In the years before he garnered notoriety as the cinematic agent provocateur behind queasily unpredictable and often ultraviolent films like Audition and Ichi the Killer, Takashi Miike made his bones toiling away in Japan’s direct-to-video V-cinema market. Shinjuku Triad Society, the first film in the Black Society Trilogy, was also his first to receive a legitimate theatrical release. Very loosely linked by their examination of cross-cultural tensions (and by the presence of actor Tomorowo Taguchi), these films find Miike articulating themes of social alienation and aberration that would resound throughout his filmography. The trilogy’s focus on ethnic minorities living “catch as catch can” in the margins of the cultural mainstream can be attributed, at least in part, to Miike’s own mixed Korean-Japanese heritage.
Shinjuku Triad Society riffs on a prototypical 1970s yakuza film like Kinji Fukasaku’s Cops vs. Thugs with a story that pits half-Chinese cop Kiriya (Kippei Shiina) against ruthless gang boss Wang (Tomorowo Taguchi) in a battle for the conscience of Kiriya’s younger brother, who acts as Wang’s legal counsel. You know you’re in Miike terrain, however, when, in the middle of a foot pursuit, one of the detectives steps into a pile of shit in the middle of the street, pausing long enough to inquire incredulously, “Is that human?” These cops also have some rather peculiar ideas about interrogation techniques involving handy furniture and not entirely coerced sodomy. Wang, as it develops, is the head of a black-market organ-smuggling ring that uses the castoff residents of a mainland Chinese orphanage for donor fodder. Neither side, needless to say, can claim much in the way of moral high ground.
Shinjuku Triad Society is rife with the requisite double- and triple-crosses, dirty cops, and hookers with proverbial hearts of gold, all run through the grinder of Miike’s idiosyncratic sensibility, which consistently finds ways to blindside the viewer with out-of-left-field developments. Miike directs at a breakneck pace, signaled by the kinetic, disorienting montage that opens the film, set to the rhythms of a DJ dropping beats in a Shinjuku nightclub. Canny color-coding contrasts the neon-hued and black-swathed underworld with the searing yellows of the Chinese countryside. The ending is notable for the way it nonchalantly lets slip Kiriya’s fate as an anecdotal aside by the film’s never-identified (and possibly unreliable) narrator.
Rainy Dog is a more low-key affair. Given its Taipei location and portrait of petty criminality, the film reveals a surprising affinity with Hou Hsiao-hsien’s Goodbye, South, Goodbye. This is a brooding character study seemingly more interested in hanging out with its protagonist—a yakuza triggerman, Yuji (Show Aikawa), exiled to Taiwan and forced to take the odd contract from a local triad boss—during his rain-drenched off-hours than it is in the almost offhand blasts of violence that ensue whenever he goes to work. Over the course of the film, Yuji manages to surround himself with an unlikely alternative family: mute Chen (Jianqin He), who may or may not be his biological offspring, and Lilly (Xianmei Chen), a prostitute who bonds with Yuji over their interest in personal computing. But, as is often the case in Miike’s films, Yuji’s poor decision-making soon puts everybody in mortal jeopardy.
The resemblance to Hou’s film is most obvious in a protracted real-time conversation between Yuji and another bootless yakuza (Taguchi) who turns up from time to time to harass him. Miike shoots the scene in a disjointed slow motion that smears the background into a dreamy blur. Rainy Dog not only owes a narrative debt to the Lone Wolf and Cub series with its scenes of Chen trailing behind Yuji as he executes his contracts, but Miike often emulates frequent Lone Wolf director Kenji Misumi’s penchant for high-angle shots that fix characters against hemmed-in backdrops like butterflies mounted on a display board. The film’s memorably bleak finale, in which Yuji’s killer advises Chen to come looking for him when he’s all grown up if he still wants payback, suggests that cycles of violence are not easily broken. It’s also a moment that Quentin Tarantino, with suitably baroque flourishes of dialogue, incorporated into Kill Bill: Volume 1.
Ley Lines occupies a sort of midway point between the earlier films: more scattershot than Rainy Dog, less outrageous than Shinjuku Triad Society. The story concerns a trio of outcast rural youths, led by half-Chinese Ryuichi (Kazuki Kitamura), who elect to seek their fortunes in Tokyo. The title thus becomes a metaphor for the lines of attraction that extend from the countryside to the heart of the big city. The best the threesome can manage, however, is landing a gig peddling bootleg toluene in the red-light district.
The radical disparity between the trio’s hopes and their increasingly straitened circumstances is handled with wry humor, and there’s a touching sequence wherein the trio find communal shelter with a troubled hooker from Shanghai, Anita (Dan Li). But, this being a Miike film, things are bound to end badly. Ley Lines has a more vivid color palette than the previous films, with certain scenes saturated in reds and oranges. The final shot is a dizzying helicopter pull-back that eventually reveals Ryuichi and Anita receding into a defenselessly miniscule vanishing point, adrift in a tiny boat amid the seemingly endless expanse of an indifferent ocean.
The HD masters for the films in this trilogy were, per the liner notes, provided by Kadokawa Pictures, so it isn't clear how much restoration work Arrow put into this release; at any rate, the films look a good bit better here than they did on prior DVDs. Image quality tends to improve as the films get younger, but all three are prone to thick, noisy grain fields, instances of black crush in lowlight scenes, and a generally soft image. Colors are rendered fairly vividly, while the delineation of fine details varies considerably, not only from film to film, but sometimes from scene to scene. The PCM stereo tracks sound vigorous enough; music cues and ambient effects have sufficient resonance and dynamism. The subtitles are careful to indicate differences in language by bracketing off dialogue not spoken in the film's dominant tongue: Mandarin in Rainy Dog, Japanese in the other two.
All three titles come with commentary from Tom Mes, author of Agitator: The Cinema of Takashi Miike. Mes is particularly good at tying the Black Society films into Miike's ever-burgeoning body of work, pointing out their stylistic and thematic interrelations, and outlining Miike's evolving technical craftsmanship. Mes sounds extremely laidback here; by his own admission, he sometimes lapses into awed quietude. Still, these tracks are chock-full of useful information for Miike fans. The Miike interview covers his early love of Bruce Lee movies, apprenticeship under Shohei Imamura, first forays into ultra-low-budget V cinema, and memories of the Black Society films. The interview with Show Aikawa focuses on entering into "a dark world" in his early collaborations with Kiyoshi Kurosawa on the wonderfully named Suit Yourself or Shoot Yourself series, getting seriously knocked about during fight scenes, and working extensively with Miike on (among others) the Black Society and Dead or Alive series.
Takashi Miike's loosely linked examinations of social ostracization and criminality get reasonably robust transfers and a few solid supplements from Arrow Video.