Dead or Alive (DEAD OR ALIVE 犯罪者, Takashi Miike, 1999)

dead or alive
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)

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)

Kids Return (キッズ リタ-ン, Takeshi Kitano, 1996)

kids-returnReview of Kitano’s Kids Return first published by UK Anime Network.


Kids Return (キッズ リタ-ン), completed in 1996, marks Kitano’s return to filmmaking after the serious motorcycle accident which almost claimed his life and has continued to have long term effects both personally and in terms of his career. Once again he remains firmly behind the camera but displays a more contemplative, nostalgic approach than had been present in much of his previous work. The tale of two delinquent slackers in small town Japan, Kids Return has an obvious autobiographical quality and even if the future looks bleak, Shinji (Masanobu Ando) and Masaru (Ken Kaneko), like Kitano himself, are not beaten yet.

Beginning with a sequence of the older Shinji delivering rice and sharing a melancholy reunion with school friend Masaru, Kitano then hops back to their carefree school days of slacking off and intermittently trolling the entire institution. Masaru is the leader of the pair, loud mouthed and violent, always trying to big himself up, while Shinji is the classic sidekick – always following dutifully behind and lost without his friend’s leadership. Their paths diverge when Masaru decides to join a boxing club after someone he’d bullied and extorted money from hires a boxer to get revenge on him. Masaru is hopeless in the ring and lacks the dedication it would take to become a serious althete but Shinji shows promise, eventually knocking Masaru out after being forced into a humiliating duel. Masaru ends up joining the yakuza gang which hangs out in his favourite ramen joint and quickly rises through the ranks. Though both boys look to be going somewhere along their chosen paths, they each squander their given advantages through a series of poor decisions and eventually find themselves right back where they started.

Shinji and Masaru are typical of many young men of their generation and social class. They “go to school” but rarely attend lessons and are often to be found riding their bike around the playground or pranking the other students such as in a particularly elaborate plot where they dangle a stick figure of a teacher down from the roof to the classroom window below, joyfully erecting the “penis” they’ve given it by attaching a torch to the middle section complete with wire brush hair and cotton balls. Such tricks may seem like innocent, juvenile behaviour but a more serious side emerges when an obnoxious teacher’s car is set on fire.

The teachers at the school have already written the boys off as not worth saving. Always referring to them as “the morons”, the school seems reluctant to actually expel the pair and has come to view them as amusing inconveniences more than anything else. None of the teachers is interested in reaching out to Shinji or Masaru and, in fact, they appear to be a cynical bunch with no real interest in the children in their care. At the end of the school year the teachers begin discussing their progress and reveal that only a handful of students will be going to university (and only one to a public, rather than private institution) and that those who are have largely achieved it through their own steam. The education system has nothing to offer these students who have already been judged unworthy of advancement and is in no way interested in providing any kind of pastoral care or social support.

Shinji and Masaru are expected to find their own paths, but the film posits that this idea of total, individual freedom of the modern era is at the root of their problems because it leaves them with too many choices and no clear direction. Failed by education, the pair must find new ways to move forward but the opportunities on offer are not exactly appealing. Masaru, the loud mouth of the pair, ends up on the obvious path of the disaffected young man by joining a gang and finding for himself the familial comradeship of the criminal brotherhood rather than that of a traditional family.

Shinji’s path looks more solid as he begins to train as a serious athlete, honing his skills and perfecting his physique. He is, however, still unable to take control of his own life and repeatedly looks for more dominant male role models to follow. This might have worked out OK for him if he’d stuck with the paternal influence of the coaches, but Shinji is easily led and falls under the influence of an embittered older boxer, Hayashi, who is full of bad advice. Under Hayashi’s tutelage, Shinji learns illegal moves and that he can still drink and eat what he likes because you can just throw it all up again afterwards. When even that doesn’t work, Hayashi begins giving him diet pills which exemplify the quick fix approach he’s taking with his life. Needless to say, his training suffers and his previously promising career is soon on the rocks.

It’s not just the two guys either. Their shy friend with crush on the cafe girl leaves school and gets a good job as a salesman but the aggressive boss makes his working life a misery leading him to take a stand with a colleague and quit to become a taxi driver. No good at that either, he experiences exactly the same treatment and is now unable to earn enough money to support both himself and his wife. In fact, the only success story is the manzai standup comedy duo which Masaru mocked in the beginning. Knowing exactly what they wanted to do and working hard to get there, the pair have built a career and an audience through steadfastly sticking to their guns and refusing to listen to the naysayers. If you have direction, progress is possible, but for Shinji and Masaru who have no strong calling the future is a maze of uncertainties.

The kids have returned, not quite as men but in the first flush of failure, ready to start again. When Shinji asks Masaru if it’s really all over for them already, he tells him not to be silly – it hasn’t even started yet. The town goes on as normal, unchanging, kids goof off lessons and melancholy people waste time over coffee. Perhaps nothing will change for Masaru and Shinji and their aimless days of drifting from one thing to the next, looking for guidance and finding none, will continue but there’s fight in them yet and the possibility remains for them to find their way, as difficult as it may prove to be.


Out now on blu-ray (in the UK) from Third Window Films.

Original trailer (no subtitles)