Anything can happen in a Takashi Miike film. In Dead or Alive, for instance, a crime narrative segues into fantasy without warning, revealing two avengers to be capable of producing a powerful orb and a rocket launcher from out of nowhere in the tradition of Looney Tunes. In Dead or Alive 2: Birds, the blossoming goodness of the two protagonists is literalized when angel wings grow out of their back—a development that’s at odds with the pseudo-realist “rules” of the crime genre that the film has more or less honored up until this scene (not including the moment where a woman cradles a human penis the size of an alley cat). 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. In most films, you unquestioningly see what you pay to see, while Miike’s cinema fosters a sense of chaos that rattles one’s cage by any means necessary.
The primary tension of a Miike film pertains to questions of purpose, as we’re taught to value art in which formality and theme are either in harmony or purposeful disharmony. Is the emotional and sociological resonance of Miike’s cinema intentionally achieved, or is his scattershot, machine-gun style hitting robust thematic game by accident? Do these distinctions matter? What exactly drives Miike as an artist? Is he an auteur or a prolific sausage grinder for Japan’s V-cinema market, who got lucky with a couple of surprisingly highbrow hits? Complicating matters further are films such as Audition and 13 Assassins, which show that Miike can play the role of international classicist. How can he direct the profound, psychologically shattering Audition and return to films like Yakuza Apocalypse, in which a man turns into a gecko while battling his foes in (incredibly staged) slapstick-y battle royales?
A pivotal project in the development of Miike’s sensibility, the Dead or Alive trilogy isn’t likely to answer any of those questions to the satisfaction of a novice or detractor. But for someone on Miike’s wild and amazingly dexterous wavelength, these films represent nirvana: a hit of pure aesthetic cocaine. This isn’t a series in the conventional sense, but rather a collection of wild riffs on a familiar theme. Miike takes the concept of two macho rivals with distinct similarities—a la Michael Mann’s Heat—and stretches it to accommodate several of the most audacious sequences of his career.
All three films feature V-cinema superstars Riki Takeuchi and Show Aikawa as opponents: in Dead or Alive, Takeuchi and Aikawa play a gangland killer and a detective, respectively; in Birds, they’re hitmen hired by different contractors to orchestrate the same murders; and in Final, which is set over 300 years in the future, they play robots who eventually team up against a venal mayor. Final‘s robot premise tellingly and movingly literalizes the theme running through the entire trilogy: that the various incarnations of these characters across the films are different yet the same, as they’re all cogs operating within a vast and indifferent classist machine.
The outrageous bits in Miike’s films tend to distract us from their deliberate, mournful, and empathetic qualities. Dead or Alive opens with an astonishing orgy of sex and violence and includes a brutal, heartbreaking murder in which a stripper is drugged and gang-fucked off screen, then drowned on screen in an inflatable pool full of her own shit, while her yakuza killer gives a monologue ruing his vulnerability. Miike characteristically punctuates this scene with a crass joke (a fart bubble arises from the pool while the gangster talks), but the demolition of this woman is wrenching, filmed by Miike with a sense of rapturous terror and humanism as jokiness gives way to tragedy.
This murder embodies the fear of annihilation and irrelevancy goading the protagonists, who’re rootless and alienated, on losing sides of an expanding globalist war between the yakuza and triad, which represents the larger tensions between Japan and China. Takeuchi’s character, Ryuuichi, belongs to a family living on the margins of Shinjuku’s underworld, occasionally paying homage to his deceased parents in their swampland graveyard, which is dotted by pitifully tilting tombstones on the verge of sinking in the mud. This landscape is captured in images worthy of Edgar Allan Poe’s writing, signifying an autumnal, class-conscious melancholia that’s present in most of Miike’s films. Aikawa’s Detective Jojima, meanwhile, is a cop who values his work over his family, a wife and daughter who’re straying from him. Jojima sleeps on the couch at home, and we know that Jojima’s wife is cheating on him, but this subject is mentioned passingly and without resolution.
