Thursday, 13 July 2017

Dead or Alive - the Takashi Miike trilogy


Takshi Miike, 1999, Japan
Writer: Ichiro Ryo

The first 10 minutes of Miike’s ‘Dead or Alive’ are so breathless with sex, shock, violence, music, colour, parody and back-story that you are likely to feel your jaw widening. The film is counted in by the protagonists… “1, 2, 3 -” … and then we’re off with a kaleidoscope of falling corpses, Kôji Endô’s industrial rock track, frenzied editing cutting across a number of stories and characters, food gorging, outrageous coke-sniffing, strip joints, breasts and gyrations, shotguns, supermarkets, gay toilet sex and assassinations, machine guns… and so on. It seems that when Miike was handed a typical gangster script, he just condensed it down to this giddy opening. As far as kinetic introductions go, it’s a virtuoso piece. It encapsulates how inventive Miike can be at a dizzying speed, how shocking he is (you won’t wonder where accusations of misogyny come from but the bathroom killing won’t win many fans from the gay community either: Miike’s shocks embrace everyone). And that’s even before the opening finishes with a bloodbath, which perhaps neatly provides a keen metaphor for one of Miike’s approaches: take a bunch of people… characters or the audience, maybe... and throw a grenade amongst them. As well as machine gun fire. Unpredictable, unfettered, quite brilliant. Miike is simultaneously gung-ho and perfectly in control. As Chuck Bowen says: 

“In the Dead or Alive trilogy and many other films, Miike demolishes singularity of tone, implicitly suggesting such values to be bourgeoisie luxuries appeasing conditioned expectations and responses.” 

Hold your breath.

And then the bigger shock is that ‘Dead or Alive’ is then not that high octane thriller that perhaps the introduction implies: instead, it is more of a character study of two men on the opposite sides of the law and their ties to family and macho obsessions. V-cinema superstars Riki Takeuchi and Shô Aikawa are the through-line of the ‘Dead or Alive’ films, although they do not play the same characters: this is equally a showbiz conceit and implies themes of reincarnation. Perhaps inevitably, it’s the Miike shock-factor that comes up front but his films are also typified by melancholia. They may be mad and bad but they are also equally downbeat and haunting. It’s his nimble way with genre and his simultaneous disregard and understanding of them that makes Miike’s nonsense more credible than a lot of Eastern madcap romps. It’s a deep-rooted restlessness that always makes him interesting and this attention can be remarkable when it focuses: it’s then we get the likes of ‘Audition’, ‘Rainy Dog’ and ’13 Warriors’. His agenda that anything can be used makes sentimentality just another colour – before the car explodes. So when the kinetic opening of ‘Dead or Alive’ gives way to character studies of two gangster genre archetypes – the macho steely gangster who is so  full of machismo he is barely able to talk and is quite unable to sit with his legs closed (Riki Takeuchi); the dogged policeman obsessed with his work at the expense of his family (Aikawa Shô) – it really shouldn’t be a surprise.  This also acts as a satire of crime genre machismo, but it’s a while before that becomes clear.

Meanwhile, we have the tale of a small group of yakuza hoodlums run by Ryuichi (Riki) taking on the Japanese and Chinese mafias. Ryuichi’s younger brother returns from studies but is mortified to find his education was funded with blood money. Detective Jojima (Shô) is determined to stop them even as domestic demands for cash for his ill daughter’s treatment lead him to corruption and his boss seems to be saying don’t work too hard. Against these family concerns, events veer wildly from the appalling to the blackly comic to the tragic and maudlin, often within the same scene. For example, the scene where the girl of the gang is murdered by enema, laying in a pool of her own faeces whilst the underworld boss soliloquises about his lot (a small penis) is weirdly full of as much pathos as disgust and produces a response beyond mere horror.

So when we get to the final showdown, it really isn’t so much of a surprise when these guys turn into cartoon characters that can produce rocket launchers and superhero-like balls of power from thin air. That their fight devastates the world is where the film can be seen to parody the genre: two big stars get together and – pow! Or this is simply a dig at those denouements when the good guy and the bad guy faceoff  and it all gets increasingly ridiculous. Miike didn’t want to kill one of the main stars so this was his solution. It’s certainly a baffling lurch from the subtleties of the story up to then, but still further evidence of Miike’s “fuck it” style. It’s certainly memorable.


Takashi Miike, 2000, Japan
Writer: Masa Nakamura

‘Dead or Alive 2: Birds’ may not have the jaw-dropping intro of its predecessor, but the opening is no slouch at all. A boy stands in a room (?); a title card says “Where are you?” and we cut to a vision of the planets (whoa? – picking up where the first left off?); and then a man – whose penchant for magic provides many minor highlights – tells a story of warring underworld gangs using cigarette packets, setting off a hit that doesn’t quite go according to plan. The killer with the bleached blond hair – who we recognise as Aikawa Shô from the first film – sees another hit-man doing the job and he recognises him as an old childhood friend – Takeuchi Riki from the first film. Nevertheless, Shô collects the pay anyway. These first ten minutes knock out an inventive exposition, a hook, offbeat comedy and existential angst without barely breaking into a sweat. It occurs to me that the cigarette packet moment, in an American gangster film (say, by Scorsese or Tarantino), would be one to be elevated into the pop culture pantheon of endlessly mimicked and quoted film scenes. But for Miike, it’s just another inventive offbeat moment. These moments are usually all over the place in a Miike film.

