Hey everyone. Capone in Montreal here, once again covering a few days in the life of this year’s Fantasia International Film Festival. Today I'm going to focus on a pair of new films from the master, Takashi Miike, one of the directors that changed my concepts of what was possible and acceptable in the modern movie landscape. I actually had a chance to sit down and talk with him (check that one off the list) prior to seeing these films, and I’ll present that as soon as I can figure out what his interpreter was saying during the conversation. In the mean time…
I’ve seen my fair share of movies about the earth tapping out its natural resources, becoming overpopulated, or poisoning the planet to such a degree that the only way the human species can survive is to move to another planet. And now the great Takashi Miike (AUDITION, ICHI THE KILLER, VISITOR Q, 13 ASSASSINS, YAKUZA APOCALYPSE) has jumped into this science-fiction sub-genre with TERRAFORMARS, a film that knowingly and gleefully borrows from handful of great sci-fi classic and twists them into Miike’s own, unique, warped vision.
The general concept here (adapted by Kazuki Nakashima from a popular manga by Yu Sasuga and Kenichi Tachibana) is that scientists in this century, foreseeing the trouble humans would have surviving on earth a few hundred years down the road, launched a ridiculous amount of moss and cockroaches (because they can survive in just about any conditions) to the surface of Mars, with the hopes that this plant-and-animal combination would organically terraform the planet to the point where humans could populate it 500 years later. I can’t believe no one else has thought of this.
At the top of the film is a sequence that is lifted so directly out of a couple moments in BLADE RUNNER, Ridley Scott should start filing papers, but the moment got one of the biggest laughs our of the crowd I saw it with, and I’m sure Miike is well aware of the devotion to the films he’s borrowing from. There are blatant and somewhat subtle callbacks to films like ALIEN, JOHN CARTER, and STARSHIP TROOPERS; hell, even the space suits our heroes wear to Mars look like helmet-less Stormtrooper armor.
In a set up that sounds a lot like SUICIDE SQUAD or any other film in which people recruit bad guys to go on a dangerous mission that other people won’t or can’t, the authorities pick up accused murderers Shokichi (Hideaki Itô) and his sister Nanao (Emi Takei) to round out the mission team, which includes terrorist, yakuza members, psychotics, and other general loners, scumbags and thugs. Each person who takes part in this mission will get a full pardon and a boatload of cash. The mission is being spearheaded by the eccentric scientist Honda (Shun Oguri), who seems to care more about whether his jacket is flashy enough and has a stupid haircut like the singer from The Human League). And while he’s making big promises to the team members, it’s kind of obvious he’s a big fat liar.
Upon the team’s arrival to Mars, they discover about the worst possible thing that they can. While the surface air is, in fact, breathable, and acres upon acres of land are green and mossy, it turns out that the cockroaches have evolved rapidly and now take the form of musclebound, humanoid creatures that can pop your head off with a single punch. As if somehow anticipating them turn of events, Honda has injected each team member with the DNA of different deadly bugs. When they inject an “activator” drug into their system, they temporarily transform into a human-bug hybird and are usually able to kill a few roaches before turning human again. They can do this over and over, but they are warned that doing it too much could have unwanted side-effects, like never turning human again.
And so the second half of this nearly two-hour film is bugs vs. buggie humans. Head are lopped off, bodies are torn in two, red human blood and white bug goo slosh around on the surface of Mars, making a big mess. A whole lot of the crew get killed almost indiscriminately, some before we even get to know them. Miike also peppers in backstories for some of the team members, showing us exactly how they ended up on the wrong side of the law, making us care something for them before he has them eviscerated. It’s the stuff that large-scale Miike films are made. The effects are passable but not great; the cockroach creatures bear an uncanny resemblance to The Tick, but with shit-brown, shell-like skin.
At a certain point, it becomes clear that there are too many roaches to defeat, so the surviving team members attempt to get just return to earth and collect their cash. But the surprises don’t stop with human-sized bugs, and getting home will not be an easy task, especially when it doesn’t seem like anyone wants you to return. You almost can’t compare Miike’s films to that of other filmmakers. He works on a different plain, using a different part of his brain from other directors. And sometimes his ambition and vision overshoot his budget, but considering the sheer volume of effects shots in TERRAFORMARS, the work is still remarkably competent. I also liked seeing some familiar faces among the cast, including the great Rinko Kikuchi (PACIFIC RIM, KUMIKO, THE TREASURE HUNTER, 47 RONIN) and the fiery Rila Fukushima, who plays Katana on “Arrow,” Yukio in THE WOLVERINE, and has a sizable role in the upcoming live-action GHOST IN THE SHELL.
