Dead or Alive Trilogy Blu-ray Review: Literally Explosive Cinematic Madness

The opening six minutes of Dead or Alive, one of the first films of Takashi Miike to get international attention, are some of the most energetic, aggressive, and propulsive filmmaking of the ’90s (or, hell, of any era.) Several characters are introduced and plots are put into motion, interwoven with quick cuts of various people engaged in various debaucheries: stealing drugs, sex in bathrooms, stripping, a man doing a six-foot line of cocaine off an enormous ramp, and a man shoveling in bowl after bowl of ramen (which then memorably gets blown out of his stomach in a shotgun blast). Before this cinematic mayhem is unleashed, it starts with a shot of the two main stars, who will be antagonists throughout the film, sitting on a plank next to a pier, giving us a countdown: one, two, one two three four- and from there Dead or Alive hardly ever lets up.

Dead or Alive Trilogy, a new release from Arrow Video collects the three Dead or Alive movies made by the endlessly productive Takashi Miike. These three movies were made between 1999 and 2002 (during which Miike made at least 15 movies, some of which are his most highly regarded, as well as TV movies and a TV-series) and represent not only Miike’s first foot in the door of international acclaim, but also serve as a kind of overview of his cinematic style. Veering from Yakuza crime story to orphan drama to radical post-apocalyptic sci-fi, the Dead or Alive trilogy are only very loosely connected in story (Show Aikawa and Riki Takeuchi play very different characters in each movie) but are connected thematically by the usual Miike concerns of family, violence and how the world looks to society’s outsiders. They are also raucous, often hilarious, and not always concerned with moving their plots forward.

Dead or Alive, originally released in 1999, is real no holds barred cinema. It’s full of huge laughs, incredible feats of violence, some extended sequences of completely repulsive visuals and actions, all while still maintaining to tell a coherent story. Show Aikawa is Detective Jojima, a cop who, despite his captain’s insistence he works too hard and should lay off, wants to shut down the local Yakuza. Riki Takeuchi’s Ryuichi, who turned to crime to put his brother through college in America, is the leader of an upstart gang that wants to wipe both the current Yakuza and the incoming Chinese Triads out of Shinjuku, a Tokyo neighborhood (and also the setting for Miike’s previous gangster series, Black Society Trilogy). The plot is mostly prototypical Yakuza movie stuff – Ryuichi’s little brother is repulsed by his criminality, but becomes tempted by the life. Det. Jojima has trouble at home, including a sick daughter who needs a lot of money for a procedure. What’s always one of the interesting aspects of Takashi Miike’s cinema is how he can intertwine completely off-putting elements of bizarre violence and fantasy level action with real human elements, and make them stick. When Jojima needs to see an informant, he calls another cop for backup on his day off. Well, that cop’s taking care of his son that day, and so he has to bring him with. The informant is a chef in a Chinese restaurant, and there’s a short but disarmingly cute sequence where all three men, Jojima, the kid’s dad and his informant try to get the kid to try the unfamiliar Chinese food.

Dead or Alive‘s stars, Show Aikawa and Riki Takeuchi, were two of the major players in what was known as V-cinema. That was direct to video genre movies that became the proving ground for many of the talents that would became the vanguard of modern Japanese cinema. They are two titans of charisma, and it’s the combination of their talents with Miike’s wild imagination and dedication to craft which make these three films unique. It’s kind of an ironic statement on how the vitality of Japanese movies has been drained over the last decade when, after this trilogy, Show and Riki joined forces again in 2014…to play supporting characters in a reportedly mediocre adaptation of a manga about a city kid farming.

The first Dead or Alive feels like a statement of purpose – this violence and mayhem and willingness to do anything is Miike cinema, particularly in an ending that needs to be seen to be believed, taken the rivalry between cop and gangster way beyond the logical conclusion to utter, delightful madness. Dead or Alive 2: Birds, is extreme in a completely different direction. Still a Yakuza tale, this time with both Show and Riki, working for various organizations, who meet when Riki murders a man seconds before Show was going to. They turn out to be old friends who grew up in the same orphanage on a Japanese island, and go back there when their organizations come looking for them – Riki because of who he killed, Show because he took the bounty even though he didn’t pull the trigger. Dead or Alive 1 is a series of cascading incidents all leading toward an inevitable future – the second movie is more episodic, and certainly less violent. After the childhood friends meet up with each other, they gather a third old pal (a boat repairman, now married with kids on the way) and start to relive old childhood memories. This leads to a middle section of the movie that seems more like something Takeshi Kitano would have made in his non-violent films, where long sequences of characters just playing with each other take up enormous swaths of the narrative, leading to an impressive sequence where the Yakuza violence these two have left on the mainland is intercut with the children’s play they put on for the island kids. Show and Riki go back to the mainland for a finale that is more typically Miike-ish (which is to say, typical of nothing whatsoever, but with more shooting and grotesque humor) but the sense of childhood loss sticks with the two characters, and adds a sense of melancholy depth to the proceedings.

