If time is limited, and you want to get an idea of what Takashi Miike is all about, watch the opening of Dead or Alive. With seventy-five shots in the first two minutes alone, it is a hyperactive index of the content found in many of the director’s films, a lurid collage of blood, sex and drugs, all set to a thumping electronic soundtrack.
After this startling opening flurry, Dead or Alive settles into a story that bears some resemblance to Miike’s early Black Society films, particularly his debut feature (after a number of direct-to-video ‘V-cinema’ releases), Shinjuku Triad Society (1995). Both films explore Sino-Japanese relations through the violent world of Yakuza and Triad gangs.
In Dead or Alive, an ambitious, disaffected bunch of friends plan to take advantage of the tensions between rival mafias by marking out a territory of their own. Before long, this upstart gang attracts the attention of a Japanese police officer, Detective Jojima (Shô Aikawa), and it is his rivalry with their leader, Ryuichi (Riki Takeuchi), that drives much of the film.
These two actors went on to star in the other films that make up the Dead or Alive trilogy – Dead or Alive 2: Birds (2000) and Dead or Alive: Final (2002) – yet these films aren’t direct sequels, and the trilogy is otherwise only loosely connected through certain shared themes.
Dead or Alive is often most effective when the dust from the gunfights settles and the shooters go home to their families and friends. Ever since Shinjuku Triad Society, Takashi Miike has been keen to explore the tension between the work of violent men, and the personal relationships that exist despite it. In Rainy Dog (1997), a Yakuza hitman has less trouble killing people than he does connecting with his son; in Ley Lines (1999), a group of misfit friends find strength in each other when they can’t find their place in the world.
Perhaps the only difference between those friends and Ryuichi’s gang in Dead or Alive is the lengths to which they would go to realise their ambitions. Ryuichi is the purest of mercenaries, and before long, even his friends aren’t safe from his desire for money and power. He is an ice-cool anti-hero, kitted out in sunglasses and black trenchcoat at the same time The Matrix (1999) was making the same look de rigeur for movie fans on the other side of the world.
The cat-and-mouse between Ryuichi and Jojima leads to an epically over-the-top showdown, a cartoon boss battle that completely abandons any sense of reason, grace or subtlety. It is offensive in a completely different way to what we’re used to from Miike, because it is nothing more than an assault against good taste, an excessive display of individuality at the expense of the rest of the film.
Yet, his individuality is what makes Takashi Miike one of the most creative, innovative directors we’ve seen over the last couple of decades. Out of a hundred wild swings he has knocked several out of the park; whether you judge Dead or Alive to be among that number will largely depend on how bought into Takashi Miike’s particular brand of crazy you are.
Original title: Dead or Alive: Hanzaisha Country: Japan Languages: Mandarin, Japanese Year: 1999 Director: Takashi Miike Writer: Ichiro Ryu Starring: Shô Aikawa, Riki Takeuchi Runtime: 105 minutes