Arrow Heads Vol. 34: The DEAD OR ALIVE TRILOGY & Engaging With Takashi Miike

Arrow Heads — Arrow Video humbly describes themselves as merely a “Distributor of classic, world, cult and horror cinema on DVD & Blu-ray”. But we film geeks know them as the Britain-based bastion of the brutal and bizarre, boasting gorgeous Blu-ray releases with high quality artwork and packaging and bursting with extras, often of their own making. This column is devoted to discussing their weird and wonderful output.

Takashi Miike films demand a response.

He’s one of those filmmakers that were recommended to me at an age when my fragile mind simply couldn’t handle his work. I survived and loved Audition several years later, and eventually came to borderline worship 13 Assassins. So my desire to take in and engage in more of his work has been present for a long time now. But with a filmmaker as prolific as Miike, it’s hard to know where to dig in. There’s no question that not ALL of his work is for me. I’m still not brave enough to tackle Ichi The Killer, for instance.

So the Dead Or Alive trilogy became the answer to that question. It was, after all, the very film that was recommended to me so many years back and which I ultimately turned off and walked away from in disgust. Humorous, then, that some 15 years later I found myself barely even shocked by the bravura opening sequence of Dead Or Alive depicting every kind of vice under the sun set to blaring electric guitar and in-your-face camera work. It is a sequence that makes a statement. At 18, I wasn’t willing to accept that statement. I’ve since been exposed to such bizarre cinematic wonder and vice thanks in large part to Fantastic Fest that Dead Or Alive doesn’t so much feel shocking; but it does feel groundbreaking!

Miike is not even 60 years old, and the man has over 100 feature film directorial credits. His pace is furious, with the output veering wildly in tone and quality. That’s a choice this filmmaker has made, and it must be taken into account when engaging in his work. Some projects will flounder, or be rushed… some will be works of magic that find life through his proliferation.

The Dead Or Alive trilogy is an enjoyable sampling of this man’s work, depicting a seemingly eternal clash between two characters played by the same actors through all three films… who also kind of play different characters… sort of. Actor Riki Takeuchi is more or less the Bruce Campbell of Japan; good looking in a way that’s almost instantaneously comedic, and with a pompadour for the ages that survives throughout the trilogy. Sho Aikawa is a Miike regular with a more traditional Japanese look about him, and with well over 100 screen credits to his name as well. These two actors shoulder the Dead Or Alive trilogy between them, and the series grows on you as a result.

When all is said and done, the whole of the Dead Or Alive trilogy is a unique filmmaking experiment that’s more enjoyable as a package than any of its individual parts can really explain. Each film sets these two characters on a collision course with one another, allowing fate and war and conflict to be central themes throughout the stories. But where one is a gangster film, the other becomes a sentimental reflection piece, and the final is a low-fi futuristic Blade Runner-esque sci-fi fantasy. The journey is a trip. And because it’s Miike… it all culminates in a giant robot with a throbbing and articulated penis for a head. But I’m getting… ahem… ahead of myself.

Dead Or Alive (1999)

As mentioned above, the opening sequence of Dead Or Alive is audacious and grimy… filled with quick cuts and wailing guitars that introduce us to a host of characters in a world of filth. Dead Or Alive is a fairly standard yakuza versus crooked cops film overstuffed with characters but also infused with Miike’s trademark bizarro details such as a guy binging on ramen and getting his stomach blown out with noodles flying at the screen. Or a still-gross casual dialog scene that happens in the foreground as a beastiality porn is being filmed in the background. It can be shocking and gross, but the film feels overlong and Miike’s signature weirdness results in the pace dragging often. Dead Or Alive lives and dies by its opening and closing sequences. Before the opening sequence even gets going, our two main characters look out at the screen, directly at us, and say “One, two, three, go!” We know Miike is toying with us. As the final confrontation begins, our two main characters having been stripped of their various loved ones and culminating in a fated and epic battle, Takeuchi’s character says something like “And so we reach the final scene”. And it is a great ending, taking what had been a weird yakuza film and left-turning it into something wholly unexpected. The ending is the first real hint at what is in store for the whole trilogy, and it’s the most memorable element of the first film.

Dead Or Alive: Birds (2000)

Takashi Miike is best known for shocking and in your face violence and pulsating high energy imagery. But he has many children’s films under his belt as a director, and has proven a mastery over drama as well. Dead Or Alive 2 offers a magically sentimental tale as two hitmen cross paths on a job that goes south. Once again our leads are Sho Aikawa and Riki Takeuchi. Fleeing to a remote island, the men encounter each other and realize they are long lost childhood friends who had been raised on a remote island orphanage. Loaded with potent sentimentality, these killers reconnect with their childhood in charming ways even as the fallout from their gangland hit encroaches on their childhood safe haven. Shorter and more pleasant than the first film, Birds offers our ill-fated characters a chance to be peers and brothers rather than eternal rivals. There are many weird Miike flourishes, like the angel wings that appear on characters at various times, pointing towards the spiritual and eternal elements of this series. It’s very different than the first film, and elevates the concept of the series substantially. It’s also genuinely touching, with Miike exploring the purity of childhood and the depravity of adulthood. This was probably my favorite of the series.

Dead Or Alive: Final (2002)

Absolutely painful to look at, Dead Or Alive: Final is a really fun low budget film that fell victim to a horrible formatting decision. Shot on standard definition digital video in the early 2000s, this movie just looks like pure garbage. It’s painful to look at from a video quality perspective and has aged poorly. It was extremely wise for Arrow to indicate this right up front with a title screen explaining the look of the film, because they basically did the best they could with a truly egregious print of the movie.

If one can get past the low quality consumer-grade look of the film, there’s a lot of fun to be had here. Set in a Blade Runner-esque future filled with outlawed replicants, Sho Aikawa plays a wandering cyborg who manages to find a unique angle to explore in the overcrowded “cyborg learning to be human” archetype. Riki Takeuchi plays the ultimate badass enforcer of a post-apocalyptic warlord who rules his city with a bizarre code. In this future, homosexuality is the only acceptable form of love, and all procreation is outlawed. Order has been wrought out of chaos through population control and drugs to suppress rebellion. The feeling here is that our characters are once again on a collision course with the fate of civilization hanging in the balance… but will these enemies ultimately join forces?

Featuring the most martial arts of the series, the most computerized digital effects, and the most unhinged and Bruce Campbell-esque Riki Takeuchi performance of the series, Final is a fitting capper to the trilogy, with a conclusion that is is equal parts fitting and thematically sound… as well as being “that’s so Miike”. [You know… the giant penis-headed robot I mentioned earlier].

As individual parts, none of the Dead Or Alive movies are particularly incredible or flawless. They each have their charms and Takashi Miike infuses so much flamboyant energy and so many ideas into each of his movies that he can’t be considered anything other than a mad genius. But I’m very glad to have taken the chance on the trilogy as a whole thanks to Arrow’s release of this set on Blu-ray. It’s a journey meant to be undertaken as a trilogy, with that first film being the most well known of the three, but also being ultimately the least interesting. Taken as a whole, this exercise in fate and eternal struggle paired with genre trappings of all stripes is a worthy journey to undertake for those willing to engage with Miike and let him lead you where he wants to take you. [Which is, for the record, on an eternal battle culminating in a penis robot.. So mileage may vary].

And I’m Out.

The Dead Or Alive trilogy is now available on Blu-ray from Arrow Video.

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