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Over the last couple years one director has reinvigorated the passions of indie, horror, and Asian film fans like none other. He has eclectic filmography and breakneck releasing schedule, often releasing five or more films in any given year. He can be compared to any number of filmmakers from any country in the world, and still have a distinctive style. I am talking, of course, about Takashi Miike, a man who quietly rose from the ranks of cult Japanese films to a level of recognition not often equated with Asian directors. Those who aren’t familiar with him may want to become better acquainted, but must be warned, Miike’s world is not often one of happy endings and easy answers.

A viewer must come prepared with a backbone of steel when watching most of Miike’s films, as they will be tested in their ability to be offended and disgusted. Volumes have been written about the relatively new director and the true meanings of his recurring themes and images; themes and images that include a loss of innocence, frank sexuality, graphic rape, ultra violence, and the degradation of women. Three of Miike’s Yakuza films have recently been released on DVD as a loosely related trilogy. Each film represents a slightly different style of filmmaking, but all three are still unmistakably Miike.

Black Society Trilogy
Film
IMDB’s short description of Miike’s Dead or Alive, a more popular film, not featured in this trilogy:

‘A Yakuza of Chinese decent and a Japanese cop each wage their own war against the Japanese mafia. But they are destined to meet. Their encounter will change the world.’

I include this because it briefly describes pretty much half of the Mikke filmography, including the films of Black Society Trilogy. The subjects of destiny (specifically the destiny of two opposing characters meeting) and the criminal actions of young gangsters of Chinese descent are very important in Black Society Trilogy. Two of the three films cover the effects of racism in Japanese society against Chinese immigrants, and the other actually takes place in Taiwan. The only other common thread between the three films is the actor Tomorowo Taguchi (Tetsuo: The Iron Man himself, and a regular on the Japanese dub of South Park).

Shinjuku Triad Society:

The first film of the trilogy is Miike’s first theatrically released film. The story concerns the familiar theme of authority figures investigating Chinese (Triad) and Japanese (Yakuza) power struggles, and getting in over their heads. We begin with a grizzled cop interrogating witnesses and suspects in a recent gangland murder. This is a very bad cop. The obvious comparisons are inevitable, but even Harry Callahan wouldn’t go this far. These are more akin to the tactics of Harvey Keitel’s Bad Lieutenant. His interrogation tactics include beatings, life threats, and even rape. While interrogating a particularly uncooperative young female suspect, he laughs and allows her to crawl onto the interrogation table to mock him. Then he slowly lifts a chair over his head and brings it down hard onto her face. Cue opening titles.

Using his most questionable tactics, he discovers a family tie to the case: his brother is directly involved. This gives him an even stronger incentive to continue with his vendetta-like investigation. Inevitably, his investigation gets him deeply into enemy territory and he is beaten nearly to death. He is saved by one of his past victims in a deplorably offensive twist, but what else should one expect from a Takashi Miike movie. Deplorably offensive twists are why fans love him. His past transgressions make it very hard for an audience feel sorry for him, but the beating does realign his focus.

On the other side of the fence are a vicious young Triad and his young male lover. The young lover (who at first appears to be our main character, but later slips into the background) is unmistakably sadistic, but quite naive and rather disinterested in the business of crime. He acts more like a trophy wife along for the ride. The Triad himself rises quickly to the top of the ranks, parallel to the cop’s investigation, championing an untapped criminal market: the dealing of human organs. Children’s organs—orphans to be exact. He and his thugs get rich quick on the misfortunes of rich parents with sick kids. This leads to the inevitable confrontation, which does not end with quite the cathartic firepower of Dead or Alive, but is non-the-less satisfying.

I wasn’t very fond of Shinjuku Triad Society. It’s pretty obvious from the first frame that Miike is merely gaining his footing and finding his identity throughout the film. It contains several trademarks, and covers issues delved into deeper in later films, but never gels. The best bits are the ones that revel in absurdity. For me, Miike works best when he nonchalantly drops Lynchian oddities into familiar situations. I’ll even crawl out on a limb and say that when he does it well, Miike out-Lynches even David Lynch. In the precursor to a chase sequence, one cop slips in human faeces while running to his squad car. Why was there human excrement in the street? We never know. Did it play any role in the plot, or even the scene? Nope, it was just there.

