I don't know if Japan's recent resurgence as an international film juggernaut is due to Takashi Miike or if Miike just happend to come around at just the right time, but I don't think there's any doubt that the two of them needed each other in order to make it. Things were starting to get interesting in Japanese cinema in the mid-90s and new talent was starting to emerge from the Japanese film industry. Beyond Miike, the likes of Sabu (THE BLESSING BELL; DRIVE), the great Kiyoshi Kurosawa (CURE; PULSE and DOPPLEGANGER), Susuke Kaneko (the GAMERA trilogy, DEATH NOTE), and Hideo Nakata (RINGU) emerged, while masters such as Kinji Fukasaku (BATTLE ROYALE) and Yôji Yamada (THE TWILIGHT SAMUARI) came back with new classics. It's exciting time in Japanese cinema (as it is in all Asian cinema), but without Miike it would unquestionably be a lot less so, no matter what you think of the guy. Some people absolutely hate him: A friend of mine, editor at a major genre publication, absolutely refuses to see any more of his films, though he loved AUDITION, "until the last 15 minutes" (I'm gonna let that comment stand), and there are certainly a number of respectable critics who don't get what he does, which is fine. His films are certainly not for everyone and the provocative nature of what he does easily puts him in the "love him or hate him" camp. Add to that the appeal that many of his films have to the fanboy community, who are more interested in the sex and violence and outrageous comedy in his films than any of their social commentary or avant-garde nature, has labeled him as a "cult" director when he really is something more than that.
Miike is famous for being so damn prolific (usually making 4 or 5 films a year for the last decade) but what's even more impressive about him is that most of these films are actually pretty good. He's able to cross genres with surprising ease and as offbeat as all his pictures are, there's also some strange sort of focus to his work, like we're inhabiting a Miike universe and have to leave any and all preconceived notions of what a film is and just trust him (as it should be with any filmmaker). Usually a director for hire, Miike usually leads us to terrifying and weird places, but he can also leads us to happy places, like he does in 2002's SHANGRI-LA, actually one of Miike's sedate and commercial pieces, and yet also one of his best. It was screened at the 2003 Fantasia Film Festival and hasn't been seen anyplace since, which I find odd considering Miike's popularity with festival programmers. In fact, as far as I know, no U.S. fest has touched this wonderful and charming little film, and if they'd like to show them something that people will genuinely like - or if some theater would like to pony up the dough to host the official Headquarters 10 "Forgotten Movies Festival" (I'm available) - then this is a perfect title to show. SHANGRI-LA is the Miike film for those who don't like Miike films; it's sweet and funny and it puts a smile on your face. You sure as hell can't say that about VISITOR Q now, can you?
SHANGRI-LA is a nice, quaint little comedy about resourceful homeless people who help out a man who is about to lose his life and business. Now, I know what you're thinking: This movie sounds like a giant turd. And if it were directed by the Japanese equivalent of Stephen Herek then it certainly would be. But Miike is a smart director and in his hands the material never feels cloying or superficial. It has the right amount of charm and whimsy and the laughs are plentiful. When this kind of thing is done right (and it's done right here) it works and SHANGRI-LA really works. More so, Miike seems to channeling the spirit of the great Ealing Studios, because it has this wonderfully breezy feel about it, gently gliding from one scene to another with a sense of confidence and ease about it that few comedies have these days. Miike makes it clear that the down on their luck situation that everyone finds themselves in is no fault of their own (the film's subtitle in Japan is JAPAN GOES BANKRUPT); the people who populate this film are all resourceful, all honorable and all worthy of better things in life. If I didn't know any better I would say that Miike actually cared about these people, you know? The offbeat humor of Miike's past works is still present, just toned down and more-family friendly but using that great comic timing that Miike possesses. His secret weapon here is his regular star Shô Aikawa (from the DEAD OR ALIVE series and ZEBRAMAN) whose assuredly dry and deadpan characterization of the homeless community's "mayor". In a film where the balance could tip from clever into the dreaded cute, you need someone who is going to keep it smart and continue to give it all an edge, and Aikawa is the right man for the job. He elicits many a giggle and also reminds you that it is indeed a Miike film, because no other director would let Aikawa run with the role like this, and yet it all stays on track and yet never gets weird. This is the one Takashi Miike movie you could show to your grandmother.
Like with most of The Forgotten Movies, SHANGRI-LA is not currently available in the U.S. (surprisingly, considering how many Miike films get picked up here) and I've never come across a fan-subtitled bootleg. But considering it's Miike, I suspect that this one will turn up eventually, and when it does I think it's going to surprise and delight a lot of people. When people talk about why they like Takaski Miike they almost always site AUDITION or ICHI THE KILLER, but for me it's THE HAPPINESS OF THE KATAKURIS and this. I tell ya, the guy is full of surprises.