Arrow Video: Dead or Alive Trilogy

If Takashi Miike’s recently re-released Black Society Trilogy was intended to channel the bleak sense of hopelessness and shocking violence of Kinji Fukusaku’s early 70s yakuza pictures, his celebrated and still over the top Dead or Alive trilogy torpedoes everything we thought we knew about the yakuza picture with a wickedly energetic gross-out comic lunatic sense of humor.  While imperfect with the third picture slouching somewhat, Dead or Alive are easily among the wildest offerings in the exploitation auteur’s oeuvre with some scenes so outlandish you’re honestly not sure how to react. 

What stands out among all three disparate genre exercises are the leading cast members.  Despite vastly different stories and eras of the yakuza picture being depicted, all three films star leading stars Riki Takeuchi and Show Aikawa.  The first picture and arguably the best with Miike at his purest before Gozu, the second picture then dials the shocks down with an oddly sentimental tale about friendship and our inner child in the yakuza underworld before the final installment parodies science fiction genre tropes with more than a few jabs at John Woo.  All three films couldn’t be more different and yet all three display Miike with a new regard for the yakuza picture as each one provides a unique meta commentary on what we’ve come to know about genre conventions.

Labeled on the poster art as ‘a daring exercise in ultra-violent extremes’, one knows right away going into Miike’s truly wacky, mindblowing and at times deliberately offensive will leave you coming away not knowing what hit you.  It’s as if Miike decided to remake the Black Society Trilogy as an aggressively hallucinatory black comedy.  In any event, the long awaited high-definition release of Miike’s still electrifying Dead or Alive trilogy finally arrives from Arrow Video with new remastered transfers that will make staunch collectors who paid top dollar for the Kino DVD boxed set ditch their old sets in a second.  Without further adieu, ready or not, into Miike’s explosive, outrageous and visually stunning Dead or Alive trilogy we go!  

Dead or Alive (1999)

Made in the same year as he wrapped up the aforementioned Black Society Trilogy with the heartbreaking Ley Lines as well as his romantic comedy turned horror shockfest Audition, Miike’s Dead or Alive is less of a modern yakuza picture as it is a hyperkinetic music video loaded with images that tightrope walk between goofball hilarity and genuinely horrific transgressions.  From the opening shot of the central characters counting to four before the punk infused guitar rock roars to manic and crazed life, this is the close to a punk rock video as the director has come before refocusing his sights on the gritty aesthetic of his Black Society Trilogy with Deadly Outlaw Rekka.  

Prepared or not, it’s impossible to not get sucked into Miike’s colorful whirlwind of depravity.  Within the first ten minutes we get everything from gay rape, prostitution, slit throats, the longest line of cocaine ever put on film and a slow motion shot of ramen noodles flying at the camera after a yakuza’s abdomen is blown open with a double barreled shotgun.  To think it stops there is not only naïve, it’s a bit dangerous as Miike’s epic fairy tale of yakuza supermen versus the hard boiled police force can and likely will proceed to transgress over your safe spaces.  A subplot involving bestiality porn and a scene involving a prostitute drowned in a baby pool dripping with her own feces that remain among the most horrendous things Miike’s ever depicted, managing to top the necrophilia gang rape in Full Metal Yakuza.  

And yet this high octane tale of yakuza ultraviolence isn’t all just shock and awe.  Rather, we’re drawn into the opponents’ hardships with both sides trying to inject some sense of decency in an increasingly corrupt hellhole.  This of course is due in large part to the leading action stars, Riki Takeuchi and Show Aikawa.  Aikawa, fresh off the Black Society Trilogy, creates a tough cop fearless of yakuza bosses whose home life with his estranged wife and sickly daughter leave no room for rejuvenation from his daily routine of crime fighting.  Takeuchi with his Not altogether unlike Al Pacino’s character in Heat, except to say the mutual ends of Aikawa and Takeuchi’s characters far exceed any kind of cartoonish mayhem seen in your average Saturday Morning Cartoons.  

For those who know what they’re getting themselves into, Miike’s farcical and extreme genre exercise will either leave you running for the hills or feeling as if you’ve been on the most thrilling amusement park ride in living memory.  The opening and closing scenes to Dead or Alive alone are the stuff of creative filmmaking magic expressed without fear or restraint, crossing lines while forming new ones in the same step.  Clearly not for everyone except those curious of what lies within Miike’s Pandora’s Box who upon wading through two hours of will find despite the extremes, Dead or Alive is a most rewarding and even joyful cinematic experience that upon the closing credits will likely put a smile on your face.


Dead or Alive 2: Birds (2000)

Where the first film bottled up a wicked energy and found closure in spiraling so far over the top the only logical response is confused laughter, the second installment in Miike’s Dead or Alive trilogy may in fact be the most personal expression of nostalgia since the director’s own Young Thugs: Nostalgia film.  Given the subtitle Birds, Dead or Alive 2 disregards the first film while keeping the two lead actors in the main roles despite changing characters and the story arc altogether.   

Concerning a yakuza assassin who’s hit is taken away by another hitman, Mizuki (Show Aikawa, this time donning a bright blond haircut) tracks down Shuichi (Riki Takeuchi) for vengeance only to discover they’re in fact long lost best friends reunited. What follows slows down the energy of the first Dead or Alive, opting instead for a bittersweet and nostalgic rumination on how childhood friendship never ages despite the two characters having reached adulthood.   

