Arrow Video: Black Society Trilogy: Ley Lines (1999) - Reviewed

After the depths of despair scraped by the second entry in Takashi Miike’s Black Society Trilogy, the insanely prolific iconoclastic cult auteur brought the loosely connected series of yakuza films to a close with the transgressive yet oddly poignant Ley Lines.  Returning to the shock tactics employed in Shinjuku Triad Society while filtering the proceedings through the broken familial sentiment in Rainy Dog, the film concerns a band of Japanese teens of Chinese descent who emigrate from rural Japan to the big city life. 

On the way they encounter a myriad of setbacks including foraging in a squalid flat while hastily involving themselves in illegal drug trade before befriending a Shanghai prostitute.  Desperate to escape the Hell of their making and a ruthless crime syndicate bent on their destruction, the four misfits fight tooth and nail to make a new life for themselves even as the forces of yakuza life begin to close around them.  Clearly a tragedy from the get go with a finale that is likely to burst your heart, Ley Lines provides a fitting end to Miike’s Black Society Trilogy while standing on it’s own as one of the director’s most emotionally galvanizing works to date.  This is one of the rare times the ordinarily outrageous punkish goofball of underground Japanese cinema has an uncanny ability of making you feel really bad.

Of the three films, Ley Lines offers up images and black humor that rival the gross out gags of Shinjuku Triad Society while simultaneously tugging at the sentimental heartstrings in a manner that’s genuinely affecting.  Containing arguably the most shocking vista in the Black Society Trilogy yet involving a prostitute’s horrific encounter with a perverse client, Ley Lines isn’t easy viewing even for the most seasoned Miike die-hards.  Ley Lines also returns to the explicit gore adorning Shinjuku Triad Society including but not limited to severed limbs, arterial spray and a scene where a man is drowned in toluene with his belly swollen like a balloon. 

Despite these scenes, Ley Lines manages to make you care deeply for these dispossessed characters scratching around in the dirt and pavement trying to make something of themselves in the crime syndicate.  Over the course of the movie, these four riff raff gradually form something of a family unit despite their involvement in violent crimes.  The film is also easily the most technically proficient of the trilogy, employing a wide variety of cinematographic techniques including intentional scratching of the negative, self-censorship including the bleeping out of dialogue that surely informed Kill Bill Vol. 1, wide angled lenses and a helicopter shot that is among the best bits of filmmaking in Miike’s oeuvre. 

As a closing final chapter, the Black Society Trilogy ends on a decidedly somber note but one you won’t soon forget or easily dispense with.  For those pining for the outlandish and outrageous Miike who would present himself in the celebrated Dead or Alive trilogy, the Black Society Trilogy overall gives viewers something closer to the 1970s yakuza pictures of Kinji Fukusaku.  Gritty, unpleasant and unforgiving yet awash in human warmth despite the characters being less than admirable, Miike’s far more realistic yakuza trilogy is likely to leave you feeling emotionally drained but rewarded by the pleasure of seeing one of Japan’s most idiosyncratic storytellers in the act of finding his wings.


- Andrew Kotwicki