In its final reel the film improves, but the journey to the end is like a sub par John Woo movie, minus the outrageous gunfights. The major problem is that we’ve seen this all before, lots of times, and everyone involved is far too straight faced about it. The one shining moment of sarcasm comes when the cop pulls a Mel Gibson and successfully chases a car for several blocks, then vomits out of exhaustion. I enjoy Miike’s outrageousness more when he has his tongue firmly implanted in his cheek. This isn’t to say I don’t like his more serious efforts; this one just didn’t strike the right balance for me.

Black Society Trilogy
The most interesting aspect of Shinjuku Triad Society is that most of what has been written on it, including the DVD’s box, makes great mention of the main villain’s sexual orientation, but in the movie it isn’t important. The other Triads, the Yakuza, and the police hardly make any mention of it. The young lover is often treated with sexual interest from other men in the film, as if his gender doesn’t matter. Either this is a statement on the sexual orientation of the average gangster in Japan, or it’s thinly veiled statement on the importance of sexual orientation at all. I’d like to believe the latter. I see this as a small movement in Gay-rights filmmaking; not only is it acceptable for a character to be openly homosexual without it being the character’s prominent trait, but it’s also acceptable for a homosexual character to be a sadistic villain, not a warm, fuzzy, politically correct and boring gay man. Takashi Miike, the antidote to our stereotyping, of that which we may not understand, and the anti-Will and Grace.


Rainy Dog:

Miike’s favorite leading man, Sho Aikawa, plays Yuuji, an aging, low level hit man. We join him on a particularly stormy day as he is awakened by an ex-lover, who abruptly hands him a mute child and leaves. He remembers her, but is this his child? Yuuji contemplates his new burden briefly, and then decides to do his best to ignore it. The child does not leave his side, even when rejected. He sleeps outside Yuuji’s house, in the torrential downpour. He follows on Yuuji’s hits, learning quickly and easily accepting his new father’s occupation. Finally, Yuuji begins to let his humanity get the best of him. He lets the child into his house to sleep, he feeds him, and he allows him to tag along. The two seem to share an unspoken agreement, ‘I’ll let you stay, as long as you don’t get in my way.’

As a side effect of his newfound humanity, Yuuji becomes emotionally interested in a young prostitute. After a particularly dicey hit, he acquires a large sum of money, and is forced onto the lamb. He offers the prostitute the money in exchange for the care of his child. In his own way he’s falling in love with them and creating a family. His boss, who also happens to be his father (whether he’s actually Yuugi’s father, or just an adoptive father figure isn’t clear), still owes him some money, so before his escape, he plans on collecting. The wave of side effects from his last hit ripple quickly towards him, and the treachery runs deep. When everything comes together in the end, the effect is surprising, truthful and mature.

Rainy Dog is the most mature Miike picture I’ve seen yet (I've only seen eleven). It's best described as a subtle character study, and it is more akin to Alexander Payne’s About Schmitt than Shinjuku Triad Society. Instead of an insurance salesman with nothing left to live for, who's been forced into retirement, Yuugi is a hit man with nothing left live for, who’s unable to retire. He keeps living, though (God help me, I’m about to paraphrase The Cougar) the thrill of living is gone. He grudgingly learns (too late) that he requires the company of others. He learns more about himself in the period of the film than he had his entire life, and in that instance, Rainy Dog also plays well as a coming of age film. Not the first film to mix the coming of age with the ending of it, but an outstanding showing nonetheless.

Rainy Dog has the air of a Western. The lone gunman, down on his luck, looking for one last score; Clint Eastwood has made and remade this basic plot line at least a dozen times. The addition of the child echoes such classics as El Topo, Leon: The Professional, and The Lone Wolf and Cub series. As the title suggests, the rain itself plays a role in the film, not only as atmosphere but also as a character. The rain affects the character’s mood more than visually as though he is somewhat afraid of it. He will not travel or work in it. The characterization of the rain adds to the idea of Rainy Dog as a morality play. Often, in filmed morality plays, a specific atmospheric element, like the weather will represent morality incarnate, or perhaps even God.

