First Love (初恋, Takashi Miike, 2019)

First love poster 1Taking a deep dive into Showa era nostalgia repurposed for the modern era, Takashi Miike returns to the world of jitsuroku excess with an ironic tale of honour and humanity. Quite literally all about the jingi, First Love (初恋. Hatsukoi) takes a pair of exiled loners betrayed by the older generation, and allows them to escape their sense of futility through simple human connection while the nihilistic gangster underworld slowly implodes all around them.

Sullen boxer Leo (Masataka Kubota) is so filled with ennui that nothing really excites him, not even success in the ring. An unexpected KO, however, sends him off to the doctor’s where he is told that he has a possibly inoperable brain tumour and very little time left to live. That is perhaps why he decides to punch a policeman in defence of a young woman running away and desperately pleading for help. Yuri (Sakurako Konishi), known as “Monica” to her captors, was sold to the yakuza by her father and has since become dependent on drugs. Little known to either Leo or Yuri, they are about to become embroiled in a long brewing turf war between the local yakuza and the Chinese Triads engineered by jaded underling Kase (Shota Sometani) who has enlisted rogue policeman Ohtomo (Nao Omori) to help in a plan to steal his gang’s drug supply and have Ohtomo sell it on in the same way he does with “confiscated” narcotics while blaming the whole thing on the Chinese.

Abandoned at birth, Leo is a man who doesn’t know his history and so doesn’t know himself. He tells a reporter that there is no particular reason that he boxes save that he doesn’t know how to do anything else, yet the fighter’s all that remains and “boxer” has become his entire identity. A passing fortune teller advises him that he loses because he only fights for himself and if he truly wants to win he needs to learn to fight for someone else, but Leo is used to being alone and believes he has no need of other people. Knowing he’s going to die means, paradoxically, that he has infinite potential because he has nothing left to lose.

Leo punching out the policeman reawakens in Yuri a memory of her “first love”, a high school classmate who tried to defend her against her abusive father whose ghost still haunts her in drug-fuelled hallucinations. The ultimate proof of the yakuza’s ironic lack of “jingi” or “honour and humanity” when it comes to the treatment of women, Yuri was betrayed first by her father and then by the petty street thug who got her hooked on drugs as a means of control and exploited her body for financial gain.

Ironically enough, it’s a Chinese Triad who proves the ultimate heir to “jingi” having come to Japan because of her love for classic Toei gangster hero Ken Takakura only to discover that kind of nobility is something you only see in the movies. While the yakuza lament that they’re at a disadvantage fighting the Chinese because they don’t need to worry about “honour” as dictated by their code, they are quick enough to scream vengeance when Kase convinces them that it was the Triads who offed their street fixer (Takahiro Miura) to get back at recently released gangster Gondo (Seiyo Uchino) who is the reason that the Triad boss is nicknamed One-Armed-Wang. Gondo and Wang are already on a collision course as representatives of their respective ideologies with Gondo perhaps the last true yakuza standing, faithful to his code to the end.

Sensing his strong sense of jingi, the romantic Triad allows Leo to escape with Yuri as if recognising that neither of them belong in this nihilistic world of pointless and internecine violence. Despite proclaiming that he had no need of other people, it’s Leo’s humanity that eventually saves him as he realises that he was always going to die and rediscovers his true strength through fighting to protect someone else. Yuri, meanwhile, finds the will to live again in making peace with the past and laying old ghosts to rest thanks to Leo’s altruistic decision to protect her. Echoing Fukasaku’s classic crime cycle in its severed heads and funky ‘70s jazz score remixing the iconic theme tune, Miike ups the ante with a series of outlandishly idiosyncratic gags as Kase’s nefarious scheme snowballs into a darkly humorous crescendo of ridiculous brutality, but ultimately rejects the futility of a world without jingi in allowing his pure hearted heroes the possibility of escape, saved rather than consumed by their sense of honour and humanity.


First Love was screened as part of the 2019 BFI London Film Festival.

