Blu-ray: Miike Takashi’s extreme crime trilogies on Arrow

Riki Takeuchi and Sho Aikawa in Miike Takashi's Dead or Alive trilogy

Miike Takashi made his reputation as Japan’s gonzo gun-for-hire, a genre madman who pumped manic energy and wild style into films he pushed to the extremes in every way, from violence to surreal twists. He once described himself as “an arranger, not an author.” Taking a cue from one of his own film titles, I like to think of him as a cinematic agitator. Working largely within the confines of traditional genres (mostly gangster and action pictures), he’s the unstable element introduced into the studio formula. His films can erupt at any time, and they usually do.

Arrow

Arrow has release two trilogies of Miike’s crime films by, beginning with his breakout The Black Society Trilogy (Arrow, Blu-ray, DVD).

After an apprenticeship as assistant director to, among others, Imamura Shohei (on the film Black Rain, 1989), Miike made the leap to directing in the V-cinema (direct-to-video) industry, the Japanese equivalent of the B-movie training ground of old Hollywood, in 1991. Four years later he made the leap to the big screen in Shinjuku Triad Society (Japan, 1995), his debut theatrical feature. It’s a violent and energetic gangster thriller about merciless Tokyo cop who stalks a brutal Taiwanese gangleader (Tomorowo Taguchi of Tetsuo the Iron Man) who has expanded his black market business in human organs to Japan and brought his Mandarin speaking gang. He discovers that his younger brother, who was studying to be a lawyer, is now working for his quarry. The brothers, Japanese orphans raised by Chinese parents, are outcasts in both societies, and that alienation defines the crime drama as much as the sadistic violence, predatory sex, and disturbing revelations of the donor pool, many of them children. More sober and deliberately paced film than the wild action thrillers that made Miike’s reputation, this dark underworld thriller is also less chaotic and explosive, but it has its share of Miike madness, like a gangster that refuses to die despite multiple bullets to the torso, marching ahead with a mad, intense, blood-smeared grin on his face before curling up with a teenage hustler to die.

Rainy Dog (Japan, 1997) moves to Taiwan for the story of a yakuza foot soldier from Japan (Shô Aikawa) in exile in Taipei, where he survives as a freelance hitman for a local gangleader who proclaims “You’re like my son” with a glib smile. He’s “the lowest of the low,” living only for himself until he’s presented with a son he never knew and hooks up with a young prostitute. When the gangster betrays him and a price is put on his head, he suddenly becomes protective and sets off to save his instant family from retribution, but his escape ends at water’s edge and a day at the beach. Like so many of his films, it veers into surreal territory, like when his son finds a motorcycle buried in the sand and they dig it out and, astoundingly, it not only runs but has enough gas left in the tank for a romantic spin down the beach.

In Ley Lines (Japan, 1999), three boys of mixed race (Chinese father, Japanese mother) try to escape from Japan and from the sadistic Tokyo crime boss they get mixed up with. There are no characters that cross over but all three films are about outcasts in the outskirts of society from broken families. They also feature perverse sexuality, brutal violence, vicious characters, and portraits of hopelessness playing out in slums and the ruins of devastated neighborhoods. Miike earned his reputation as a genre stylist but these film have a different kind of edge, strewn with issues of betrayal and abandonment and suffused with a feeling of alienation. All three films feature a clash of cultures and a mix of Japanese and Mandarin languages (the two languages are differentiated in the subtitles, with one of them set off in italics).

On DVD and Blu-ray (each set featuring two discs), mastered from new HD digital transfers, in Japanese with English subtitles. These were shot quickly and cheaply and show their origins in the imagery, but they have been newly mastered for disc. Features commentary on all three films by Miike biographer Tom Mes and new video interviews with director Takashi Miike and actor Shô Aikawa.

Arrow

Dead or Alive Trilogy (Arrow, Blu-ray, DVD) is gonzo gangster apocalypse pushed to the limits. The original Dead or Alive (Japan, 1999) came out the same year as Ley Lines (he has seven films to his name in 1999, and that’s not even his most prolific year!) but it’s a very different kind of crime madness and is one of the films that made his international reputation. Riki Takeuchi is a small-time hood in a black leather duster, dark glasses, and retro pompadour who tries to muscle in on the Tokyo heroin trade with a first strike on the mob. The furious opening montage could be a film all its own: mob hits, heists, strip shows, sodomy assassination, and the gut-busting murder of a noodle-gobbling thug who spills his fresh meal on the floor with a disgusting splat, all set to a throbbing rock beat. Miike keeps up the pace and audacity, if not the level of energy and invention, in a story of tit-for-tat revenge killings that leaves everyone connected with Takeuchi, the mob, and tough cop Shô Aikawa dead from often unspeakably transgressive assaults. Miike whips the usual tired Yakuza clichés into a brutal, bloody meringue, and he delivers the cherry on top in a finale of giddy apocalyptic inspiration. It’s all about creative mayhem and violent chaos and Miike pushes past all notions of taste and logic to deliver.

It’s not the story that makes this a trilogy, it’s the combatants. Takeuchi and Aikawa return in the subsequent features playing different characters. In Dead or Alive 2 (Japan, 2000), Aikawa is a mob assassin who discovers that his rival (Takeuchi, of course) is his childhood best buddy, and they team-up to take on the gangsters they once worked for. Tetsuo director/star Shinyu Tsukamoto has a bit part as a magician, and this is a film filled with magic, or at least unhinged surrealism: Aikawa and Takeuchi have a habit of sprouting wings. Dead or Alive: Final (Japan, 2002) leaps 300 years into a dystopian Blade Runner-esque future with a sun-blanched palette and a milky yellow sky that glows a pale perpetual day. Aikawa is a “replicant,” an engineered soldier leftover from that last war, who joins the rebellion against a maniacal Mayor who forces a birth control/mind control film on the enslaved populace, and Takeuchi is the tough militia cop in dark glasses and a reversible jacket (which he routinely reverses to take care of business). Their climactic collision is unlike any action film clash you’ve ever seen. They’re not really satisfying in any narrative sense (they, in fact, make no sense), but they keep exploding in bizarre flights of audacity that have made Miike’s reputation

Blu-ray (two discs) and DVD (three discs), mastered from new HD digital transfers, in Japanese with English subtitles. Features new commentary for Dead or Alive by Miike biographer Tom Mes and new video interviews with actors Riki Takeuchi and Shô Aikawa and producer and screenwriter Toshiki Kimura. Carried over from previous DVD releases are archival cast and crew interviews and making-of featurettes for Dead or Alive 2: Birds and Dead or Alive: Final (in Japanese with subtitles).

The first pressings of each of these sets includes illustrated collector’s booklets.
Black Society Trilogy [DVD]
Black Society Trilogy [Blu-ray]
Dead Or Alive Trilogy [DVD]
Dead Or Alive Trilogy [Blu-ray]

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About Sean Axmaker

Sean Axmaker is a Seattle film critic and writer. He writes the weekly newspaper column Stream On Demand and the companion website, and his work appears in Vulture, Turner Classic Movies online, Keyframe, and Parallax View.

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