For the third movie in the trilogy, Dead or Alive: Final, Show is a cyborg who protects a child from the secret police run by a governor who is trying to stamp out childbirth in his city for undesirables with Riki as his top cop. In a chase scene, Show throws a lead pipe at a lady cop, which Riki cuts in half with a sword in mid-air. It gets stranger and stranger as it goes on. Despite the post-apocalyptic setting and barely coherent world building or characterization (there’s a big deal made about the lady cop who works with Riki at the beginning, but ultimately she seems to exist in the movie primarily to show off a cute belly in her mid-riff) Dead or Alive: Final continues to develop on the concerns that Miike has made central to his crime movies: the definition of family (can it include a hundred year old cyborg killing machine?) and with foreign characters, with most of the cast being Chinese, and nearly all of the dialogue either in Cantonese or occasionally English.

Unfortunately, Dead or Alive: Final was one of the few films that Miike shot near the turn of the century on video, so while the camera work contains his normal kinetic, restless style, the actual images captured look washed out, smeary, and occasional with obvious video artifacts. The other movies are shot on film, and have that universally grainy, gritty character of ’90s Japanese cinema that I treasure, though they wouldn’t be anybody’s idea of reference material for a home theater set-up. I believe (but haven’t found direct confirmation, and do not trust IMDB’s technical info’s accuracy) that the first two films were shot on 16mm, and blown up to 35mm for their limited theatrical releases.

The first Dead or Alive is a pulsing alpha beast of a film, roaring and pissing on anything it wants to. The follow-ups, while still anchored to the considerable star power of its two leads, are more muted, more contemplative, and while not necessarily safer, perhaps more tamed in their cinematic outlook (relatively so – this is still late ’90s- early ’00s Miike, whose ‘average’ output would be the oddest movie in nearly any other filmmaker’s career.) Dead or Alive 2 is the one that might grow on you after repeated viewings. Dead or Alive: Final feels more like an experiment than a coherent story, and despite some memorable scenes is easily the least of the trilogy.

Dead or Alive Trilogy are also close to the end of an era – the V-cinema world that these movies originated from was a time where, if the right names were on the box the sales were pretty much guaranteed, and filmmakers could get away with pretty much anything that didn’t put them over-budget. Video sales ultimately collapsed, and in Japan DVD never picked up the slack. It was an immensely exciting time in Japanese cinema (even if most V-cinema movies never made it into the theater).

Dead or Alive Trilogy is an Arrow Video release, and contains the numerous extras, both archival and newly produced that typify their discs. On the archival front, there are numerous trailers for each of the movies. Dead or Alive 2: Birds and Dead or Alive: Final both have short making-of featurettes, which feature enough behind the scenes footage to show that Miike isn’t some madman with a camera, making things up on the spot, but really has a whole talented crew and, presumably, a plan for the things he’s doing. There’s also some promotional interviews for Dead or Alive: Final. For new extras, the first film has a new commentary by Miike scholar Tom Mes, who has contributed to several Miike releases, and there are three new interviews with writer/producer Toshiki Kimura (43 minutes) and stars Riki Takeuchi (31 minutes) and Show Aikawa (23 minutes) where they discuss their own careers, both with Miike and beyond.

In the years since the Dead or Alive Trilogy, Takashi Miike has hardly slowed down his output, but the opportunity to make this kind of movie does not seem to exist in Japan anymore. And Miike has moved on, making manga and video game adaptations, movies with broader appeal than the weird world of V-cinema. While on some level that’s a shame, Miike’s talent is enormous. Though certainly never for all tastes, the Dead or Alive Trilogy you can see his full creativity unleashed.

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Kent Conrad

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