For some directors 15 years isn't such a long period of time, for others it's like another universe entirely. Takashi Miike belongs firmly in the latter category. Travelling back 15 years in his oeuvre is like watching a different director at work, which is why I approached The City of Lost Souls [Hyoryuu-Gai] with the proper caution. It's one of those films I hadn't revisited in a long time and remembered very little about, safe some very specific moments.
The City of Lost Souls was part of the first batch of Miike films I watched. Back then Miike was making a name for himself by releasing hard to coin, low-budget films that had no regard for reigning film conventions. Whatever ideas he had he simply put into his films, regardless of the means he had to his disposal. And back then, Miike had some pretty wacky ideas, something that quickly becomes apparent while you're watching The City of Lost Souls.
The film is a great example of all the things that made Miike stand out back in the days. Crazy characters, lots of different nationalities, Yakuza influences, great drive and a couple of scenes that made no sense at all, but lifted the film well above the limitations of its modest means. When people talk about The City of Lost Souls you'll hear them go on about cock fights, helicopter jumps and a memorable game of ping pong. None of those are vital to the actual plot, but they are the moments people tend to remember.
The film follows Mario, a Brazilian criminal who needed to flee from his own country and ended up in Japan. Together with Kei, a Chinese stowaway, he tries to make things work in the underbelly of Tokyo. When he happens upon an underground drug transaction Mario sees a chance for a better life, but the Yakuza isn't just going to let him escape with their loot. Mario is once again knee-deep in trouble and escape is the only viable option to survive.
Like most older Miike films, the cinematography ranges from dynamic and fun to purely functional and ugly. There are moments that betray Miike's keen sense of style, but overall the visuals aged pretty badly. The CG is really below par, then again that's what you get when you do a martial arts/bullet time scene between two chickens on a shoe-string budget. Miike overreaches on several occasions, but it's really hard to fault him for it when it's exactly these moments that make his early films so much fun to watch.
The soundtrack is pretty uninspired, mostly stuff that roars on in the background. Miike's films have never really excelled in that department though, so it was only to be expected. What stands out the most is the variety of languages on display. The combination of (Brazilian) Portuguese, Chinese and Japanese makes for an exotic mix of sounds. It's a pet peeve I guess, but I always like watching this kind of blending of nationalities.
The acting too is quite mediocre. I guess I should be happy that Miike was able to attract Michelle Reis for the part of Kei, very often foreign roles are reserved for people they seemingly just pulled off the road. Teah does a pretty poor job as Mario, Marcio Rosario doesn't fare better as the TV show host. At least the Japanese cast is a bit better, with a good performance of Koji Kikkawa and fun cameos for Akaji Maro, Akira Emoto and Ren Osugi.
The main problem with a lot of these older Miike films is that they've been bested by Miike himself (and a couple of others directors) as time passed by. Back when they were first released they brought something new to the table. The fact that these films were limited by their budget was fine, because they offered something you couldn't find anywhere else. By now that typical crazy Miike stuff has been done with bigger budgets, nicer visuals and a better cast, making it harder to look past the sometimes crappy execution.
It doesn't ruin a film like The City of Lost Souls, but it does take away part of the appeal. There's still plenty of fun to be had with this film though. It's filled with weird characters, a strong dosage of cool and plenty of off-the-wall moments that show a complete and utter lack of respect for mainstream film conventions. It's all very enjoyable, but you have to cope with a mediocre cast, bad CG and some drastic pacing issues. It's clearly not for everyone and those that are looking for something out of the ordinary might do better to check out some more recent Miikes first, that said I still had a hell of a time with The City of Lost Souls.