Takashi Miike is a director with several compelling aesthetics at his disposal. He can get introspective and quiet with the the best of them, he can be playful and freaky (you all owe it to yourself to see THE HAPPINESS OF THE KATAKURIS), he can be terrifying and bloody, and he can be outright vulgar. TERRAFORMARS is Miike in his gung-ho, over-the-top, effects-heavy mode. Action sequences are a bit tedious and overlong, and characters spend more time posing than fighting at times. But then he has a fist go through a head, and everything seems right and good again.
One of Miike’s trademarks is overindulgence, and if you can stand a little bit of that, then TERRAFORMARS should sit quite nicely in your comfort zone. It’s also a complete gooey mess—another Miike staple. Even if it’s not one of the director’s finest works, I promise you, you haven’t and won’t see anything like it being released by an American distributor in this or any other year. I can’t underscore how important that is.
AS THE GODS WILL
Giving audiences his take on gaming culture, reality shows, and the BATTLE ROYALE phenomenon, director Takashi Miike's 2014 feature AS THE GODS WILL is positively ludicrous and shockingly entertaining, as we once again are treated to high school students fighting for their lives in a series of very silly and old-fashioned competitions that rely on intelligence, athleticism, imagination, and a whole lot of luck.
The film begins with one of the great movie openings in recent memory, as a classroom full of students is terrorized by a sadistic daruma doll, which turns it’s eyes from the student momentary, but when he brings them back to them, if any are caught moving, he makes their heads explode, which, not surprisingly, causes something a chain reaction of exploding heads as people react. The final student standing is Shun Takahata (Sôta Fukushi) in this first of many tests, and when he finally escapes the classroom, he meets up with his long-time crush Ichika (Hirona Yamazaki), and the two enter their school gym only to be met by other survivors dressed in mouse costume being tormented by a gigantic good-luck cat. Each new torment has a way out, but every one results in some number of students being killed.
The only other student from their school to survive is Amaya (Ryûnosuke Kamiki), a violently psychotic boy who seems to have an affection for Takahata and sees them as partners in crime, surviving this game together. The deep question of AS THE GODS WILL (not surprisingly based on a popular manga, and adapted by Hiroyuki Yatsu, Muneyuki Kaneshiro, and Akeji Fujimura) is who is bringing these demented toys to life, and what is the end game? Neither question is answered quite satisfactorily, and that’s actually is for the best, since any attempt at making sense of a Miike film this insane would be fruitless.
When giant white cubes appear over most major cities, the fear is that it’s some sort of alien invasion, but as the movie’s title might clue you into, there are greater forces at work or at least minds creating these games that have the power to animate a quartet of scheming kokeshi dolls or a massive snowboarding polar bear (who plays a lengthy game of “Tell the Truth or Be Stomped” with the few remaining players), or a fearsome set of nesting dolls that host a life-or-death “Kick the Can” challenge.
Miike attempts to let the story get deep, especially when it comes to Takahata, who is dealing with a great amount of self-doubt. He and Ichika are reunited with a junior high friend, who was bullied and almost killed herself were it not for Takahata’s kind words. But seeing her again dredges up dark feeling Takahata felt about himself at the time, and thinking about these things puts him in constant danger of losing focus. But the truth is, it’s really tough as an audience member to care about personal turmoil when you know something batshit crazy is right around the corner, and that’s all you can think about.
In so many ways, you can almost sense that the filmmaker is coming up with one wacky idea after another just to keep his audience on their toes, and you know what? It totally works. In many ways, the style of the special effects resembles the minimalistic animation style of THE LEGO MOVIE, only in AS THE GODS WILL, Miike uses different toys with wildly different intentions. As is the custom, the acting begins at heightened and only gets bigger, and occasionally that results is sequences being dragged out for far too long because characters won’t stop screaming at each other instead of trying to win the game.
Despite it’s deep and many flaws, I can’t remember the last time I had such a visceral reaction to a film. I was laughing almost the whole way through, and more importantly, I was eager to see what the filmmaker and his team of regular special effects and art direction came up with for each new chapter of the film. When the kokeshi dolls sing their terrible nursery rhyme, you want to sing right along. The competitions are staged so skillfully that each one feels like its own suspense film, in wildly creative settings, each with a different tone and atmosphere. I’ll say this about every Miike film, and it certainly applies with AS THE GODS WILL: it’s not for everybody, but if your tendencies lean toward the extreme, this one is for you.