Then the film strides into a sequence where the film acts like a trailer of itself.

There is no actual connection to the first ‘Dead or Alive’ except for the underworld setting, but whereas the first used the “opposite-sides-of-the-law-but-really-the-same” narrative, ‘Birds’ is grounded in the “childhood friends” theme that the gangster genre subsists on. Miike is taking us to one of the essences of the gangster genre, namely framing gangster friendships in a sentimental and nostalgic light (which has never been done better than Sergio Leone’s ‘Once Upon A Time in America’). This allows the characters to shed as many tears as bullets as they are murdering friends and cohorts or watching everyone they’ve grown up with die. Miike throws in flashbacks in faintly baffling spurts to colour in the history and to provide jigsaw pieces of information for the audience to piece together. It is here that Miike surprises again by showing this most outrageous and fickle of directors can also serve up focused sentiment. At its most touching: a gorgeous-looking and amusing vignette of the boys on the beach; and then a moving sequence where as adults they are reunited and recreate the fooling around of their orphanage days. But there is also an eerie flashback when one boy returns home one day to find his foster father dying, covered in blood; a moment that distorts both visually and auditory in a fleeting scene that would match anything spooky by David Lynch.

Miike tears through tonal shifts and genre motifs without either pausing for breath or losing his grip. It is obvious that Miike is a master of genre-mash-ups. Soon, he is cutting between a slightly obscene play for children and nasty gangland massacre. Our two hit-men are going to perform in the play with a theatre group (who have lost a couple of members in an auto-accident, a scene punctuated with cartoon crash sounds) but they have a shady reputation of misbehaving at plays when they were kids, so the theatre owner is panicking when the hall fills up, and then: “Oh, Hello Mr. Mayor!” It’s all very much provincial comedy. Meanwhile, gangsters are blasted whilst having sex during a gangland slaughter, etc. Further meanwhile: the school play about loneliness and advocating togetherness includes inappropriate penis gags. Miike alternates between farce and bloodshed, reinforcing the question of what lays between children and the killers they become.

The film veers again: our hit-men, moved by their return to innocence or at least childishness and imagination, decide to use their skills as assassins to rid the world of bad guys and use the money to pay for vaccines for Third World Children: this is apparently what Shô has been doing all along and Rikki joins him happily. Our assassins kill for the starving even as they gorge themselves on noodles (food and bonding is a frequent motif). Miike has no qualms about utilising real footage of Third World children for his gangster fantasia: indeed, Miike can and will use anything, appropriate or not. The film’s harshest criticism of crime seemingly is that it deprives needy children. This leads the assassins to also become literal avenging angels when they sprout wings.

But finally a lifestyle shall catch up, vengeance breeds vengeance and these assassin-heroes get shot down (and we see their murderers as the children they once were too), yet that is not the end, for there’s genre satire to be had. They drag themselves soaked in blood, for at least a day, back to the ferry and their childhood home – stopping to help tourists take photos - as if insisting that they stumble relentlessly to the most sentimental ending they possibly can. This is surely just as unfeasible as the other ‘DOA’ endings with plausibility being determinedly elastic. But it seems more appropriate to see this not only as genre parody but also the last fantasy of dying hit-men – perhaps just like the finale of the film’s predecessor, it shouldn’t quite be trusted.

In the end, Miike leaves us with one final vision, full of tenderness, anger and possibility: the tiny fists of babies. That this is a symbol of hope rather than mawkishness shows again that Miike’s anything-goes aesthetic has a sharp focus and that perhaps the biggest surprise for his audience is his capacity for humanity as well as shock and horror.


Takashi Miike,  2002,  Japan

Writers: Hitoshi Ishikawa, Yoshinobu Kamo, Ichiro Ryu

Again, working only to his own agenda, Miike completes his ‘Dead or Alive’ trilogy with a science-fiction thriller. We are introduced to this future world – which looks very much like a low-budget dystopia – with a scene of a dirigible passing over the streets with the film’s title to Kôji Endô’s faux-Vangelis music. ‘Final’ is indeed partly a ‘Blade Runner’ pastiche: for example, a running gag is that there’s a guy that runs around continuously playing saxophone solos. Our lead hero Ryô (Shô Aikawa) is indeed a “replicant” (so the subtitles say), an affable android drifter who, when attacked or protecting street kids and with the help of a little 'Matrix'-style bullet-time, becomes a deadly killing machine. He ends up joining a small gang of rebels who refuse to take Dictator Wu’s birth control pills and reserve the right to have babies. Dictator Wu (Richard Chen) has more-or-less outlawed heterosexual procreation – his philosophy seeming to be that too many people means that war and devastation is inevitable and that homosexuality is the cure – and seems to rule a shabby post-apocalyptic society like some guerrilla leader in a run-down nation. There is really no extravagance or dazzling set design here. Indeed, it is all filmed with a slightly jaundiced and sickly-looked filter. Meanwhile, 0fficer Honda (Aikawa Shô) hunts the rebels and replicants for the Mayor…

It might be expected that Miike’s science-fiction would have all the razzle-dazzle of the previous ‘DOA’ films, but this is the most aesthetically restrained entry, looking like  a no-budget straight-to-video cash-in with a couple of intriguing diversions that, really, don’t go so far and where the characters just seem to come a full stop. And then any internal logic is jettisoned for the typically outrageous finale. 