Black Society Trilogy
These many layers, along with relaxed filmmaking, and understated performances make Rainy Dog my personal favourite among the trilogy. It displays such a deep understanding of film, art, violence, love, and humanity that it’s impossible not to respect, despite a viewer’s previous experiences with Miike’s work. If I were to describe the man through his films I’d recommend this, along with his more popular films, Ichi the Killer, Audition, and Happiness of the Katakuris. This mix proves that despite some follies, Miike is perhaps the most important young director working today.

Ley Lines:

The final film in the set is even more subdued than Rainy Dog, and even more experimental than Shinjuku Triad Society. Continuing the theme of Chinese/Japanese half-breeds struggling though aversion, criminal society and racism, Ley Lines follows three young men as they try to escape their private ghettos. They escape their physical homes, but find themselves stuck in the big city, physically and psychologically, without the funds or connections to make it to their decided final destination, Brazil. The meagre funds they’ve mustered are stolen by a crafty prostitute, who is also seeking asylum from her personal hell. Her scheduled meetings with men get progressively worse, until she meets up with a gynaecological sadist, in the movies most intense and horrifying sequence.

The boys find work selling Toluene for none other than Miike favourite Sho Aikawa (in a spirited cameo performance). Toluene is a cheap, brain cell killing, snuff drug, which goes fast on the street. Of course, like everyone in the history of film who’s ever dabbled in drug dealing, they quickly learn that the lifestyle is too good to be true. After a few particularly bad run-ins, they team up with the prostitute (all is forgiven), and put a definitive plan into action. They learn where and how to achieve passports and safe travel to Brazil. Now, stop me here if you can tell me where this is going. As most would expect, their best-laid plans are somewhat deterred.

Ley Lines opens with a sequence that somewhat mirrors the opening interrogation of Shinjuku Triad Society. Our main character is applying for work, and is faced with a racist pencil pusher who isn’t going to make it easy for him. It doesn’t help that he’s still on parole, and it’s technically illegal for him to be applying, but the man behind the counter is not being the least bit helpful. The clerk’s defining and repeated response is, ‘Are you Japanese? Then act Japanese.’ Like the detective in Shinjuku Triad Society with his chair, the boy calmly walks over to a nearby planter and brings it down on the snobbish clerk’s head. The statement of racial origin and the behaviour that comes with it is maybe an even deeper issue than I recognize it as. In two sentences, the clerk summed up the entire trilogy.

In keeping with the racial theme, it’s interesting to note that racial slurs are bleeped, wear as other curse words are not, and yet as the characters become more acquainted with each other, they begin to where them like badges of honour. The half-breeds are briefly fascinated by a young black man they begin dealing with, and proudly proclaim he’s a *bleep (we can guess the word they use). He affirms his *bleepness, and they continue on their way. There is also a constant undertone of lost youth in not only the young characters, but the older characters too. The aging mob boss they wish to score passports from hires prostitutes to tell him folktales he’s forgotten. According to commentator Tom Mes, the themes of lost youth and reminiscence are common in most Miike films, including the dozens I, personally have not seen. He considers Ley Lines the quintessential Miike film.

Ley Lines is also the funniest of the trilogy, mostly due to the omni-present Tomorowo Taguchi. His wide-eyed innocence is most endearing. His character is kind of a culmination of the trilogy. He plays the aggressor in the first film, vicious and quite literally blood thirsty. In the second, he’s a limp-wristed bystander, who ends up in the right place at the right time. In Ley Lines he’s the least tainted soul, the most purely loving character, who ends up sacrificed for his valour. These people Taguchi created are all alike, and all opposite at the same time. By the end of his presence in Ley Lines, one can actually appreciate the idea of these films as a trilogy.

