Dead Or Alive (Dead Or Alive: Hanzaisha)

Japan (1999) Dir. Takashi Miike

Takashi Miike’s reputation as a major proponent of extreme cinema proceeds any of his works, no matter how innocent the subject matter may be. Therefore, the violent world associated with the Yakuza seems tailor made for him – with Miike’s unique twist liberally applied to it, of course.

In the first part of this loosely connected trilogy, the controlling power of the criminal underground of Shinjiku is in dispute between the Yakuza and the Triads, in the middle of which is Chinese born gangster Ryuichi (Riki Takeuchi), who wants to run Shinjuku himself. With his small “family” of social outcasts, Ryuichi undermines both sides to get what he wants.

Police detective Jojima (Sho Aikawa) is looking to end this turf war but also needs money to pay for a life saving operation for his daughter. Aware that his bosses are in the pocket of Yakuza boss Aoki (Renji Ishibashi), Jojima decides to play the same game to his own advantage, by setting the Triads and the Yakuza against each other, but with Ryuichi caught in the middle, things are about to get very ugly.  

I don’t know how Takashi Miike can walk in a straight line since his balls must be the size of watermelons! How else can you explain a man who is so fearless in what he puts on the screen? Dead Or Alive contains scenes I never thought I would see in mainstream cinema (prior to Lars von Trier natch) in terms of graphic violence, sexual perversion and just downright stomach churning unpleasantness.

Naturally – or at least by way of defence – a lot of this is tongue-in-cheek enough to not be considered offensive by its purest definition but that doesn’t necessarily excuse it. Possibly the most talked scene that falls under this remit would be the unfortunate death of a hooker – drowned in a paddling pool of her own effluence having been drugged, gang raped and received multiple enemas.

Yes, Miike is firing on all cylinders in this film yet if we look past this propensity to shock, plenty of exemplary moments remind us what a great filmmaker Miike can be. The opener is a manic five-minute kaleidoscopic adrenaline rush montage depicting a typical night of debauchery in Shinjuku – from a gluttonous noodle lover to a gay rape, drug fuelled indulgences and sleazy strippers, it is all topped off by the claret soaked deaths of the offending parties.

Rarely has such an exhilarating prelude not only gives us an accurate tastes of things to come but it defines the tone and direction of the film so succinctly it would have worked as a standalone piece. But there is a story being told here, and in the spirit of Miike’s unfettered approach to his craft, the finer details are a little underwhelming, lacking in definition beyond the superficial acknowledgements.

Working out how is who isn’t easy until the numbers eventually dwindle, such is the shortcomings of scriptwriter Ichiro Ryu’s world building and resultant lack of character development. Considering the deaths of key cast members trigger the climactic showdown, Ryu does a lousy job in endearing the victims to the audience to make their passing resonate with depth and investment for the bereaved.

Taking into account that the central story revolves around the feeling of belonging – Ryuichi’s “family” are largely Chinese born orphans of no fixed abode, calling a muddy beach “home” and forced to buck the law to survive – not building up the characters and their reliance on the camaraderie created for themselves is a detriment to a film that should strive to be remembered for more than the aforementioned enema death scene.

For Ryuichi, the salvation of his soul is his younger brother Toji (Michisuke Kashiwaya), just returned from studying in the US, shocked to learn where the money came from to fund his education. Toji disapproves of this lifestyle but doesn’t want to betray Ryuichi either, whilst Ryuichi is keen to keep Toji away from a life of crime.

Jojima has his daughter’s health to worry about but his work is affecting his home life too, the long hours forcing him to sleep on the sofa instead of with his wife (Kaoru Sugita), who may or may not be having an affair. Jojima also has co-worker Inoue (Susumu Terajima) to worry about, the father to a young son providing some pathos in pricking the testosterone bubble that permeates throughout this film.

Miike has never been a director to wear his influences on his sleeve, presumably because he has managed to fashion his own style which many Japanese directors are able to reference instead; yet there are flashes of John Woo in a pivotal restaurant shoot out whilst Ryuichi’s persona seems pay homage to the anti-hero in Seijun Suzuki’s seminal gangster flicks of the 60’s.

Andy Lau look-a-like Sho Aikawa is given the most character development as Jojima, indeed presented as the most “human” of the cast in terms of understanding the consequences of his actions. Riki Takeuchi is one of the worst actors I have seen to enjoy a sustainable career over twenty plus years but the role of Ryuichi demands little more than grimacing behind sunglasses and shooting people, so by not being stretched he isn’t exposed.

To say Miike ends this film on a mighty bang would be an understatement. I won’t spoil the finale but it is pretty conclusive, if absurdly daft to the point of incredulity, yet the louche qualities of such silliness will win it some fans, for whom the left field satirical intent will override any vestige of disbelief that may still be harboured by this point.

Dead Or Alive is one of those films that borders on genius and madness with equal validity in both assessments. It demonstrates Miike’s irrepressible sense of visual flair and glorious offbeat invention but also reveals a man with no filter when depicting depravity. And there are still two more films to come!