Wednesday, December 20, 2017

Review: Dead or Alive Trilogy (Takashi Miike)

Text © Richard Gary / Indie Horror Films, 2017
Images from the Internet

Dead or Alive Trilogy
Directed by Takashi Miike
Daiei Corporation / Toei Video / Arrow Video / MVD Visual
290 total minutes (not counting extras), 2017

The basic premise of these three films reviewed below in this collection is certainly not new. Duos, trios or even more playing similar character with different names and backstories has been done by the likes of the Marx Bros, Laurel and Hardy, Abbott and Costello, the Three Stooges, and even the like of Tracy and Hepburn. Here, we have scowly Riki Takeuchi and sunny Show Aikawa (well, the second two, anyway) as the team, but they play off each other well. Then add in director of the bizarre, Takashi Miike, and this can only lead to violence and a wicked-cool sense of WTF. There are two films on the first disc, and one on the second, along with the extras spread across both, described at the end of this review after the review of the third film, but before the trailers.

Dead or Alive [aka Deddo oa araibu: Hanzaisha]
105 minutes, 1999
I think it would be safe to say, in a grand scheme, Japan is known for its period Samurai and gangster / Yakuza films (“Hanzaisha” translates as “criminal”), though often, if you look at them, they follow similar themes (such as Star Wars and Westerns in the – err – West). Leave it to Director Miike to take the common and bring a whole new dimension to it.

From the infamous opening 6-minute montage of sex, drug, and bullets, you know that you are dealing with something you may not be expecting. Keep that in mind, because more than once you are going to be in that state of being. Definitely buckle yourself in.

Detective Jojima (Aikawa) is honest up until now, but he’s placed in a desperate situation. His on-the-take partner and friend, is another story. Meanwhile, a small-time ethnic Chinese gangster with his own small crew, Ryuichi (Takeuchi, seemingly channeling a future Little Steven in The Sopranos, including the squint and hair nearly a decade earlier than the paisan), is trying to take down the local Yakuza for his own profit.

But there are a lot of subplots about family members (on all sides), sexual politics, and especially about Chinese/Taiwanese-Japanese cultural views, which has been a sore spot on both sides of equation since Japan invaded China in the 1930s in an overall barbaric way.

Again, being a Miike film, there is a lot of be unexpected, but one can count on moments of nearly beautiful sequences of complete chaos, violence and brutality, and also some moments of extreme ickiness (as opposed to Ichi-ness… sorry, but that joke’s a – err – killer).

Sometimes the story gets a bit convoluted here and there, but I’m not sure if that’s Miike being Miike, or if this particular Western viewer isn’t syncing into the Eastern way of being. Whatever, Miike does not shy away from people being blown to bits, or even a self-arm detachment.

What is good about the WTF factor of this director’s is that it is not always easy to guess where things are going. There’s some that felt obvious – won’t give it away, but one instance I knew what was going to happen in a key event a few minutes before it occurred – much more of it is out of the blue. I dare you to predict the “wait…what?!” ending, for example.

Through the film there are more than one gangland style slaying that makes the montage in The Godfather where the Corleone family takes out the competition look like a Canadian backing into someone and saying, “Oops, sorry!”

From what I understand, Miike’s films only get more bloody and violent, and off the rails. Even his musical comedies, such as The Happiness of the Katakuris (2001; reviewed by me HERE),  are rife with death, destruction and some humor. I’ll give this for Miike, he’s consistently inconsistent for what direction it’s going to come from, or where it’s going to go.

With all of that, Miike films look spectacular, with sharp lighting and editing, and characters that will remain with you after the film is over. He can make the most brutal criminal sometimes seem pitiable, and the most honest man despicable, and then reverse that again.

There is a reason why Miike is revered among the film crowds, especially those who love the Asian gangster genre.

Dead or Alive 2: Birds [aka Deddo oa araibu: Tȏbȏsha]:
97 minutes, 2000
The second of this… well, they call it a trilogy but I don’t agree. As I stated in the prologue above, this film is not a sequel or prequel, but another go around with the same two lead actors, and no other connection but its director, Miike. So rather than a trilogy, let me phrase it this way: the second film of this collection is a bit more esoteric than the first, but I actually found it more enjoyable.

Perhaps this was edited for the Western market when it was released, because more than one review said that this is generally looked at as one of the lesser films because of its lack of violence. Wait, what? Nuh-uh. There is richness in this one of that flavor. This is, in my opinion, a more enjoyable film than the first.

Despite its WTF-ity, the first one is quite a bit less straightforward story-wise, and at times is hard to follow. This one is a bit different, though present are overlapping themes. What’s weird to me is that even though I had less trouble following the story, it actually has even more WTF moments than the first, and more often.

Again dealing with Yakuza (Japanese) mobsters vs. Triad (ethnic Chinese) criminal syndicates, we are introduced two hit men who were given the same assignment by different gangs. Both end up in hot water, but it seems that they are both childhood buddies from an orphanage on a relatively remote Island off the Japanese coast. They meet again on the boat back to the hilly isle, where they wait for things to cool off a bit.

The sunnier of the two is Mizuki Okamoto (Show Aikawa), playing a much different role than the previous release. Rather than being a glum copper, here he is hopeful, with blond hair and bright yellow Hawaiian shirts. His purpose for being a hitman may surprise you. On the other hand, Shuichi Sawada (Riki Takeuchi), similarly to the previous, is mostly glum and snarly. He too holds a secret.

As they hole up on their home turf and have fun by lending a hand with the orphanage, the previous bungle is the catalyst for all out gang warfare, for which we see in an interesting counterpoint with the two hiders and their childhood crew.

