Prolific as always, Takashi Miike released four feature length films in 1999, in addition to working in TV and video. Dead or Alive (DEAD OR ALIVE 犯罪者, Dead or Alive: Hanzaisha) came out within the same year as Miike’s seminal Audition and though it is the latter which has gone on to define his reputation, the Dead or Alive Trilogy is equally responsible for the director’s ongoing popularity. Following the Black Society Trilogy the finale of which, Ley Lines, was also released in 1999, Dead or Alive returns to the world of orphaned exiles and Chinese gangsters, men looking for family in all the wrong places and finding only loneliness, rage, and disappointment. Criminal or cop, everyone is looking for the same old thing but for one reason or another it continually evades their grasp.
Late ‘90s, Shinjuku night life. Miike captures all of its sordid glory in a wordlessly frenetic opening sequence which begins with a naked woman falling off a building and ends with the exploding belly of a noodle loving Triad. The Shinjuku gang scene is a large and complex one but this tiny corner is about to be torn apart by the opposing forces of petty Chinese gangster Ryuichi (Riki Takeuchi) and veteran policeman Jojima (Sho Aikawa).
A little later, the major antagonist – yakuza boss Aoki (Renji Ishibashi), asks a drugged up woman he’s immersed in a pool of her own excrement he himself extricated by means of a series of enemas if she’s high or if she’s come down. Drugs are always on the periphery from the bag in the hands of the falling woman to the deluded hopes and dreams of everyone who’s had the misfortune to find themselves here but Miike takes things one step further and structures his film like the inverted bell curve of a strange trip. The relentless pace of the opening sequence with its constant noodle refills, cocaine excess, and eventual bathroom sex and murder combo gradually winds down giving way to the comfortably numb central section in which Jojima and Ryuichi mirror and circle each other in the murky Shinjuku streets but, as he often does, Miike refuels for an angry, increasingly bizarre final sequence as two men whose quests have cost them everything they were fighting to protect prepare to burn the world rather than see the other live another day.
Ryuichi, like many a gangster hero, is an orphan. His major motivation is a desire to protect his delicate younger brother whom he has sent abroad to study in the hope that he will be catapulted into a successful middle class life while Ryuichi takes over the criminal underworld. Toji (Michisuke Kashiwaya) has returned, but such close proximity to his brother’s darkness may have destabilising consequences for both of them. Ryuichi’s “family” is a constructed one made of other similarly lost or discarded kids of Chinese descent, all looking for a home when neither of the two which present themselves is willing to offer them full acceptance but there is no unconditional love here, betrayal is an easily applied judgement met with a harsh and irreversible punishment.
Even if Ryuichi’s world is cold, Jojima’s may be colder. Despite his wife’s pleas he sleeps on the sofa and seems to have a difficult, strained relationship with the family his life is founded on protecting. Jojima’s reasons for continuing to avoid his marital bed are unclear whether from simple consideration of his strange policeman’s hours or the hushed phone call his wife receives which suggests she may be seeking comfort outside the home, but the one thing which is clear is that this is a family already deeply fractured. Adding to the strain, Jojima’s daughter is seriously ill and his wife has worked out that they will need an enormous amount of money for her treatment. Jojima continues to proclaim that he is “working on it” and will find the money somewhere, reacting angrily to his wife’s desperate suggestion of asking her family for a loan. Wanting to save his daughter himself, he ventures ever deeper into the criminal underworld, crossing the line from law enforcer to law breaker.
Miike operates a tightly controlled approach to pacing after the frenetic opening, slowing right down before exploding in a flurry of gun fire for the climactic shootout (flying chicken feathers and all) and then taking a break until the bonkers finale with its self amputations, mysterious bazookas and strange power orbs. Dead or alive, these are men living in a furious purgatory each denied the very thing they’ve been searching for, but in the end they mirror each other, locked in a vicious cycle of rage and violence which threatens to engulf us all.
Out now in the UK from Arrow Video!
Original trailer (English subtitles)