Original trailer (English subtitles)

Laplace’s Witch (ラプラスの魔女, Takashi Miike, 2018)

Laplace's Witch poster 2Takashi Miike, among Japan’s most prolific of directors, teams up with one of the nation’s most prolific authors, the often adapted Keigo Higashino, for a dose of scientific mystery in Laplace’s Witch (ラプラスの魔女, Laplace no Majo). Responsible for the international smash hit The Devotion of Suspect X and the Galileo series, Higashino too has worked across several genres ranging from the detective novels for which he is best known to children’s books and fantasy. Perhaps in contrast to the director, however, Higashino’s novels tend towards the socially conservative, occasionally cynical if at times perverse. Nevertheless, there is something a little ironic in Miike choosing to adapt this particular title which revolves around the idea of authenticity in art and meaningful legacy.

The unlikely hero of the tale, climate scientist Shusuke Aoe (Sho Sakurai), is called in to investigate the mysterious deaths of a film producer and an out of work actor who appear to have died of hydrogen sulphide poisoning at separate hot springs resorts. Dying of hydrogen sulphide poisoning outdoors is considered a scientific impossibility and Aoe has no real explanation for how it might have occurred but is stunned by policeman Nakaoka’s (Hiroshi Tamaki) assertions that foul play may have been involved.

Nakaoka is not exactly a bumbling policeman, but his certainties – born of policeman’s instinct, are held up for ridicule as he rapidly switches suspects, knee-jerk accusing the film producer’s widow of conspiracy to murder before deciding there must be more involved than a simple attempt at financial gain. He is however eventually correct, quickly figuring out the surprising connection between the two dead men is a famous film producer, Amakasu (Etsushi Toyokawa), who lost his own family in ironically similar tragic circumstances some years earlier and seems to have dropped off the radar ever since.

All of which means, Aoe’s scientific knowledge is increasingly irrelevant. His major contribution to the case at hand is in his strange friendship with a mysterious teenage girl who is engaged in her own missing persons case which may have some overlap with the murders. Aoe quickly notices that Madoka (Suzu Hirose) appears to have preternatural powers which she later alludes to in branding herself the “Laplace Demon” in honour of a scientific theory which suggests that if someone were to know the exact location of each and every atom in the universe then it would be perfectly possible to calculate their courses and trajectories with mathematical certainty and thereby possess absolute knowledge of the future.

Whether one might want such all encompassing knowledge is a bigger question. As one character later puts it, the ability to discern the future may impede one’s ability to dream and therefore hinder the progress of human society. The central message is, however, somewhat banal in pointing out that we are each of us connected, essential parts of a cosmic machine in which each has a specific role to play. By such logic, murder is then not so much a moral failing as one of over engineering in which attempts to tweak the system may lead to its destruction.

Then again, we hear from the depressed Amakazu that what he fears is that life is essentially meaningless and that many go to their deaths without leaving a mark. His central theory is that objective truth is a matter of record, that whatever is shot is “real” because that is what will be “remembered” long after the fact. Through his films, which are amusingly described in a piece of meta irony as dealing with edgy themes which don’t pander to audiences, he attempts to reorder his world by recreating it, improving on its many disappointments by envisioning it differently. Yet he still yearns for authenticity in his work and may have gone to great lengths to get it in a seemingly pointless piece of behind the scenes theatre.

Perhaps it is this sense of fatalistic ennui that Miike is attempting to capture through Laplace’s continually listless aesthetics but it has to be said that the central mystery, filled with plot holes and contradictions as it is, is particularly unengaging and despite the cheerful we’re all one narrative also carries some decidedly unpleasant undertones. Never quite finding the register to unlock its central philosophy, Laplace’s Witch proves a curiously flat outing for the famously out there director which may very well be the point but then again perhaps it’s a strange point to be making. 


Singapore release trailer (English subtitles)

Dead or Alive: Final (Takashi Miike, 2002)

dead_or_alive_final_jap_chirashiThe Dead or Alive Trilogy began in a furious, drug fuelled hymn to violence in which a petty vendetta between the opposing forces of good and evil (mingled and bloody) eventually destroyed the entire world. Dead or Alive 2: Birds was an altogether more contemplative affair in which two orphaned boys rediscover each other as jaded hitmen and decide to put their talents to “good” use by donating the hit money to pay for medicinal drugs for impoverished children around the world. Strange and surreal, Birds moved beyond the first film’s absurd ending for an altogether more abstract approach to universe building but Final pushes the idea to its limit in a cyberpunk infused far future tale of rogue robots and sexual dictatorship.

