twist hasn’t gotten your goat, then top it all off with spirit mediums, an inflatable tokusatsu Steel Samurai, a Nessie-like monster, possible patricide, and an endless roster of killers and fall-guys, all making the film’s 135-minute runtime a daunting task to get through. In fact, the film had about 3 proper narrative climaxes before the actual finale. Of course, that’s not to say that you won’t laugh or enjoy certain parts of the film, but after the umpteenth revelation about so-and-so’s past you become numb to it all.

However, even with all that said, Miike’s ability to play with the nuts and bolts that make up the cinematic frame are in top form. Having shot the film on online casino Super 35 and then augmenting it during post-production, Miike retains a very grainy look to Ace Attorney, mimicking the pixelated look of the original 32-bit game. Add to that a cast and sets that have a larger and louder than life feel plus a score by frequent Miike collaborator Koji Endo, who took the games original themes by Masakazu Sugimori and rearranged them to have more orchestral gravitas and what you get is not so much a film based on a video game, but rather something akin to that of a video game film.

Continuing on this thread of unabashed campiness, Miike’s next film in 2012 was the high school musical For Love’s Sake, a film which appropriates the gloss and polish of West Side Story (1961) to lampoon the overblown hormonally-charged romantic fantasies that are perpetuated ad nauseam by film, television, and literature. Adapted from a manga by Ikki Kajiwara and Takumi Nagayasu, the film appropriately opens with a hyper stylized anime sequence which begins with the blinding white light of freshly fallen snow followed by a rather kinetic chase sequence down a mountain slope. A woman’s voice informs us during this opening that what we are seeing is the innocent recollection of a little girl named Ai, played by Emi Takei, about to meet her first love, the scarred and truculent Makoto. He saves her that day from certain death on that mountain and like all knights in knitted armor he could care less about receiving any form of gratitude. In fact, he is positively repulsed by her “bourgeoisie” background and promptly leaves her in front of a house and then disappears into the cold white background.

Fast forward to 1972, the cute little girl at the beginning of the story has become a confident young woman and Makoto (Satoshi Tsumabuki), the angry little boy, has grown up to be an even angrier adult. Ai is drawn to Makoto and the symptoms of her love sickness have her continuously blathering on about her undying love for him and even going to Sisyphean lengths to be around him. Of course, try as she might, Ai is blind to the obvious rules of classic romantic stories: the rich girl can be beautiful, have a wonderful personality, the entire world may be her oyster, but God help her if she chooses to fall in love with someone below her station.

Not having read the original 70’s manga I can’t definitely state what was a directorial choice by Miike and which was part of the original work, but the atypical choice of having three distinct female archetypes who all upend the clichés of the rich brat, the girl next door, or sukeban tough girl help to elevate the film’s stature from merely being just pop-entertainment. Longstanding archetypically masculine and feminine labels are upended in this film. A perfect example of this is Ai herself who is a naïve, idealistic, rich girl, yet plays the aggressive suitor.  Meanwhile, Makoto, the hyper masculine male, has the distinction of being the object of desire, not just for Ai but for most of the young women in the film, an interesting reversal of the male gaze. Representing a Don Quixote-type character, Ai charges headlong at windmills in the form of Makoto.  And to make an even bolder leap, there is a very clear link between this film and Miike’s earlier 1999 film Audition (Odishon, 1999).

Though Miike’s earlier film is, in terms of style and atmosphere, miles apart from the bursts of color and un-ironic depictions of young love found in For Love’s Sake, both features have, at the center of the drama, a female protagonist that mimics helpless damsels, but in reality are far more malevolent in nature. Ai, whose intentions of rehabilitating Makoto, may make her actions far less “evil” compared to Asami (Eihi Shiina) in Miike’s Audition, but one can’t ignore the fact that, as a result of Ai’s actions,  Makoto must suffer.  As Ai states at the beginning of the film, “Love is not peace” and Mike carries this sentiment to its extreme.