My first film at Fantasia in 2013 was Takashi Miike’s Shield of Straw, one of the director’s contribution to the festival. Miike is a known workhorse, directing sometimes three films per year, in a myriad of genres and styles. Yet, there seems to be a connecting thread through his films, which feels harder to ascertain for me than for Western directors. For now, let’s say that this thread is subversion. Shield of Straw doesn’t shy away from it. In the film, a police officer, battling with his own demons and reservations about his mission, has to escort a pedophile responsible for the death of a young girl to Tokyo while the girl’s grandfather offers a ransom of one billion yen for his murder.
It’s a common narrative device, and we’ve seen it before in films like S.W.A.T. (Clark Johnson, 2003) or Smoking Aces (Joe Carnahan, 2006). It’s even been used by Sam Peckinpah in Bring me the Head of Alfredo Garcia (1974). Miike makes it his own by using theatrical and Brechtian devices to co-opt the story: awkward silences, quirky situations, melodramatic acting, a penchant towards machismo—which proved more interesting in his second film at the festival, Lesson of the Evil, a style a long-running time (which here proves hurtful to the film), sadistic morality and/or a stray from conventional norms, a showdown ending, etc. It’s easy to see here why the film wasn’t well received at Cannes: it’s a bare-boned thriller, both narratively and emotionally, and it’s hard to like if considered outside of Miike’s filmography. Some festival goers commented after the screening that Miike had lost his touch, his eye or whatever euphemism was used; in reality, Miike has always been consistent in his style, eclecticism and subject matter. It’s easy to like his samurai films because they stay very close to the genre and his sensibilities are influenced by those old films, but it would be unfair to disregard his more commercial films and conclude that he’s diluted his talents. What disturbs the cinephile public may be how difficult it is to pigeonhole him into anything: he’s a moving target.
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Seeing Lesson of the Evil so close to Shield of Straw’s projection exacerbates the contrast that exists in Miike’s oeuvre. It is a serial killer horror piece told from the point-of view of the killer. Compared to Lesson of the Evil, Shield of Straw looks amateurish, as if directed by a newbie director. In the film, a well-liked high-school teacher turns out to be psychotic, striving to creatively eliminate anyone he perceives as a threat.
Lesson of the Evil is controlled, mechanical, sadistic and raw; it succeeds in evoking very strong emotions in its viewers. The themes are different than Shield of Straw, yet the machismo is there, the sadism also, the running time, the showdown ending (which really tests the audience’s endurance with a bloody, drawn-out school shooting, including heavy child casualties), but it adds Miike’s playful use of English, visible in the film’s ridiculous title, while subtracting the theatricality the director’s known for. Lesson of the Evil is more interesting than Shield of Straw, one of Miike’s best films and certainly one of the festival’s best this year, but Shield of Straw, with all its imperfections, fits in perfectly in Miike’s list of films.
More info on IMDB