- Document type
- 20 March 2001
- Format viewed
Dead or Alive
- Original title
- Dead or Alive - Hanzaisha
- Takashi MIIKE
- Sho AIKAWA
- Riki TAKEUCHI
- Ren OSUGI
- Tomorowo TAGUCHI
- Susumu TERAJIMA
- Renji ISHIBASHI
- Running time
- 105 mins.
After watching this film's opening ten minutes I sat in the theatre with my mouth agape. After watching the closing ten minutes my brain (or what was left of it) was looking feverishly for ways to cope with what I had just witnessed. Cinema doesn't very often have that kind of effect, especially on those jaded by voracious filmic appetites.
Takashi Miike's Dead or Alive is a stunner alright. Its opening and closing sequences are unparalleled pieces of inspired cinematic invention, truly original ways of audiovisual storytelling. In the opening ten minutes, the aesthetic and philosophy of promotional trailers are applied to establishing characters, settings and tone. It's a rip-roaring, energetic sequence of clips from criminal lives in Tokyo's Shinjuku district. Strippers and hookers at work, several gruesomely imaginative shoot-outs, a gangster getting his throat slashed while sodomizing a young man in a public toilet, a hair-raising knife act - in Ryu Ichiro's original screenplay these were complete scenes meant to set up the story. After passing through the mind and hands of Takashi Miike, they have become an adrenalin-soaked, almost hallucinogenic music video.
A similar reworking has gone into the film's amazing finale. To describe it to anyone who hasn't seen the film is unthinkable (and would probably make me sound like I've lost my mind), but here again, Miike's unique visionary mind - a mind that truly understands the cinematic art form - recreates what was banal into something never before seen. By taking the original, scripted ending and driving it into metaphor in the most extreme manner imaginable, he no less than re-writes the cinematic rule book.
Precisely because these two sequences stand out, the film has been criticised for its supposedly dragging, conventional middle section. However, on closer inspection what seems like a dime-a-dozen yakuza plot turns out to be very far from conventional and to have quite a few high-quality aces up its sleeve. Takashi Miike is one of the very few directors who possess that rare talent of seeing the opportunities in any subject matter presented to them. As Alfred Hitchcock before him knew how to get to the essence of any story and delve up the elements that would work best as a film, Miike sees not only every opportunity to enliven his work with wickedly amoral sidesteps, but also manages to breathe life into the thematic texture that lies dormant within the subject or plot, often adding strong personal elements and themes which resonate and recur throughout his oeuvre. The fact that he is in most cases not involved in the writing process of his films, plus his position in the industry as a director for hire, would seem to exclude authorship. In fact, he calls himself the arranger of his films, rather than their author. But his authorship lies exactly there in his arranger's methods. In Takashi Miike's case, the writing comes after the script has already been finished. It happens on set and in the editing room, where the material is taken away from its source and radically reshaped. This is Miike's writing process; the way he makes the film uniquely his own.
And as stated, in that process the film is often enlivened with wickedness and cruelty. The sequence in which two punks making animal porn pictures try feverishly to excite an Alsatian dog so it can mount the obviously uninterested naked girl in their presence, or the one in which a mobster gets his come-uppance at the hands of Aikawa and Terajima after just being given a blow job by one of his molls linger in the memory long after the viewer has left the theatre. They are but two examples from a film brimming with cruel, funny, energetic sequences perfectly in tune with plot, situation and characters. These scenes create the impression that what we are watching is an alternative universe. Like in literary science fiction, that universe is eerily similar to our own, but it is off-kilter enough to convince you that anything can (and, as the film's finale proves, does) happen.
Thematically Dead or Alive is also far more rich than it's given credit for. It fits in perfectly with Miike's feature works in that it once again portrays a minority struggling against the oppressive society they have no choice but to be part of. Again it's the relationship between Japanese and Chinese identity that Miike focuses on, and in many ways Dead or Alive could be seen as the unofficial fourth instalment in his Triad Society series (comprised of Shinjuku Triad Society / Shinjuku Kuroshakai China Mafia Senso, 1995, Rainy Dog / Gokudo Kuroshakai, 1997, and Ley Lines / Nihon Kuroshakai, 1999). The gang led by Riki Takeuchi's character Ryuichi consists of descendants of Japanese raised in China. Themselves born in Japan, they have no sense of national identity and feel no allegiance to Japanese society, morals and rules. Lost in a void between two cultures, their loyalty is to no one but themselves and only in being together can they find a place to belong.
Another element that gives the film unexpected depth is the relationships the two lead characters have with the younger members of their families. Ryuichi has a younger brother whom he tries to keep far away from his own criminal activities. He pays for the boy's college education, but when the young man finds out that his tuition money came from drug deals and murder, he rebels. In a strong contrasting parallel, there is Sho Aikawa's cop Jojima, Takeuchi's nemesis, who has fallen victim to corruption in order to pay for the treatment of his daughter's potentially deadly illness. The girl has rebellion in her too however and shows no signs of gratitude, instead blaming her father for never being home to care for her and her mother. Jojima and Ryuichi are opposites, plus and minus, but exact equals in how far they are removed from centre point.
Inevitably, the violent worlds the two characters inhabit infiltrate the lives of their families. The first exposure is lethal in both cases, resulting in swift and immediate deaths. It's one of Miike's most consistent and recurring themes: the contrast between violence and the innocence of youth, followed by the collision between them that enforces how violent and innocent they were. When Ryuichi's brother picks up a gun for the first time in his life, death is the inevitable and immediate result.
In short, nary a single occasion to turn a genre on its head is passed up. That the film's unexpectedly strong thematic content (unusual in itself in a gangster film) is such a contrast with the slam-bang opening that precedes it, is but the first of many such attempts. It's a contrast between the flashy cool of genre cliché with a world that is much closer to reality. Seemingly and deceptively unbalanced, Dead or Alive instead admirably follows through on its own intentions to deliver what might well prove to be a turning point for at least a genre and possibly narrative cinema in general. An A Bout de Souffle for the new century.
R-rated version. Region 1. English subtitles.
Dear or Alive Trilogy box set. Region 1. English subtitles.
Wild Side (France)
Region 2. French subtitles.
Region 2. No subtitles.