Takashi Miike’s Black Society Trilogy

It’s hard to say what makes these a trilogy, as opposed to, say, any three randomly-selected Takashi Miike movies. True, they cover similar themes, but most of his work covers the sleazy underbelly of Japanese life. And chronologically, they’re from a four-year period (1995-1999) during which timespan, Miike directed fourteen other features, according to the IMDB, so nor do they form an uninterrupted body of work. Unlike his Dead or Alive trilogy, there’s not even the same lead actors, though some people do appear in more than one.

This isn’t to deny their significance, particularly with regard to Shinjuku Triad Society, which was Miike’s first theatrical film. An award from the Japanese Director’s Guild also helped lift him from his origins as a director of straight-to-video films [Not that this has quite the same stigma in Japan] towards his current reputation as a maverick auteur; Shinjuku perhaps marks the birth (or, at least, the post-birth heavy drinking session, down your local pub) of the mad excess for which he has become renowned.

If there’s anything that links the films, it’s that the protagonists are all ‘fish out of water’. Shinjuku has Taiwanese gangsters and a half-Chinese cop in Japan, Rainy Dog has an outcast Yakuza in Taiwan, while Ley Lines has three mixed-race country boys heading to Tokyo. Another common feature is that Miike seems to have absolutely no interest in portraying the fairer sex at all. The trilogy has a total of two female characters of any significance – both are skanky whores. However, the men aren’t exactly sympathetically portrayed either, and anyone watching Miike films expecting a feel good flick, needs their expectations sharply adjusted.

At the end of this month, Artsmagic release the trilogy, both individually and as a box-set. Not only is the latter cheaper, it’s also about half the thickness of buying the individual discs – if your house in anything like ours, with shelf-space at a premium, this is an important factor. Either way, each disc has extra features including interviews with Miike and a running commentary by writer Tom Mes. Normally, having a speaker unconnected with the film, would be a cheap, lazy cop-out (see the Showgirls alleged “VIP” edition), but having endured Miike’s badly unfocused efforts on the Ichii the Killer commentary, I’m happy to settle for Mes. He can also put the films in the right cultural context for a Western audience, something that helps understand them. Besides, the interviews for each movie are there if you want Miike’s insights.

If you’re a fan of Miike, the set comes recommended. All three films are solid works which show how he’s developed as a film-maker, and showcase different facets which prove he’s much more than a sex ‘n’ violence purveyor. Not that these films will be mistaken for Disney flicks, of course. Novices to his offbeat world should probably start with Shinjuku Triad Society, as it’s the most accessible, and work out from there. You’ll soon discover that no-one in the West makes films anything like Takashi Miike.

Shinjuku Triad Society (1995)

Rating: B

Dir: Takashi Miike
Star: Kippei Shiina, Tomorowo Taguchi, Takeshi Caesar, Kyosuke Izutsu

If you ever go to Japan, stay out of the hands of the police. That’s the main lesson learned from this film, where it’s hard to say who’s more twisted: Taiwanese gangster Wang (Taguchi), who has funded a hospital in his home town purely to ensure an uninterrupted supply of transplant organs, or equally brutal cop Kiriya, who uses rape as an interrogation technique. It doesn’t help that his brother, a law student, is involved with Wang, and Kiriya takes it upon himself to “rescue” his brother from life-choices he deems questionable. Adding extra depth is Kiriya’s part-Chinese origins, which doom him to the fringes of Japanese society, much like the triads he is fighting – the film’s dialogue mixes Chinese and Japanese languages to enhance the ‘stranger in a strange land’ feel. Yet, for a borderline psychopath, Kiriya doesn’t come across as a bad guy; he’s just doing what he must, to protect both his family, and a society that hardly respects him.

The tone falls somewhere between John Woo and Takeshi Kitano; specifically, A Better Tomorrow and Violent Cop, with perhaps a little Bad Lieutenant in the mix too. Despite this, it’s unmistakeably Miike: politically incorrect (the woman Kiriya rapes falls in love with him!), and containing the usual “I can’t believe I’m seeing this” moments. There are also dollops of black humour which, combined with the gleeful execution, defuse some – not all – potential grimness. The film does lose its way somewhat, with a detour to Taiwan that is probably unnecessary, before returning to the expected bloody climax when Kiriya finally comes face-to-face with Wang. This may not be a film with many surprises, but even though it’s early Miike, it’s clear he had talent to spare, and a style all his own.

Rainy Dog (1997)

Rating: C

Dir: Takashi Miike
Star: Sho Aikawa, Xian-Mai Chen, Ming-Jun Gao, Tomorowo Taguchi

Yakuza footsoldier Yuji (Aikawa) is hiding out in Taiwan, but is having a very bad day; not only has he been told he can’t return to Japan, but a small, mute child has been dumped on him by a woman, who says it’s Yuji’s son. It says a lot about his phlegmatic approach that he does little but shrug, and get on with his new role as a hitman for a local gangster, while the kid tags along. After Yuji is lucky enough to stumble onto a large sum of money during one of his jobs, he tries to escape, with son and a local hooker (Chen) in tow. However, he soon finds he is eminently disposable, when his boss is made an offer by the brother of Yuji’s last victim.

We were one step ahead almost throughout – when a lighter is carefully placed in a breast pocket, you know it will stop a bullet later on. Some elements also confused us: the kid looks about six, so how long has Yuji been hiding in Taiwan? Then there’s this weird guy (Taguchi), who seems to be hunting Yuji, yet sits down for lunch with him, before they brawl in a back-alley afterwards. What’s that all about? [Having scoped out various opinions, some think he’s another hitman, others a cop – either is possible, neither is convincing.] It’s strong on well-crafted atmosphere, much of it meteorological, with the film’s mood as dark as the perpetually-wet weather. However, I’d trade an inch or two of the rain for a story-line with more meat on its bones.

Ley Lines (1999)

Rating: B-

Dir: Takashi Miike
Star: Kasuki Kitamura, Dan Li, Tomorowo Taguchi, Naoto Takenawa

Fed up with country life, three young toughs head to Tokyo, where they find life no easier. They fall in with a drug dealer, selling toluene, but plan one big score, so they and their hooker friend (Li) can all escape to a new life in Brazil. Having seen the other two films in the trilogy, I had a feeling how this was going to turn out, and I was almost right – but I’m not sure. It is a beautifully-shot film, and credit is due to Naosuke Imaizuki as the cinematographer. There’s a lot of hand-held camera, little artificial light (when the characters enter a dark room, so do viewers) and imaginative use of filters, though in at least one scene, you might wonder if this imagination could have been put to less disturbing use. This may not be the best film in the set, but it’s certainly the best-looking.

It’s less a story, than a series of scenes which loosely connect. Plot threads pop out of the woodwork or vanish, almost at will, and there’s something not quite right about the pacing. After the big heist, things should continue to build, but the film slides off in another direction which loses a lot of momentum, and this lessens the impact considerably – the movie is unquestionably at its best in the urban jungle. [Though, oddly, some dialogue is bleeped out!] The final shot is open to interpretation; even the question of whether characters live or die is unanswered (hence my uncertainty above). However, such ambiguity is entirely in the spirit of the piece, so comes across as more fitting than irritating.