Dead or Alive Trilogy
Studio: Arrow Video
Apr 19, 2017 Web Exclusive
For the uninitiated, Takashi Miike is the king of bizarre curveballs when it comes to his brand of extreme cinema. His name will hold some cache even in the mainstream for films like Audition, but the sheer breadth of his proliferation is surprising and impressive. In 1999 alone – when Miike’s Audition was initially released – the world was given seven new Miike projects including a miniseries, a tv-movie, and the first installment of what would become his Dead or Alive trilogy.
Dead or Alive’s narrative is not specifically linked to the other two films in any obvious way outside of the presence of lead actors Riki Takeuchi and Sho Aikawa. There is a moment in the third movie that somewhat bridges them together, but they’re otherwise separate entities. It doesn’t just stop at story and characters, either. Each movie within the trilogy has its own distinct flavor and associated style and themes. The first film is (mostly) a straightforward crime film. It’s also the darkest, sleaziest, and most off-putting. It’s not exactly the violence, which is relatively tame despite the high body count of Yakuza and Triad members, but in an effort to really engage in the seedier elements of the world he’s putting on display, the film wades into some very grimy and excrement-filled waters. The less said about the casual bestiality-porn filmmaker who acts as police informant the better.
It’s not exactly without purpose, but of the three movies Dead or Alive seems most in line with pushing content boundaries. Much of the film takes place in a strip club where a young thug (Takeuchi) and his gang hole up in between needling the Yakuza into starting a gang war. Detective Jojima (Aikawa) is on his trail while dealing with medical bills for his daughter and a marriage with a non-specific strain keeping him and his wife at arm’s length. Remove the shock value of a couple sequences and the amazingly frenetic opening 10 minutes that introduces you to the world of the film, and there is a lot of dead air. The pacing is jarring, because a movie with such a potent opening shouldn’t fall down a rabbit hole of boredom where the characters seem to be waiting for something to happen. A bonkers finale turns it into something so at odds with what came before that it cannot exactly be recommended as anything more than a curiosity or a piece for completist Miike fans.
Fortunately, Dead or Alive 2: Birds ramps up the weirdness and fills the quiet moments with some actual heart and character development. Aikawa plays a hitman (he also bleached his hair, which he kept for the third one, too) paid to do a job only to get beaten to the punch by another contract killer (Takeuchi) who turns out to be a childhood friend. They get found out and meet up in hiding in their old hometown. They revisit childhood haunts, friends, and both good and bad memories. Miike is wise to stay almost dreamlike in his vagueness on their collective past, specifically the traumas they faced. Birds is probably the best of the series because it has the most complete and well-structured story. The first suffers because of too much meandering and a fun if incomprehensible finale while the third one is jumbled and ends horribly. Birds doesn’t have a satisfying ending either, because it feels like it comes half an hour too soon. It’s like Miike decided to have two acts take up 95 percent of the film and then tack on an ending without appropriate build-up. But, once their motivations for being assassins becomes clear – and they literally sprout their wings – it shows a genuine sense of heart that is sometimes lacking from Miike’s sarcastic filmmaking sneer.
Dead or Alive: Final is a mess, but it’s a lot of fun and has a ton of great ideas. It’s a post-apocalyptic action movie where there are humanoid robots called replicants (great Blade Runner nod) and children are no longer allowed to be conceived under order of a sadistic mayor who says when the population gets larger, more wars happen. To the mayor, his homosexuality is evidence of his status among the highly evolved. This is tricky territory. It’s a pulpy movie not to be taken seriously, but the mayor doesn’t come across as a villain because of his sexuality – which it could have in another’s hands – but it’s his sociopathy and megalomania that shines through it all. Meanwhile, Aikawa and Takeuchi are at odds again with Takeuchi being a police officer with his own family, presumably because those working for the mayor get permission to have a family. Aikawa plays a replicant drifter who sides with a small resistance group planning to fight back against the mayor’s regime.
Final is the most steadily rambunctious and fun of the series, though it’s a little too silly compared to the second. And like the first movie, the ending is idiotic. It’s entertaining, yes, but it’s supreme idiocy, too. To Miike fans, this is not a deterrent, but a piece of the charm that permeates through his work. The Dead or Alive trilogy is not the best entry-point for a Miike novice despite having several of his hallmarks on display. They’re just a little too rough around the edges to fully recommend, though they would be great with a crowd – as his movies tend to be.
The Blu-ray set from Arrow is chock full of featurettes and interviews that will help get a few extra glimpses into the methods applied and there is a Miike commentary track for the first film as well. They’re worth it for the highs present in all three films, because when they’re good they’re great. When they’re bad – and not dull – they’re at least weird enough to keep curiosity piqued.
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