Yokohama, 2346. A new society is being forged, a new social order has been created. All powerful Mayor Wu (Richard Chen) has decreed that the only true love is gay love and made heterosexuality taboo. Births are strictly controlled to maintain population numbers with contraception ruled mandatory. The heterosexual resistance has gone into hiding in a ruined part of the city, living in a free love commune in which the birth of children is a primary goal. Lead by Fong and his first lady Jun, the resistance aims to liberate the people from the yoke of the crazed dictator and create a better, freer world for the as yet unborn children of the future. Teaming up with a rogue “Replicant”, Ryo, (Sho Aikawa) the gang attempt to further their cause by kidnapping the young son of Wu’s chief of police, Honda (Riki Takeuchi), who later discovers some uncomfortable truths about his own existence.

The use of the world “Replicant” is a pointed one and an overt reference to Final’s key text – Blade Runner, though its intentions amount much more to a pastiche than an examination of the existential questions so central to the seminal cyberpunk classic. Online captions state the action is taking place in Yokohama – an industrial harbour town close to Tokyo, but is in reality a thinly disguised Hong Kong with a green tint. Nevertheless, Miike makes the most of rundown industrial complexes now overrun by nature and the symbols of historical hubris. Aside from the flying cars and other CGI touches, the dystopianism is all too real in its sense of economic and social failures which have allowed a man like Wu to run a strange fascist police state even in the absence of the necessary infrastructure.

In keeping with the Hong Kong setting the Yokohama of 2346 is largely Chinese with broad mix of intermingled languages. Once again the nature of family is called into question but this time more through a large scale change in the social order which sees birth strictly controlled through medical and cultural enforcement. The largely Cantonese speaking resistance movement want to create a world where children can be born and then grow up freely, neatly echoing the previous films’ preoccupation with the fates of children as considered by orphans. Aside from their idealism, the Resistance turns out not to be so far removed from the petty gangsters of the previous instalments as they ultimately turn on each other with deadly consequences.

Sho Aikawa and Riki Takeuchi face off once again with Aikawa playing a Rutger Hauer-esque android who proves his “humanity” through his affiliation with children. A “Replicant” from a long forgotten war, Ryo has superpowers which allow him to stop bullets in mid-air or send out sparks of energy but is also at home playing the clown as he brushes his teeth nonchalantly in the middle a fist fight or plays dead to entertain a little boy. Takeuchi’s Honda, by contrast, is the stereotypical gestapo inspired secret police chief whose family life is a hollow one devoid of genuine feeling and maintained solely for professional expectation.

If Miike has been playing Blade Runner all along, his finale jumps ship for Tetsuo: The Iron Man as the trilogy’s leading men relive the totality of their experiences across three different plains of existence before merging into one as a kind of angel of destruction. The cycle of violence has reached its apotheosis as the twin angels are sent to wreak revenge on those who have misused their authority. Shot on high grade video, Final makes the most of its more modest production values but can’t help suffering in comparison to its predecessors. The B-movie opening is a helpful clue to Miike’s intentions as he creates his own kind of sci-fi dystopia inspired by pop culture memories, but even if the overarching themes lack integrity, Final provides the perfect ending for this often frustratingly absurd series, defying rational explanations until the end of time.


Available now in UK from Arrow Video!

Original trailer (English subtitles)

Ley Lines (日本黒社会 LEY LINES, Takashi Miike, 1999)

ley-linesThe three films loosely banded together under the retrospectively applied title of the Black Society Trilogy are not connected in terms of narrative, characters, tone, or location but they do all reflect on attitudes to foreignness, both of a national and of a spiritual kind. Like Tatsuhito in the first film, Shinjuku Triad Society, the three young men at the centre of the final instalment, Ley Lines (日本黒社会 LEY LINES, Nihon Kuroshakai LEY LINES), have each faced prejudice and discrimination due to their Chinese heritage. Fleeing their small town blues and heading for the big city, they want out of the homeland which can find no place for them to try their luck in pastures new, but desperation breeds poor choices and if they find their freedom it may not be in the way they might have hoped.

