Arrow Video: The Black Society Trilogy: Shinjuku Triad Society (1995) - Reviewed

Before the controversial Japanese cult extreme provocateur Takashi Miike achieved international notoriety for such transgressive masterworks as his romantic psychodrama Audition, the blood and entrails drenched Ichi the Killer and the samurai action saga 13 Assassins, the director’s first splash from V-Cinema to the theater screen arrived with his loosely defined Black Society Trilogy

Beginning with the ultraviolent triad shocker Shinjuku Triad Society before moving onto the understated and somewhat sentimental Rainy Dog and finally concluding with the somber Ley Lines, Miike’s trilogy of yakuza films both revitalized the crime genre in Japanese film and echoed the 1970s cinematic sensibilities of the ferociously realistic yakuza films of Kinju Fukusaku (Battle Royale). 

Though considerably less flashy than his Dead or Alive trilogy and lacking the lunatic absurdities of Gozu or Visitor Q, the Black Society Trilogy showcases the director trying his hand at a medium that would become his mainstay although he still directs V-Cinema features from time to time.  These three modern yakuza films of the new millennia forecast the emergence of an important contemporary filmmaker characterized by his excessive extremities while never losing sight of the arcs driving his often dispossessed or astray protagonist’s narratives forward. 

For years Miike’s Black Society Trilogy was only available in a poorly mastered DVD trilogy issued by Artsmagic, rendering all three films nearly unwatchable for the lack of detail and poor contrast levels, until now.  Released this week on blu-ray disc, the Black Society Trilogy comes from Arrow Video in a new collectible set, housing all three features on two discs with new interviews by Takashi Miike and frequent collaborator Show Aikawa.  With this, the Movie Sleuth takes a look at all three films in this underrated, lesser known series of films by Japan’s very own enfant terrible.

Shinjuku Triad Society (1995)

From the opening montage of rough, gritty looking scenes concerning a police officer infiltrating a Triad group intercut with scenes of gay prostitution, Takashi Miike’s Shinjuku Triad Society displays the Yakuza and Triad underworld as we’ve never seen before.  Multilingual, often shifting between Chinese, Japanese and Taiwanese, the first entry in Miike’s Black Society Trilogy is the tale of tough, conflicted cop Kiriya (Kippei Shiina) who will use any means necessary to bring down the notorious Dragon’s Claw gang including resorting to rape and torture to get his detainees talking.  Meanwhile Kiriya’s brother Yoshihito just so happens to be the attorney for the very gang he’s determined to bring down. 

All the while internal warfare echoing the ultraviolence of the Outlaw VIP Gangster films seems to happen both without warning and with a great deal of arterial spray.  Touching on the black market including but not limited to drug and organ dealing and a particular rumination on male prostitution, Shinjuku Triad Society gives viewers fascinatingly conflicted characters while serving up the harshness of the crime underworld without compromise or exit. 

For instance, scenes of heterosexual and largely homosexual rape play out in real time but unlike the forthcoming Dead or Alive or Ichi the Killer, these scenes don’t so much play for shock as they illustrate the harsh realities of this underworld and the contradictions of the characters.  Furthermore, we’re given enough information and back histories of every character that we understand the motivations behind their transgressions.

While the Yakuza genre more or less gets a much needed booster shot with Miike’s transgressive, often coarse approach to the proceedings, this film unmistakably forecasts the impish prankster that would explode the world in Dead or Alive and give birth to an adult in Gozu.  Though on the surface it tells a straightforward ensemble Yakuza piece, Miike litters it with such extremes that the uninitiated will most definitely recoil at the myriad of horrors unfolding onscreen. 

Clearly a microbudget effort spoken of the same breath as Kinji Fukusaku’s relentlessly gritty Yakuza films of the 1970s, Miike’s grimy aesthetic is both hard on the eyes and oddly appropriate for this kind of ugly and sordid tale of criminal investigation.  Fans accustomed to Miike’s over the top brand of ultraviolent extremes and jet black humor will find Shinjuku Triad Society a somewhat more sobering experience comparatively, but fans of the hard boiled Yakuza crime genre will come away feeling elated by the rough and ragged world being presented here.  Not for all tastes but Miike die-hards are urged to check this one out immediately as it displays the emergence of an original voice in Japanese film flexing his big screen muscles for the very first time.


- Andrew Kotwicki