To paraphrase Heraclitus, “One cannot step twice into the same Takashi Miike film.” The Japanese director’s “maddeningly diverse” output shifts gleefully between genres — often within the same film — and ensures that his audiences will never grow bored. Yet the fact that he’s also obscenely prolific means it can be a challenge to know where to begin. Thankfully, Arrow Video has reissued several of his films on Blu-ray over the last few years so fans of genre cinema can glory in remastered versions of some of his finest work. Their latest Miike release is the Dead or Alive trilogy of films, all of which show Miike’s ongoing fascination with Japanese yakuza.
Miike has approached the Japanese tradition of the yakuza film in a number of different ways, and his Dead or Alive trilogy includes three unique variations on this theme. The first film, Dead or Alive, was originally released in 1999; the next two installments (Dead or Alive 2: Tôbôsha [Dead or Alive 2: Birds] and Dead or Alive: Final) appeared in 2000 and 2002.
This was not the first time that the director had tackled a yakuza tale in a trilogy type format. The so-called “Black Society Trilogy” — comprised of Shinjuku Triad Society (1995), Rainy Dog (1997), and Ley Lines (1999) — is another set of Miike films about yakuza life. They feature different characters but are all connected by one thread, that is, Miike’s continuing fascination with outsiders. Miike producer/screenwriter Toshike Kimura refers to these types of characters as “minorities,” whether that status comes from mixed ethnicity and/or an unwillingness or inability to fit in with mainstream Japanese society.
Dead or Alive remains infamous in Miike’s filmography and for good reason: it explodes upon the screen. The first eight minutes are a breathtaking and non-stop barrage of scandalous images and cacophonous noise, seemingly intended to grab the audience’s attention through pure shock value. Yet, as Tom Mes notes in the commentary track on the Blu reissue, this segment also serves to introduce the viewer to the main players in the movie, an instance of Miike’s well-known filmic excesses also serving narrative purposes.
The ongoing story in Dead or Alive is the uneasy alliance between the Chinese Triad gang and the Japanese yakuza. If that weren’t a volatile enough mixture, there is also headstrong gang leader Ryu, who seeks to carve a niche for himself within this criminal underworld. It wouldn’t be a yakuza film without a cop being involved, and in this case, it’s Detective Jojima.
Ryu and Jojima are portrayed, respectively, by Riki Takeuchi and Shō Aikawa. In fact, it is the casting of Takeuchi and Aikawa which provides important context for the Dead or Alive trilogy as a whole. At the time, the two were the biggest stars of V-cinema, a.k.a. the series of Japanese straight-to-video releases that began production in the 1980s.
As Tom Mes notes on the Midnight Eye blog, V-cinema movies were “genre movies destined for video store shelves which bypassed the theatrical circuit entirely.” Miike himself was a product of the V-cinema world, having several straight-to-video movies under his belt before his first theatrical release. The presence of Takeuchi and Aikawa here adds a level of metatextuality to all three films, especially since they reappear in the subsequent installments as completely different characters.
While Dead or Alive includes an incredible amount of violence and mayhem, there is also the underlying theme of family. In this case, there is the family unit of Ryuchi’s gang, complicated by the presence of his younger brother Toji (Michisuke Kashiwaya) who has just returned from studying at a U.S. university and is torn between the life of a scholar and that of a criminal. This is the same kind of tug of war that Jojima faces. He has a wife and daughter but appears estranged from both; his wife is having an affair and Jojima sleeps on the couch. To make things worse, his daughter needs costly life-saving surgery. Desperate for cash, he approaches the head of the yakuza to acquire the funds to pay for it.
These concurrent narrative threads are handled with heartwarming, yet understated, grace. Jojima is the typical hard-boiled cop who throws all of his passion into his job while presenting a cold, unfeeling façade to his family. That doesn’t mean that the movie doesn’t show us any glimpses of how much Jojima cares: his smiling face as he watches his wife and daughter head towards the hospital gives a huge amount of insight into his persona in just a few seconds.
Similarly, while Ryu appears as a foreboding figure — Takeuchi’s trademark pompadour, sullen stare, and omnipresent black clothing speak volumes without saying a word — the revelation that he sent his brother to school with money he made as a gang member shows that he has a generous streak. It also underscores the message that he and Aikawa are not that different after all. The rivals’ inevitable showdown at the end of Dead or Alive — in which Ryu pulls a glowing ball (possibly his soul) out of his chest and throws it at a bazooka-wielding Jojima, resulting in a massive explosion that can be seen from space — is as over-the-top as the film’s beginning.
Alternative conceptualizations of family and altruism are also at the heart of Dead Or Alive 2: Birds. This time, Takeuchi and Aikawa appear as two hitmen going after the same target. When the victim’s murder dominates the news, both killers escape, unbeknownst to each other, to the Chiburi Cliffs, found in the Dōzen Islands in the the Sea of Japan’s Oki archipelago. Takeuchi plays Shuuichi “Shu” Sawada and Aikawa plays Mizuki Okamoto; these two characters are not just similar in their choice of profession, but in their past association. As it turns out, they were friends who grew up in the same orphanage.
On the island, they reconnect with each other as well as one of their other childhood friends, Kōhei (Kenichi Endo). The trio enjoys themselves immensely, playing tag in the rain, roughhousing, and generally acting like carefree children. The tone of the film completely changes at this point, and so do the performances of Takeuchi and Aikawa. They are as comfortable and believable in these more “innocent” roles as they were in their roles as thugs. As the movie shows us pastoral, humorous, and touching scenes of what might have been had Shu and Mizuki not turned to lives of crime, the viewer aches for the two men’s lost selves. Seemingly aware of this, the men agree that upon their return to Tokyo, they will continue their work as contract killers, but will use the proceeds to help pay for children’s vaccinations in Africa.