Perhaps it’s something I’m (again) missing in the translation of Japanese culture, but our two anti-heroes are represented by dark and light birds, with the two leads (and occasionally others) often sprouting wings, or we see them in the modern world represented by the children they were back in the orphanage. This is a moving touch, even if I’m not sure if it is specific symbolism (such as Al Pacino playing the Louis Cyphre in 1987’s Angel Heart).

Even with the birds and children, the metaphors and WTF-icity, this is definitely an enjoyable story, and with no shortage of both blood or heart. Yeah, the ending is a head scratcher once again, though not as brash as the first one, and yet still will leave you wondering. It felt like a good time was spent.

Dead or Alive: Final [aka Dead or Alive 3]
89 minutes, 2002
Well, even 10 minutes in, this is by far the most “out there” of the trilogy, for shizzle. It takes place in the year 2346 (as opposed to 2525), and Yokohama is a wreck (though tinted camera lens, giving it a sickly view. Another way you can tell something is off is in an early scene when someone is making eggs, and the yolks are bright red.

This time, a still snarling and pompadoured Takeuchi plays Police Officer Takeshi Honda, who is Miike’s version of Harrison Ford, hunting down Rutger Hauer-lite war-time replicant” (aka robot) Ryō, a still-blond and in sunny yellow clothes Aikawa. The latter is shown as catching bullets in his hands and running in fast motion, in almost Keystone Kops mode. While this release is part comedy, y’know at some point they’re going to team up together to fight… Well, it’s still early.

Despite the humorous touches, there is still the strong Eastern/Western politics being played, as characters randomly speak English, Japanese and Cantonese (the language of Taiwan), responding to each other as if they were all speaking the same language. That’s a cool idea. Note that all but English is captioned.

There are other kinds of other politics as well, including a totalitarian government, and those gender-related as well, as we are introduced to the philosophical (albeit creepy) gay, dictatorial mayor Woo (Richard Chen), who spouts how gay love lasts longer than straight affection. Back in 2002, that was quite a step forward in Asian cinema, as far as I can tell, even if it’s a villainous character spouting such comments (baby steps, I guess).

Although this takes place in the future, it’s fun to see the relative anachronisms, such as news cameras being, well, camcorders, and microphones still having that fuzzy stuff at the end. And as much as it’s about technology and politics, it also abounds the body politic as we find out people aren’t who we (or they) think they are, and painful revelations and double-crosses abound in sometimes violent ways when you’re not expecting them.

Speaking of red yolk’d eggs, like all of the three releases, this one relies heavily on food, be it philosophical (how to eat it), abusing it (over-eating), or just the social aspect (eating together as a communal act). Also consistent is an ending where Miike pulls a WTF out of his – err – pants and takes us where we were not expecting to go. At all.

Of the three films, even with the garish lighting (which is used on occasion in all the films), this is possibly my fave one, just for the sheer audacity of it. There is a bit of trying to tie all the films together at some point, though I’m not quite sure what that is, but that’s fine.

Extras – Disc 1:
Being an Arrow Films release, you know there are going to be a mountain of extras. On the first disc, which holds the first two films, there is a 10-minute archive making-of featurette for DOA2: Birds, though the first is also represented as it consists of behind the scene shots and the occasional blooper. Next up is both the US and Japanese trailers for the first film, followed by the Japanese trailer for the second. Last is a full commentary for the first DOA by Miike biographer Tom Mes. He approaches the film from not just a bio way, but he also shows keen insights to the philosophy behind it and a strong sense of film theory criticism. The only negative is that his voice is really low and monotone, so I had to turn the volume way up to make out what he was saying. It was worth it, though.

Extras – Disc 2:
The first extra is a 43 minute 2016 featurette/interview called “Toshiki Kimura: Drifting with Miike”; Kimura is a producer and screenwriter of the films. It’s in Japanese, with English subtitles, as are all of the interviews on the disc. Here, Kimura discusses how he got into the film industry, his introduction into the “hard boiled” style, and how he started collaborating with Miike; some – but not many – clips are included. He talks about the philosophy of the films, and filmmaking in general; it’s a bit talky, but pretty interesting. Following is another 30-minute interview featurette from 2016 called “Riki Takeuchi: Deadly Outlaw Riki.” He explains he’s had lead roles in over 200 features, of his nearly 500 appearances, and he further talks about his career in general and on the films specifically, and also post-DOA, such as becoming a producer. He’s a personable speaker so the attention is there.

Of course, the 55 year-old Aikawa is represented – with red hair (or wig) – in the 23-minute “Show Aikawa: Cop, Killer, Replicant.” While a Miike interview makes a brief appearance, this is solidly Aikawa’s time, and he does shine. He also talks about his career, his roles in the DOA films and beyond, and his views on the Japanese gangster genre. One thing I would have liked to see more of is the discussion of Japan’s role in worldwide cinematic art writ large. Not a complaint, just a query. Then there is an 11-minute featurette “Making Of” for the final film; it’s a mostly humorous look at some of the action scenes, bloopers, and snarky title cards. It’s well worth the watch.

But it ain’t over yet: There’s the 11-minute group post-Final press conference interviews from 2002 with the two leads and director Miike, and then a weird animated trailer for Final that almost seems fan filmed, and then finally the official trailer

The last up is a really nice multi-page booklet included in the package with technical notes and a lengthy article about the trilogy. So, in all, there’s 290 minutes of film and 247 minutes of extras for a grand total of 522 minutes, or almost 9 hours in total. Wow.

Trilogy trailer:

Original trailers:

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