Angry young man Ryuichi (Kazuki Kitamura) seems to have been in some trouble with the law recently, at least that’s the reason the pedantic government official gives for rudely rejecting Ryuichi’s attempts to get a passport whilst subtly underlining the fact that a “real” Japanese person would know you can’t have one whilst on probation. Offended, Ryuichi picks up a small potted tree and hits the uncooperative desk jockey on the head with it. With Brazil off the cards and no work or prospects on the horizon, Ryuichi decides to blow town with some friends. All but three of them change their minds at the train station but Ryuichi, his sensitive younger brother Shunrei (Michisuke Kashiwaya), and their friend the impulsive Chan (Tomorowo Taguchi) head for the sleazy streets of Shinjuku hoping to find someone to forge their papers for passage overseas.

Once there, hotheaded Ryuichi immediately begins to cause trouble and the trio get mixed up in an ongoing series of gang problems with the traditionally minded Chinese gangsters and a petty thug (Show Aikawa) selling what he claims is a new wonder drug, Toluelene. Teaming up with a brutalised local prostitute, Anita (who previously ripped them off leading to their ill advised Tolulene adventures), also desperate to get the hell out of Shinjuku, the four form an unconventional mini family but a last ditch solution to their dilemma will turn out to be a gamble too far.

Neatly uniting the themes of the previous two movies in the Black Society Trilogy, Ley Lines casts its heroes as multilayered outsiders. Miike begins the film with deliberately retro, aged footage of the brothers as young boys playing happily on a beach until some Japanese kids turn up and remind them that they’re different. Never allowed to just fit in, Ryuichi has become angry and frustrated whereas Shunrei studies harder than anyone trying to earn his place in a competitive society. If their Chinese heritage had set them at odds with their small town peers, the boys are just as much adrift in the big city, a trio of bumpkins wandering into all the wrong places naively thinking they can scrap their way out of Japan. Anita, also Chinese, shares in their desperation as her situation has become unsustainable. Shackled to a useless pimp and forced to endure frightening and barbaric treatment, Anita needs out of the flesh trade and the guys might just be her ticket to ride.

As he would later do so splendidly in Audition, Miike deliberately wrong foots us in the beginning as if he’s about to embark on a standard tale of a young man making his first big set of mistakes which will set him on a path to becoming a better person, but of course this isn’t where we’re going. The original Japanese title, “Japan Black Society” hints at the all pervading darkness which exists below the everyday world into which our trio of hapless dreamers have fallen. The guys are ordinary young men making ordinary mistakes which have a familiar, often comedic quality which only serves to deepen the agony they’re about to face.This underworld belongs to people like the mad gangster Wang (Naoto Takenaka) dreaming of his Chinese homeland and forcing young women to tell him folktales to remind him of it, the pimp the who mishandles the desperate Anita, and the deluded drug dealer Ikeda convinced he’s onto the next big thing. The boys don’t stand a chance. Ending with a typically poetic, bittersweet set of images as some of our heroes find a kind of freedom in an endless sea, Miike does not stint on the irony but his sympathy is very much with these disenfranchised youngsters, denied their futures at every turn and finally backed into a corner by the cruel and unforgiving nature of the Black Society which they inhabit.


Original trailer (English subtitles)

Rainy Dog (極道黒社会, Takashi Miike, 1997)

rainy-dogThey say dogs get disorientated by the rain, all those useful smells they use to navigate the world get washed away as if someone had suddenly crumpled up their internal maps and thrown them in the waste paper bin. Yuji (Show Aikawa), the hero of Rainy Dog (極道黒社会, Gokudo Kuroshakai) – the second instalment in what is loosely thought of as Takashi Miike’s Black Society Trilogy, appears to be in a similar position as he hides out in Taipei only to find himself with no home to return to. Miike is not generally known for contemplative mood pieces, but Rainy Dog finds him feeling introspective. A noir inflected, western inspired tale of existential reckoning, this is Miike at his most melancholy but perhaps also at his most forgiving as his weary hitman lays down his burdens to open his heart only to embrace the cold steel of his destiny rather than the warmth of his redemption.