The dichotomy between the different facets of the two men is most obvious and heartbreaking in a couple of key segments. At one point, Shu and Mizuki help put on a play for some visiting children and these scenes are intercut with the outrageous violence happening back in Tokyo. It makes for a gripping, painful watch as it reminds the viewer that these are still men playing roles, no matter the location.
The ending of the film incorporates some supernatural elements which blur the lines between the purity of the childhood past of the men and corrupting influence of the adult world. Shu and Mizuki are shot after being set up for a hit that’s a front to enact retribution upon them. Ostensibly dead, they somehow still manage to take the ferry back to the cliffs, eating and enjoying the noodles and tofu that were such an integral part of their childhood memories. Then they wander around as blood-covered children before eventually collapsing on a cliff overlooking the ocean. In death, they regain the innocent status that they had lost.
As different as the first two films are from each other, even an experienced Miike fan might be thrown off balance by the third installment, Dead or Alive: Final. A title screen appears before the movie noting that the film was “shot and produced digitally in standard definition” and that an NTSC tape master was used as “no high definition masters were ever produced.” Furthermore, there are “instances of Japanese subtitles appearing onscreen over Chinese and English dialogue” that could not be removed.
It’s a good thing this clarification appears because the transfer of Dead or Alive: Final definitely appears less spectacular than the transfers of the previous two films in the trilogy. However, instead of being a hindrance, in a way, it supports the subject matter of the film, which takes place in the year A.D. 2346. As it opens, a giant, dragon-shaped blimp with an LCD screen floats by in the background of a post-apocalyptic Yokohama, Japan.
Once again, Takeuchi and Aikawa appear in the film, although this time it is Takeuchi who plays the cop (Takeshi Honda) and Aikawa who plays the renegade (Ryō). Honda is charged with enforcing the bizarre rules of this society, ruled by a dictator named Wu (Richard Cheung).
Wu insists that homosexual relationships are the purest form of love and has banned procreation. He feels that overpopulation has brought the world to its knees through environmental destruction and insists on mandatory birth control. He wants everyone to see the world as he does. As he puts it, “if you take the drug, you can stop daydreaming.” Not everyone agrees with Wu and as such, there are rebel groups who are not only actively fighting against him, but also trying to reestablish a more traditional societal structure, one that includes children.
Much like Dead or Alive 2: Birds, there is a self-reflexive element to this film. One of the leaders of the group has a younger brother. When the group accidentally kidnaps Honda’s young son after stealing a bus, the two boys meet and bond over some old filmstrips that they find. This recalls the nostalgic scenes in Dead or Alive 2: Bird when Shu and Mizuki watch old home movies from the orphanage and reinforces the idea of the purity of childhood innocence.
It is revealed early on that Ryō is a replicant and this, along with the dystopian setting of the film, opens the door to a Blade Runner-type subplot that reaches its zenith at the end of the movie when Honda discovers that both he and his wife are replicants. It also allows Miike to indulge in some fantastic action sequences. Dead or Alive: Final was filmed in Hong Kong and the action was choreographed by Chung Chi Li, who worked on Rumble in the Bronx (1995) and the first two Rush Hour movies, to name just a few examples in his extensive body of work.
Dead or Alive: Final’s climax finds Takeuchi and Aikawa facing off yet again, but the ending is perhaps even weirder than the endings of the previous two films. Since they are both replicants, when Ryō and Honda attack each other, it results in an explosion and a manifestation of the D.O.A. 2002, a cyborg with a giant penis for a head, perhaps a nod to the hyper-masculine clichés that are both reinforced and undermined throughout all three films. Flashbacks to scenes from the previous movies imply that these are the same characters, but possibly traveling through time. It’s almost as if Miike is writing fanfiction about Takeuchi and Aikawa, although honestly, who could blame him?
True to their reputation, Arrow has packed this two-disc set with outstanding special features. There is a new, extensive single-camera interview with Toshiki Kimura who produced all three films and wrote two of them under the pseudonym Ichiro Ryo. He speaks enthusiastically and in illuminating detail about the Japanese film industry and the many years he spent working with Miike; one gets the strong impression he wishes that they could work together again.
There are also two new single-camera interviews with Riki Takeuchi and Shō Aikawa, both of which are utterly delightful. These men have so much natural charm they could conjure water out of a desert. The Aikawa interview also includes brief clips of Miike himself who says of his V-cinema tenure that “I would do it all over again if I could.”
Arrow has unearthed “making of” featurettes for both Dead or Alive 2: Birds and Dead or Alive: Final as well as promo interviews for the latter film. There are also various English and Japanese trailers, including an animated one for Dead or Alive: Final that is a clever bit of misdirection. Tom Mes, who has written two exhaustive books on Miike’s career and who also ran the Asian cinema-focused Midnight Eye blog for 15 years, provides a low-key but entertaining commentary track for the first Dead or Alive film.
Jordan, Randolph. “Book Review of Tom Mes’ Re-Agitator: A Decade of Writing on Takashi Miike.” Offscreen, vol. 15, issue 5, May 2013, https://offscreen.com/view/takashi_miike_re-agitator, Accessed 17 April 2017.
Interview with Toshiki Kimura. “Toshiki Kimura: Drifting With Miike.” Dead or Alive Blu-ray, Arrow films, 11 April 2017.
Commentary track by Tom Mes. Dead or Alive Blu-ray, Arrow films, 11 April 2017.
Mes, Tom. “The V-Cinema Notebook, Part 1.” Midnight Eye. https://www.midnighteye.com/features/the-v-cinema-notebook-part-1/, Accessed 17 April 2017.
Interview with Takashi Miike. “Show Aikawa: Cop, Killer, Replicant.” Dead or Alive Blu-ray, Arrow films, 11 April 2017.