Japanese director Takashi Miike is best known to Western audiences for films such as Audition and Ichi the Killer, highpoints of the late 90s/early 2000s Asian Extreme lovefest, and ‘Imprint’, his episode of the TV show Masters of Horror, which was not shown on American television due to its extreme content. Through these works, Miike became an almost unrivalled figure of love and respect to gorehounds.
Now available for reappraisal are some of his earlier works, the thematically linked ‘Black Society’ trilogy, examining the effect that the machinations of Asian mafias have on normal people, the police and each other.
The first film, Shinjuku Triad Society (China Mafia War), is actually the most recognisably Miike of the films, though it’s a Miike still finding his directorial voice (though he had worked on many straight-to-video projects before this). It begins in familiar territory, with an oddly disconnected narration over an image of a naked man, followed by a graphic crime scene complete with gory severed head. The Tokyo cops are fighting the Chinese Dragon Claw organisation, resorting to the same violence as their quarry, while the Dragon Claw are taking out the competition and organising dodgy child organ deals. All this is complicated by lead cop Tatsuhito Kiriya’s brother Yoshihito siding with the villains. Part buddy cop film, part medical thriller, part gangster flick and part family drama, the main problem here is that the film never settles into one defined mould.
We get a lot of arty, messy jump cuts, as though Miike is trying out things to see what fits, a sort of student film aesthetic. His off-kilter silliness is here, as is his eye for odd juxtapositions. The presence of explosively trashy violence means that this feels appropriate to kick off Miike’s blood-soaked filmography. There is the interest in family relationships, explored in many of his later films. We also get loads of kinky sex and violence – standout moments include a WTF interrogation scene which really has to be seen to be believed, and an hilarious exchange wherein an uncooperative madame ends up losing an eye. The loopy film-logic is quite beguiling, particularly a car chase on foot, and the memorably OTT characters include nasty (and occasionally flashing) Taiwanese boss Wang Zhi-Min and his lover, the knife loving, cop-killing rent boy Zhou, plus a nymphomaniac mob moll. It’s all fun to watch, but the scattershot approach makes the film itself pretty forgettable.
Despite being about a hitman, Rainy Dog is actually far more low-key than Shinjuku Triad Society. Yuuji is a contract killer engaged in the extermination of rival Yakuza syndicate members, but his life is complicated by the arrival of his mute son. While he seems not to care for the boy, they eventually develop a bond and find something approaching a family together with kindly prostitute Lilly. However, the brother of one of Yuuji’s marks is out for revenge, and this new family soon find that they have no place to hide.
There are violent scenes here, but Miike plays them down in favour of exploring the developing father/son relationship. It is both comical and touching, and Show Aikawa brings a nice depth to the hitman, switching between cold indifference and genuine concern. The film really hits its stride towards the violent conclusion, with Yuuji, his son and Lilly’s flight from danger resembling a twisted fairy tale. There is almost a sort of magical realism at play in these scenes, though the characters come crashing back down to earth in the bloody shootout which ends the film on a bitter note. Very subtle compared to Miike’s later work, Rainy Dog is a fascinating character piece.
From the very first scene, a flashback done in music video filter colours, Ley Lines sets out to be the most consciously stylish of the trilogy. It is also the most sedate, and very 90s – all blue-filtered nights and hazy cross-fades.
Young petty criminal Ryuichi, his studious brother Shunrei and a friend Chang leave the countryside and head to Tokyo to seek their fortune. Almost immediately robbed by a prostitute, Anita, they end up selling toluene to try and make ends meet. While the others try to sort fake passports, Shun strikes up a friendship with Anita, and the guys take refuge with her when they piss off nasty Triad boss Wong. For a while a strange little domestic scenario implements itself and it all feels a bit New Wave-ish (though that might just be the return of the jump cuts, here a definite stylistic choice).
But happiness isn’t much on Miike’s agenda, and Anita finds herself brought into Wong’s service, while Ryuichi plans for them all to escape to a new life in Brazil, leading to a misguided attempt to rob Wong. Needless to say, things fall apart – though our heroes get a proper decent punch the air moment in a confrontation with the bad guys, and the last shot is quite exquisitely beautiful.
Ley Lines now looks quite dated but tonally it shows Miike’s evolution as a director, towards the sort of style which would make Audition his masterpiece. This collection is a fascinating insight into Takashi Miike’s filmmaking, and offers an opportunity to understand the progression of his concerns as a director. Highly recommended.
The Black Society Trilogy is now available on DVD and Blu-ray from Arrow Films.
With thanks to Fetch Publicity.