Dead Or Alive 2: Birds (Dead Or Alive 2: Tôbôsha)

Japan (2000) Dir. Takashi Miike

After delivering one of the most conclusive endings possible to a film, the idea that there could be a sequel to Takashi Miike’s Dead Or Alive seems rather preposterous. But this is Miike we are talking about – and who says sequels have to be linear continuations from the first film anyway?

He may stay within the remit of the gangster genre for his basic setting but Miike chooses to explore it via a completely different route, recalling the two leads from the first film. Bleached blonde hitman Mizuki Okamoto (Sho Aikawa) is hired to shoot the head of a Triad gang to ignite a turf war with the Yakuza, but instead one of the Triad’s men unexpectedly does the job for him.

Claiming the hit as his own Mizuki makes off with the payment until the Yakuza learn the truth and hunt him down. On the ferry back to his home island, Mizuki encounters the man who stole his thunder, sharp suited Shuuichi Sawada (Riki Takeuchi), his childhood friend also fleeing home. Having reconnected the pair decide to use their skills to raise funds for sick and underprivileged children across the world, once again catching the attention of their enemies.

The basic premise of a small criminal gang upsetting the larger Triad and Yakuza outfits aside, the difference between Birds and its predecessor is startling. First and foremost this turns into a deeply introspective and gentle film (gentle for Miike anyway) to the point I wondered if this was a Takeshi Kitano film instead of a Miike film!

Gone is the extrovert extremes of sex (a giant phallus is the sole residue of this) and the graphic violence which is still present but much less lurid, but it doesn’t suggest in any way that Miike has sold out at all. If anything, the nostalgic tone of the middle part of the film set on the bucolic island reveals a thoughtful human side to the man noted for pushing cinematic boundaries.

We can surmise from this that Miike was somehow trying to also humanise his blood-thirsty characters by putting them in a reflective mood to when life was innocent and the camaraderie they built with another boy, Kohei (Kenichi Endo) who stayed on the island and with whom they reconnect, allows the two killers to put the value of their careers into a better and debatably more moral perspective.

This sort of murderous Robin Hood like campaign has its merits in terms of the altruistic intent behind it but that doesn’t excuse the primary cavil of it still be killing for the money. Mizuki justifies it by equating the moral balance of the life of one jerk given in exchange for saving thousands of innocents, often a plot device used when a sacrifice is required in times of extreme need.

Given the nature of their vocations, there is a lyrical charm to the narrative of the rustic charm of their original home having such a calming effect on their selfish and dissolute lives manifest in their disregard for another human life. Aesthetically polar opposites – Mizuki sports loud Hawaiian shirts while Sawada is the more conservative in dark prime colours – and in demeanour it is only through the flashbacks we understand this unlikely connection.

Kohei was the middleman, the one subject to the pranks and the teasing yet provided the anchor for their mischief. Upon reuniting with Kohei, now with a pregnant wife (Noriko Aota) and a small fishing business, it seems the simple joy of existing without having to look over their shoulders every few seconds rekindles their gentle sides again. It is hard not to share the nostalgic glow of the three grown men recreating their childish frolics in the old school grounds as the innocence of their souls are rejuvenated.

But Miike isn’t done with the gritty reality of the repercussions that await the duo as a result of their actions. Back in the city, the Triads and the Yakuza are on a tear to get answers and revenge; Miike juxtaposes the gruesome bloodshed and senseless killings with Mizuki and Sawada performing in a play for a group of kids, dressed as animals. For every smiling face of an entertained child, a bullet finds its mark in the skull of a gangster.

With his reputation for pushing the envelope – scratch that, Miike tears the damn thing to shreds – the idea of Miike opting for a softer and accessible direction to explore the notion of money and power not being the prime source of happiness in life might deter fans preferring he kept the insanity turned up to eleven. In the true spirit of yin and yang it is refreshing to see this mellow side of Japan’s most prolific maverick and for this writer, these segments stand as his most evocative work.

Equally miraculous is how Miike somehow managed to get a watchable and dare I say even emotive performance from the normally abysmal Riki Takeuchi, usually the acting equivalent of toothache! During the stay on the island Takeuchi becomes quite a personable chap with tiny flickers of charisma shining through. Sho Aikawa is vastly different from his role as stoic cop Jojima in the first film embracing the freedoms the lighter character of Mizuki affords him.

But fear not gore fans, Miike doesn’t disappoint you, ensuring the body count is still unnecessarily high and the final moments of some poor soul drenched in claret. As mentioned earlier one victim blessed (cursed?) with an implausibly large manhood provides Miike’s trademark black humour in case anyone thinks he is losing his touch.

Dead Or Alive 2: Birds honours the precedent of the first film by ending on an irretrievable note for our two leads, leaving us to wonder where he will go next for the final films in this trilogy. This sequel might not rank highly as a spectacle but benefits from the emotional substance of the reflective middle section.