This dramatic infrastructure is at odds with the wild ultraviolence, broad comedy, lurid colors, and surreality that also dot Dead or Alive. Miike sees no subject, no whim, and no fantasy as being below the purview of art. In Dead or Alive, an instrument for performing an enema is introduced as a crude joke, and then paid off with the woman’s painful death in the pool. In the film’s opening montage, a gangster is killed while fucking another man in a public bathroom, which Miike directs with a sense of comic sexual ecstasy that’s deeply uncomfortable given the circumstances. Throwaway jokes about necrophilia and bestiality are staged with an unceremonious-ness that might be reserved for a standard exposition scene, of which there are few.
Birds and Final are less unhinged by comparison to their predecessor, which is yet another fashion of countering expectation. Just as viewers have acquiesced to his brand of gonzo anything-goes figurativeness, Miike does a U-turn and more or less commits to sincere sentimentality. Birds tracks the childhoods of Takeuchi and Aikawa’s killers, exploring a troubled country, haunted by atrocity, that fears its best years may be behind it, while Final sparely, eccentrically revels in a post-apocalyptic nightmare in which society has regressed to a feudal corporate state.
Both films have moments that are often staged in single takes that savor the superb performances and landscapes, which are rendered with docudramatic vividness. The killers of Birds sometimes literally regress to their childhood states, which Miike refuses to psychoanalyze, allowing the free-associative poetry to speak for itself. In Final, Aikawa’s robot tells a woman that he loves her, and she regards him with glances that are at once explicit and opaque, suggesting the ecstatic emotional wealth of the unsayable. Of course, Miike still ends the film with the conjoining of the two rivals into a singular penis robot, which is presumably hell-bent on sodomizing the mayor who’s fucked their world. Call it symbolism as a game of bug-fuck one-upmanship.
There's quite a bit of grit in these image transfers, but it's generally pleasing, as the Dead or Alive trilogy is supposed to look rough. Primary colors are vibrant, honoring the flamboyant inventiveness of the cinematography, though the darker colors can be murky, and there appears to be instances of black crush. Clarity varies across the films: Final looks the most pristine, while the first film's image is a little soft. The texture of the images, however, is terrific, giving one a visceral idea of varying surfaces, from guns to skin to blood. Conventional polish doesn't benefit these images anyway, which revel in an unbridled yet unconventionally beautiful seediness. So different standards apply to this set, then, and this restoration is true to the source material. The stereo soundtracks subtly mix the percussive orchestrations of the big battle scenes with the graceful ambient sounds of the quieter dramatic moments, lending the films newfound sonic clarity and dramatic oomph.
The new audio commentary for Dead or Alive by Takashi Miike biographer Tom Mes (who also recorded commentaries for Arrow Video's release of Miike's Black Society Trilogy) offers an invaluable resource for understanding the series, particularly for American audiences who're largely unfamiliar with the Japanese and Chinese cultures that significantly influences these films. Mes also mounts a persuasive account of Miike's artistry, observing the subtlety of his staging of the quieter moments, often in long takes, while comparing Dead or Alive with one of its influences, Michael Mann's Heat. In one notable riff, Mes observes that Miike's staging of the pivotal meeting between the antiheroes is more original than Mann's handling of a similar scene. Mes also offers quite a bit of illuminating context pertaining to Japan's V-cinema scene and to Miike and actors Riki Takeuchi and Show Aikawa's place in that world. New interviews with Takeuchi and Aikawa complement Mes's perspectives, and archive interviews and featurettes provide a glimpse of the films' productions and promotions. Rounding out this solid package is a booklet with an essay by Kat Ellinger, editor-in-chief of Diabolique magazine, new commissioned artwork by Orlando Arocena, and a gallery of trailers.
Takashi Miike's insane, ridiculous, intangibly haunting gangster flicks receive appropriately rough and lurid transfers, as well as a plumb must-listen of an audio commentary.