'Final’ has its one truly eerie moment when, having tried to commit suicide, Honda’s wife lays half-dead on the bed sparking electricity.
The fight scenes are executed with flare, using wire-work and a brush of digital effects but these are used with restraint.  Mostly, the story mopes around Ryô and the rebels whilst they attempt an attack on Wu and then find their numbers dwindling down to nothing due to incompetence and betrayal. This includes their accidentally kidnapping Officer Honda’s son which triggers a subplot where the rebel kid and Honda’s son bond and share strips of celluloid and watch films in an old cinema. This cinema nods to the black-and-white film footage seen at the opening credits - which also casts a satirical light on all these replicants as just an extension of all that nonsense. Of course, this reference to celluloid dates this immensely in a digital age. This short-lived kidnapping triggers the revelation that Officer Honda is also an android, although he was unaware.

Wu, it seems, has reprogrammed the battle androids of the apocalyptic war, apparently making the world to his liking. Wu wears a shirt splashed with pink (faded blood?), dislikes breeding, acts a little slimy around his sax-playing catamite. ‘Final’ is homophobic in the same way that the first ‘DOA’ is misogynistic: it surely is guilty of that in some way, but as with all Miike there seems to be much more at play than meanness and such negativity does not strike as the agenda. It’s all grist-for-the-mill for Miike’s anything-goes mentality. Perversely, we are not going to find nuance in Dictator Wu as a predatory gay madman, but we might find a little nuance in Ryô’s and Honda’s experiences of being androids; and the homophobia is turned inside-out when – in a further satirical take on ‘Tetsuo’ (which was a coming-out film all of its own) – our two leads have a showdown. They have a decent little melee and then, heading for that outrageous ending, they merge into a crazy phallic robot which seems to satirise not only the homocentric nature of gangster and fighting genres, but also the fetishising of mutation and technology of the anime genre. Miike seems to care not at the ridiculous conclusion: it nods to the old film footage but also to the previous conclusions of the ‘DOA’ films and the appearance of the cosmos throughout the series. And then it’s as if the previous outrageousness turns throughout the series makes some sense if they were always just replicants… or something.

It certainly explains their sudden powers at the end of ‘DOA’ and the seeming cyborg duck castration in the childrens’ play during ‘Birds’ (yes, you read that correctly). The two leads melding together to make a phallic robot, seeming to then recall their roles in the previous films, certainly brings front-and-centre the homoerotic undertows of the first instalments. It’s audacious, ridiculous, nonsensical, funny and shows that the homophobia surrounding Wu shouldn’t be trusted and certainly isn’t the whole story. The silliness of the machismo of the action genre has surely been a prime target throughout the series.

Final’ is so different and undoubtedly the lesser work, but when taken as a whole, its go-nowhere story with a sudden outrageous finale is totally in keeping with the series as a whole. It is eccentric and fascinating. The downbeat turn of the drama is only obscured because there is the sudden mania of the denouement which feels stuck on. But even the scrappy nature of the narrative seems to point that Miike isn’t interested in filler and of the wealth of ideas crashing and splashing into one  another. Even if the whole series is ultimately some kind of cyborg dream of past lives, or something, then that is what we will go along with.


Miike has used the same two characters and put them in three different 'DOA' scenarios like they are reincarnations, different models of the same character throughout time and genre. Rikki is often unintentionally laughable with his macho-posing. Shô is the more playful and flexible performer and manages to reach genuine character and pathos amidst the absurdities.

The flaws are obvious: haphazard pacing and revelations just come out of nowhere for example. Some may find this confusing; others may just see it as cutting out the extraneous stuff and allowing the audience to piece things together. It’s no surprise in interviews with Shô and Rikki that they both convey that there was a sense of improvisation when working on ‘Dead or Alive’. Such scattershot plotting ordinarily doesn’t convince me in a lot of Eastern cinema, but Miike’s sense of the chaotic seems to me to be so aligned with deconstructing genre tropes in the name of anarchic film-making that it works. It also means that it is usually on second watches that I truly determine what I feel. For example, initially I enjoyed ‘Birds’ the most, but on repeat watch I think equally highly of ‘DOA’ and I was more open to the merits of ‘Final’. They all centre on outsiders trying to do best for whatever family units they have, all contain sentiment and the ludicrous, the inspired and unruly, violence and melancholy to create a series that is frequently brilliant, silly and riveting in equal measure. Often all at once.

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