I had a little bit of time over the weekend in Japan, so I hopped on my bike - a quaint mama chari – and rode off to Shinyurigaoka to check out Miike Takashi’s most recent film, Yatterman. I have an article coming out soon on Miike, so I wanted to see what was up.
There’s a lot that could be said about the film, which as a whole was not that great in my opinion, but it did pose some interesting questions about authorship.
First, this is not a gross-out, excessively violent film like those Miike is “known” for. Heck, half the audience was about 10-years old. Yatterman is based on a famous 1970s anime that was more a gag cartoon than a robo-action piece; it was kind of notorious for having the villains explode at the end of each episode in a mushroom cloud shaped like a skull (Murakami Takashi has quoted that in his paintings). Miike said in the program that he tried to remain faithful to the original, so while some who don’t know the anime might find characters suddenly breaking out in a dance or cartoon-like figures inexplicably bursting forth (like a pig on a palm tree) a sign of Miike-like excess reminiscent of The Happiness of the Katakuris, these are mostly just recreating what was in the original. The movie in many ways is so much like the anime that it might be a bit confusing to those who know nothing of the original. So one wonders: what then is “Miike” about this film? And: why is this question even important?
Sure, one could find certain Miike themes such as the family unit, mixed identities (in Shoko’s father battling with the god of thieves), and especially the lack of a center. The latter is most prominent, because there is definitely no central character here, a characteristic the film arguably develops further than the original. While Gan and Ai should be the heroes, it is clear the film has little concern with the former (played by Sakurai Sho, a member of Arashi alongside Letters from Iwo Jima’s Ninomiya Kazunari), and instead concentrates on the women around him, particularly the love quadrilateral composed of him, Ai, Shoko, and Doronjo. In fact, one could argue that the film is more entranced with the “evil” Doronjo and her crew than with the good guys. Fukuda Kyoko (who played the idol singer in Kitano’s Dolls) is lovingly wrapped in dominatrix attire and fetishistically caressed by the camera (there’s even a somewhat long, perverse extreme close-up of soap bubbles popping on her teeny toes manicured with skulls!). One tends to sympathize more with her henchman Boyacky, secretly in love with his mistress, than with Gan, who ignores her love entreaties.
So is this SM fetishism, beyond the reach of the kiddies in the audience, the sign of Miike? At its extreme is the battle between the Yatterwan robot and Doronjo’s Virgin Roader – decked out with enormous breasts – which is more violent sex (the Roader even yells out “I’m coming!” in English as Yatterwan deliciously drools oil from his chops) than juvenile justice in action. The film does self-consciously joke about this at the end, when Shoko tries to politely thank Ai by calling her “2-go-san.” While Ai’s superhero role may be “Yatterman 2-go” ("Yatterman No. 2"), Ai rightly objects to being called “2-go-san” since that more often refers to a man's mistress in Japanese. The adults in the audience all laughed, but the kids were silent. Shoko too was confused, so her father commented that this was something for adults to understand.
The anime had a mildly sexy tone to it as well, but this goes much further. Am I the only to think that the Yatterman logo resembles a pair of underpants? Is that then what is “Miike” about this film? Perhaps, but what then is the point of looking for this quality? Is it for those who, disappointed in a film that is closer to 1970s anime than Ichi the Killer, desire a surplus value for the price of admission? But how is this different from the otaku pleasure of identifying what is true to the original and what is not, thus confirming their identity through re-establishing their knowledge? Does auteurism fundamentally revolve around such desires?
The film begins with a battle between Yatterwan and Daidokoron that takes place in a place called “Shibuyama” that is clearly Shibuya to anyone who's been there. That scene and the film itself is filled with such slight deviations from a known name or narrative. Is Miike then only the “ma” added to a known convention “Shibuya” – a supplement that doesn’t fundamentally change the original base? One that allows us to recognize the original while also enjoying the slight excess, pleasurable only in its self-conscious relation to a solid convention? Or is there something more subversive going on? Is this a new Miike different from the old? Or is Miike himself hard to categorize this way, being the playfulness that resides neither in the original nor in the excessive result - neither in Yatterman nor the more "Miike-like" Ichi the Killer? Just why are we even asking these questions, or even care who Miike is?
Yatterman made me think about these things, even as I stared lovingly at those bubbles popping on Doronjo’s tiny toes.