Yuji’s day job seems to be hulking pig carcasses around at the meat market but he’s also still acting as a button man for the local Taiwanese mob while he lies low and avoids trouble in Taipei following some kind of incident with his clan in Japan. Receiving a call to the effect that following a change of management it will never be safe for him to go home, Yuji is as lost as a dog after the rain but if there’s one thing he hadn’t banked on it was the appearance of a rather sharp Taiwanese woman who suddenly introduces him to a mute little boy who is supposedly his son. Yuji is not the fatherly type and does not exactly take to his new responsibilities. He half remembers the woman, but can’t place her name and isn’t even sure he ever slept with her in the first place. Nevertheless, Ah Chen follows Yuji around like a lost little puppy.

Two more meetings will conspire to change Yuji’s life – firstly a strange, besuited Japanese man (Tomorowo Taguchi) who seems to snooze on rooftops in a sleeping bag and is intent on getting the drop of Yuji for undisclosed reasons, and the proverbial hooker with a heart of gold (and a fancy computer for running an internet blog) with whom he will form a temporary makeshift family. Getting mixed up in something he shouldn’t Yuji’s cards are numbered, but then it couldn’t have been any other way.

As in Shinjuku Triad Society, Miike returns to the nature of family and of the tentative bonds which emerge between people who have been rejected from mainstream society. Yuji is a displaced person, forced out of his homeland and lost in a foreign city. Though he appears to have a good grasp of the local language, the landscape confuses him as he wanders through it like the man with no name, adrift and permanently shielded by his sunglasses. The Taiwanese gangster he’s been freelancing for repeatedly describes him as “like a son” despite the fact that they seem to be around the same age but it’s clear that he could have Yuji eliminated in a heartbeat if he found he’d outlived his usefulness.

Similarly, Yuji does not immediately jump into a paternal mindset when presented with this strangely cheerful young boy. Eventually he lets him come out of the rain and presents him with a towel, greeting him with the words “you’re not a dog” but subsequently abandons him for what seems like ages during his time with the prostitute, Lily, who describes his tattoos as beautiful and shares his dislike of the intense Taipei rain. Asked if she’s ever considered going somewhere sunnier, Lily admits that she has but the fear that perhaps it would all be the same (only less wet) has put her off. Perhaps it’s better to live in hope, than test it and find out it was misplaced.

Gradually, Yuji begins to a least develop a protective instinct for Ah Chen as well as some kind of feeling for Lily which leads him to carry out another hit in order to give her the money to escape on the condition that she take Ah Chen with her. However the trio get ambushed on their way out ending up at a beach leaving them with nowhere left to run, signalling the impossibility of getting off this inescapable island. Just when it seems all hope is lost, Ah Chen finds a buried scooter which he and Lilly begin to dig up. Eventually, Yuji joins them, fully confirming his commitment to the mini family they’ve accidentally formed as they work together to build themselves a way out. Yuji’s decision separate from them and return to the world of crime, albeit temporary, will be a final one in which he, by accident or design, rejects the possibility of a more conventional family life with Ah Chen and Lilly for the destiny which has been dogging him all along.

Birth and death become one as Yuji regains his humanity only to have it taken from him by a man exactly mirroring his journey. There are no theatrics here, this is Miike in paired down, naturalistic mode willing to let this classic story play out for all that it is. Working with a Taiwanese crew and capturing the depressed backstreet world of our three outcasts trapped by a Taipei typhoon for all of its existential angst, Rainy Dog is Miike at his most melancholic, ending on a note of futility in which all hope for any kind of change or salvation has been well and truly extinguished.


Original trailer (English subtitles)

Yakuza Apocalypse (極道大戦争, Takashi Miike, 2015)

Yakuza-Apocalypse-Quad-HalfSize-NEWBelated review from the 2015 London Film Festival – Yakuza Apocalypse is released in UK cinemas for one day only on 6th January 2016 courtesy of Manga who will also be releasing on home video at a later date.


