Takashi Miike’s extreme ‘Dead or Alive’ trilogy on Amazon Prime

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

Takashi Miike 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, especially his gonzo gangster apocalypse Dead or Alive Trilogy.

The original Dead or Alive (Japan, 1999, R, with subtitles) is 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: Birds (Japan, 2000, not rated, with subtitles), 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, not rated, with subtitles) 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.

Add to watchlist:
Dead or Alive
Dead or Alive 2: Birds
Dead or Alive: Final

Also on Blu-ray and DVD from Arrow and on SVOD through Amazon Video, iTunes, GooglePlay and/or other services. Availability may vary by service.
Dead Or Alive Trilogy [DVD]
Dead Or Alive Trilogy [Blu-ray]

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Arrow releases the trilogy on 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.

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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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