Dead or Alive 2: Birds offers up the same transgressions we’ve come to expect from Miike including characters who are brutally murdered while having sex, painful traumatic memories of suicide and a murdered yakuza with a penis the size of a footlong.  While all very campy, shocking or silly, grounding all of this is a genuinely affecting story of two childhood friends who come to terms with their reunion while gradually coming to accept the paths their lives in crime have taken them.  

Dead or Alive 2: Birds, contrary to the first film which was buried deep in the cityscape, contains a greater wealth of scenic beauty moving away into the farmlands and mountains with many grand vistas of the lake and beach beset by a bright blue sky.  Also adding to the emotional crux of the film is Chu Ishikawa’s mournful score, evoking a sense of longing and nostalgia, creating one of my personal favorite original scores for a Miike film.  

Most delightful among the many genuinely fun surprises scattered throughout the gritty carnage is a children’s traveling theater which loses two of it’s players in an auto accident, forcing Mizuki and Shuichi to take up the roles featuring the rough and tough Riki Takeuchi dressed in a lion costume!  There’s also a truly funny send up of action clichés in which Mizuki narrowly escapes a band of assassins by reaching behind his back and pulling out a cinder block.  It’s a deliberately unrealistic yet meta sight gag which parodies the action cliché while still working in context. 

Only in the third act does the hypnotic and ever slightly sentimental central story thread start to waver as Miike gets too caught up in his own weirdness, particularly involving three truly peculiar yakuza assassins hot on Mizuki and Shuichi’s trail.  Fortunately the first two chapters and final denouement for Mizuki and Shuichi is so well done that we can forgive the anecdotal strangeness adorning the third act.  

Those expecting Miike’s shock gimmicks will indeed get them in Dead or Alive 2: Birds but probably the biggest shock of all is for all of the violence and bloodshed how it all boils down to a very relatable story about growing up, yearning for our youth and how life only gets harder with age.  While the first film still contains a tangible energy which exceeds the second, Miike’s expression of nostalgia remains one of the few genuinely touching films in the director’s oeuvre and arguably one of the only yakuza pictures to tap into the sentiments of our inner child.


Dead or Alive: Final (2002)

Takashi Miike’s Black Society Trilogy, though downbeat, ended on a strong closing chapter with Ley Lines, arguably the most sentimental and profoundly affecting of Miike’s films.  Sadly however, the third time hasn’t proven to be the charm with Miike’s Dead or Alive trilogy.  Though a somewhat satisfying conclusion to the loosely connected trilogy, Dead or Alive: Final posits Riki Takeuchi and Show Aikawa in an obvious parody of science fiction films of the last twenty years that ultimately suffers from the genre tropes as opposed to exploiting and transcending them. 

Set in a decrepit neo-Yokohama in the year 2346 A.D., Dead or Alive: Final depicts a totalitarian future where procreation has been outlawed (THX:1138 anyone?) and homosexuality is the new government enforced norm, meanwhile an underground rebellion protesting the idea goes as far as to steal directly from Blade Runner with constant references to “replicants” (yes, it goes there).  When it isn’t sending up The Matrix or Aldous Huxley’s Brave New World, it finally tries to connect itself to the prior Dead or Alive films despite being almost totally unrelated.   

While often amusing with Miike’s usual sight gags, it is easily the weakest film in the trilogy for ultimately peddling things we’ve seen dozens of times over before.  Some of the violence and bloodshed is there but nowhere remotely near the transgressions seen in the first two Dead or Alive films.  Another problem with this Dead or Alive entry is that Takeuchi and Aikawa don’t get nearly as much screen time as side characters that are hard to care about.  Save for a few standout scenes including a riff on the Wachowskis’ ‘bullet-time’ effect where a replicant catches and throws a bullet back at his adversary, most of Dead or Alive: Final leaves Takeuchi and Aikawa in the background until the third act.  While there’s some admirable boldness in shifting the focus away from the two leads for a change, it makes for a decidedly less engaging Dead or Alive film. 

One facet that’s interesting is Miike’s treatment of women in this picture, who get off the hook this time around as opposed to the horrendous fates endured by women in the previous movies.  The film easily contains the most female characters of the trilogy which again is a bold move but nowhere near as interesting as what Takeuchi and Aikawa do onscreen.  Miike’s great at developing rich and conflicted characters but he’s also dependent on what Takeuchi and Aikawa bring to the proceedings and save a moment where Takeuchi has to show heartbreak, there isn’t a whole lot either actor does here that’s altogether new.  

Although loosely connected to Miike’s trilogy with some genuinely strange moments involving a giant mecha with a penis for a head (Tetsuo: The Iron Man anyone?), Dead or Alive: Final feels less like a Dead or Alive film than a loose kid cousin to things like Returner or Casshern.  Also where the first film had a hypnotic pull as did the second, Dead or Alive: Final tends to drag and meander.  That’s not to say it isn’t worth watching as Miike die-hards will get some enjoyment out of it.  But when compared to the first two entries, Dead or Alive: Final is inevitably a disappointment.  That after-credits coda involving some random elder playing an acoustic guitar was something I guess.


- Andrew Kotwicki