Takashi Miike shuffles back towards the yakuza plains in the western inspired horror comedy Yakuza Apocalypse (極道大戦争, Gokudo Daisenso) trailing ever more zany humour behind him. Yakuza gungslingers, bloodsucking, high school girls running away from things and, finally, a guy with a magic belly button wearing a frog suit who just happens to be “The World’s Toughest Terrorist”.

We open in media res as vampire yakuza boss Kamiura (Lily Franky) cuts up a storm in settling some local disputes. There’s a handy voice over from our soon to be protagonist, Kageyama (Hayato Ichihara), lamenting the old yakuza world of tough guys and honour codes but things don’t really take off until a very geeky looking guy and a Van Helsing type in 17th century attire suddenly turn up hoping to re-recruit the boss to “The Syndicate”. When he refuses, they fight and the geek twists Kamiura’s head right off. Using his last ounce of strength and in a touch right out of Hausu, Kamiura clamps onto Kageyama’s neck turning him into a vampire. However, in his just turned state, the honourable Kageyama turns a few more vampires of his own – and not only vampires, the bite also transmits yakuzaism too. This increase in bloodsucking gangsters is a bit of a problem for the regular guys as it does mean their pool of victims is being steadily depleted…

Not making much sense is not generally much of a problem in a Miike film. In fact, it’s a pretty much a given at this stage of the prolific director’s career. However, in the case of Yakuza Apocalypse it’s even more pointless than usual to pay any attention at all to any kind of narrative. Looking over Kageyama’s shoulder, we move from set to piece to set piece as, first of all, the non-vampire yakuza guys struggle for power between themselves and then with the vampire variety before the giant frog turns up to ruin everything.

There are some rules, Miike takes a while explaining to us how this yakuza business works with Kamiura as the “good” kind of yakuza committed to protecting his townspeople above all else – essentially, he’s the sherriff around these parts. He’s a vampire, yes, but he only feeds on yakuza who he’s “reforming” by means of an underground knitting circle held prisoner in his basement. Apparently yakuza blood tastes bad and isn’t very good for you but eating civilians is dishonourable and anyway, limited in supply, because when you turn someone they also become a foul mouthed yakuza fighting machine.

The world building is shaky at best, none of this really hangs together making for a fairly disappointing series of one note jokes. There is an attempt at a bit of more sophisticated satire with the regular gangsters suddenly lamenting that there will be no one left for them to prey on if everyone turns yakuza vampire but otherwise it’s crazy piled on crazy. Not a bad thing in itself but somewhat lacking in substance.

Despite that, the film offers some quality performances notably from its lead, Kageyama, played by Hayato Ichihara, as the yakuza who’s so sensitive his delicate skin won’t allow him to get a proper yakuza tattoo. That is, until he becomes a brooding, conflicted vampire mourning the loss of his boss and of those long held tough guy ideals. Lily Franky also offers a high impact though short lived appearance as the honourable vampire boss with a hinted at backstory, though the much publicised cameo of The Raid’s Yayan Ruhian feels a little wasted as he’s just generally hanging around for a handful of fight scenes. That said, the action scenes themselves are extremely impressive, both exciting and often funny too.

Yakuza Apocalypse is not one of Miike’s most well thought out efforts. Its collection of crazy ideas feels thrown together and there’s disappointingly little depth to its world building. Even its media res conclusion looks more like running out of ideas than a deliberate decision. However, that’s not to say it isn’t heaps of fun, which it often is. A crazy frog riding a bicycle who somehow wakes up the giant king of the crazy frog people after some kind of emergency plaster is ripped off his belly button – really, what could be more fun than that? That really is all there is though and those who prefer their absurdist action thrills with a little more substance had best look elsewhere.


Yakuza Apocalypse is in released in UK cinemas for one night only on 6th January 2016. Luckily the film is playing across the UK even if it’s only the one night and you can see if it’s on anywhere near you by checking out this handy link! If it’s not, don’t despair! It’ll also be available in all the normal ways from Manga later in the year.

Reviewed at the 2015 BFI London Film Festival.