I had 30 tabs of Losartan, an unopened bottle of acid reducer, a handful of melatonin, and three half-full bottles of e-liquid. The only thing that worried me was the e-liquid. Health Canada considers them unapproved nicotine delivery devices, and insists I get my nicotine fix from something with a longer history of safety, like cigarettes.
We flew over bat country at 10,000 feet, so that was not an issue. Poor hairy bastards can’t handle the thin atmosphere at 747 cruising altitude.
To cut the preliminaries short, skipping any mention of Newark’s carnitas tacos, I arrived in Montreal in time to pick up my press credentials with 15 minutes to spare, and had time for a much-needed shower before heading off to the night’s big event, a screening of Fantasia Lifetime Achievement Award winner Takashi Miike‘s As the Gods Will, with the director in attendance. It was the Fest’s first sell-out screening, and they weren’t kidding when they advised badge holders to get there forty-five minutes before the scheduled start. Arriving about forty minutes early, I walked past film fans lined up around the block to get the best seats in the SGWU Alumni Auditorium, which must have seated 500. Finding the end of the badgeholders line, which now curled anarchically well beyond the snaked red velvet ropes, I was slightly nervous that I might not make it in, but when the doors opened a few minutes later the ushers clicked me through and I found an excellent aisle seat on the upper tier.
Miike probably could not have dreamed of a more favorable audience before whom to screen As the Gods Will. The buzz from the seats was incredible before the show began, and Miike got a standing ovation when his name was announced. The mostly-Francophone audience howled with laughter at every gore set piece, spontaneously clapped along to a child’s ditty in the middle of the film (a fact Miike later commented on appreciatively), and applauded at the conclusion of every action sequence. Clearly, the audience came in with certain preconceived black comedy expectations. I’m not certain Miike intended every exploding head to be funny—sometimes, you blow out a teenager’s brains to try to bring a sense of urgency to the hero’s predicament. Still, the energy in the room when almost everyone in a huge audience treats the screening like a party is incredible and infectious. It’s a rare moviegoing experience, one that perhaps is not conducive to critical distance, but which nonetheless makes for a hell of a good time.
Thankfully, the film was up to the audience’s expectations. It’s fast-moving, well-written, gory, funny in spots, and looks fantastic. The spinning daruma doll who shoots laser beams from his eyeballs, giant ceramic cat in the gym, and the polar bear inquisitor won’t be forgotten anytime soon. The just-go-with-it premise posits that various archetypal Japanese figurines come to life and enact deadly games in high schools across the world, with the survivors moving on to the next round. Obviously, the protagonist, his love interest, and local psycho-bully antagonist keep advancing. The “figurines” I speak of are sometimes children’s toys, but more often they have a mixed meaning in Japanese culture; the daruma doll and “beckoning cat” figures have both decorative and pseudo-religious functions. Normally, they are thought to bring good fortune; here, they have turned on humanity, inventing deadly games with rules that must be discovered in order to stop the carnage. Hero Satake (Shôta Sometani) survives the trials via ingenious solutions to the “gods” riddles (some of which you may see coming, others of which will certainly surprise). It’s well-paced, so that the backstory that makes us care about the characters provides the slightest breather from the action sequences that are the main focus. Nothing fancy, but it gets the job done, and had the crowd howling.
Is it weird? Not very. The gore is plentiful and the creature designs are stunning, but this is not the utterly surreal Miike of Gozu, or the in-your-face transgressive Miike of Visitor Q, or the formally audacious Miike of Audition. As the Gods Will will sits comfortably on the shelf between Battle Royale and Miike’s own Great Yokai War. Your friends who are unacquainted with Japanese extremism may get a bit freaked out and call it “weird,” but most people with experience in this genre will see Gods as a superior fantasy effort, but not something that breaks new ground in strangeness.
Miike, looking friendly and comfortable and not as evil as I imagined him, took questions after the screening, answering through the hardest-working interpreter I’ve ever seen (seriously, this guy should win interpreting awards, the way he scribed Miike’s long answers shorthand, then translated them twice, first into flawless French and then into flawless English. I, on the other hand, could barely jot down and summarize the answers in a single language, much less comprehend and render them in three). Here is a summary of Miike’s responses:
- In his opening statements he said that the film was based on “games of his childhood” and that for this movie “it’s not important to think, but important to feel.”
- When asked if Gods was his “answer” to Kinji Fukasaku‘s Battle Royale, Miike was very complimentary to the elder director and stated that it was not his intention to try to surpass those who came before.
- The characters were each created by a different designer, most using CGI but one (the polar bear) done in stop-motion animation. Miike felt that this procedure produced more interesting personalities. He praised the voice cast, which he says were drawn from comedians, “idols” and Akira Kurosawa veterans.
- Miike joked that he wanted primary school children to watch the film and was disappointed that they would not be allowed to.
- When asked what genre he would work in if he were only allowed to make one more film, Miike answered that he doesn’t work in genres: there is “sadness in comedies, violence in family movies.”
- His current project is a Japanese TV drama starring girls aged three to eight.
- He doesn’t mind that he doesn’t always have control of what budget he will be given and who will be cast; he makes the best movie he can with the resources he is given. He never thinks about whether the movie will be profitable.
- Some of the movie’s scenes were based on the manga the script was adapted from; the ending was thought up by Miike.
- The question was in French and I couldn’t understand it, but from Miike’s answer (“it’s a bad habit, it gives the impression there will be one”) I assume an audience member asked him about the possibility of a sequel.
- Asked whether a particular character was intended to represent him as the director, Miike didn’t dismiss the theory directly but instead spoke about the Japanese concept of gods as being in nature and in all creatures (“God could be in a wave, or in trees”) and invited the audience to visit Japan “and spend a lot of money.”
- I was wondering if I should ask a question when someone in the front row asked something similar to what I was thinking: “How important is Japanese culture to you, and could you translate your style to Hollywood?” Miike’s intriguing answer was that he has talked with Hollywood studios before and contacts were ongoing, but he always had conditions: he wanted to use Japanese staff, have all the European or American actors fly to Japan to film their scenes, and wants to reserve certain rights. He said his demands are very high and have been refused so far but “things are changing” and “if they are willing I would work with them.” He also said that if Hollywood had come calling when he was 30 years old, he probably would have left Japan.
- Asked what his children think of his films Miike said they were all adults now and understood him. He said the real problem was his mother, now in her 80s. Miike joked that she once invited her friends out to see Ichi the Killer and he was “scolded severely.”
- Ended his comments by complimenting the festival; he implied that his movies weren’t always as well received in Japan as he would like, but as long as they did well at Fantasia, that was good enough for him.
On to tomorrow’s screenings, which feature a pair of outright horror films.