Video
Unfortunately, all three films in The Black Society Trilogy were made on low budgets, and it’s obvious the greatest care wasn’t practiced in their maintenance. All three films are very dark, and though I’m sure this was to some degree an aesthetic choice, it can be very hard to discern the action. This general darkness makes the lighter scenes very lush in comparison. Purposeful or not, the effect is intriguing, if not a little frustrating. Ley Lines has some additional issues with blooming, and light noise, sometimes making it appear filmed digitally or on video.

Black Society Trilogy
The overall darkness of the transfers is unfortunately enhanced through the anamorphic processing. I’m pretty sure none of these movies were filmed to be presented in 1.85:1 widescreen, and if they weren’t, they shouldn’t have been. Headroom is often too tight for comfort. Each transfer appears pretty soft, if not fuzzy. They aren’t terrible transfers, and artefacts are at a minimum, so I’d venture to say this is the best the trilogy will look on DVD.

Audio
All three films are presented in Dolby Digital 2.0. Surround and stereo effects are at a minimum, but aren’t necessary. Shinjuku Triad Society is the weakest of the three tracks, and is a little muddled at times. Rainy Dog is probably the best of the three mostly because it benefits most from sound in general, the rain itself sounds particularly realistic. Rainy Dog and Ley Liness contain very little music (there is no music for more than half the running time of Ley Lines), and the music they do contain is very restrained. Rainy Dog’s soundtrack consists mostly of an old blues style slide guitar, like Yoko Kanno’s more subdued work on Cowboy Bebop, Ley Lines of a solo accordion.

Extras
Each disc contains complementary features including two interviews with the director apiece. The footage (which very well may have been filmed on the same day, in the same room) consists entirely of Miike’s talking head. Though not interesting for their entire healthy run times, they do contain several fun facts and anecdotal quotes. He talks mostly about the production of each film, but also covers his disbelief in the rules of technique. He would prefer his critics to complain that his technique never improves. He also states that there are specifically no rules for interpreting his films, and that he makes them purely for his audience’s enjoyment. This is nice to hear, because I both enjoy his films, and have trouble interpreting them. Miike goes on to admit that he is too lazy to be bothered with big budgets, and prefers smaller ones.

Like other DVD interviews, I find that I’d rather read these than watch them. I’m happy that Artsmagic is determined to supply supplementary features with all of their releases, and do prefer semi-boring interviews with filmmakers, to no interviews with filmmakers at all. There is also a series of briefer interviews (again, appearing to have been filmed in the same room on the same day) with Miike editing collaborator Yasushi Shimamura, who talks more about story background and specifics.

Each disc also includes the obligatory Artsmagic commentary track with Tom Mes. While Mes is always on top of things when it comes down to Japanese culture and film, he’s really in his element when confronted with Miike's work. Mes is the author of a book devoted entirely to the man called Agitator. As per usual, Mes piles on the information with razor sharp precision. He knows seemingly everything about the making of and meaning of each film, and is helpful in informing his audience on the specifics of Japanese culture and history. After reviewing five Artsmagic releases, listening to Mes is beginning to feel like listening to an old friend. Or perhaps I could consider these commentaries a cheap lesson in modern Japanese cinema, under the expert tutelage of Professor Mes. Love your work Tom.

Each disc also includes the obligatory biographies, filmographies and trailers. The Miike bio is very thorough as are the main actor's filmographies. This stuff is usually the kind of DVD filler that I glaze over, but these are actually entertaining to read. This is mainly because the Japanese film industry is a small world indeed. One actors (Kazuki Kitamura, briefly featured in Ley Lines) credits include 9 Souls, the original Japanese version of Shall We Dance, the notorious Guinea Pig series, and regular appearances as a voice for Pokemon.

Black Society Trilogy
Overall
Each film in the trilogy is available separately, so to those of you interested but looking to save money I’d recommend Rainy Dog or Ley Lines. Shinjuku Triad Society is not a bad film, just one flawed enough that I don’t think it garners multiple viewings. I’ve averaged my final scores for the set below.


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