Takashi Miike Reflection – Ley Lines (1999)

Before Takashi Miike was made famous for Audition, his name first reached western waters with what was called his Black Society trilogy of movies. This trilogy consisted of Shinjuku Triad Society in 1995, Rainy Dog in 1997 and Ley Lines in 1999, and each film is about the criminal underworld of Japan; mainly Triad and Yakuza gang activity. Each film in the series is linked not by one over-arching story, but rather by separate stories containing both Triad and Yakuza plotlines as well as the inclusion of actor Tomoro Taguchi in one of the main roles. As I have managed to get my hands upon Ley Lines, I’ll be covering that one first and I’ll cover the others if I manage to get ahold of them because these separate movies can be watched in no particular order.

Ley Lines is a crime thriller about a trio of young men of Chinese descent – Ryuichi, Shunrei and Chan – living in rural Japan who travel to Tokyo, mainly the Shinjuku district of Tokyo, to start a new life. However, after finding themselves being robbed by a prostitute, they become involved with Tokyo’s criminal organizations as drug dealers, and this, as well as their pursuit of escape, winds up endangering their lives as they manage to enrage both the Triads and the Yakuza of Shinjuku. The story of Ley Lines is a simple one: one that is character-based and follows three men each with their own differing persona – Ryuichi the leader, Shun the quiet one and Chan the crazy one. It’s a ‘fish out of water’ story that feels far too familiar as I swear, I’ve seen this plot fair few times before in other films that were released before and after Ley Lines. However, it’s a story that’s very out of the ordinary for Takashi Miike in comparison to his other movies that I’ve seen and reviewed. The themes of Ley Lines center around the freedom and corruptibility of youth, the problem of Chinese/Japanese race relations, and the intensity of the Triad and Yakuza involvement in the seedier areas of Japan. Ley Lines is a film that definitely carries along with it a socially conscious message upon Japanese society, and unfortunately that message becomes somewhat lost upon me as I do not understand Japanese society. Nonetheless, Ley Lines does have a lot to say about Japanese/Chinese racism and the struggles of living in Japan as a second-generation Chinese immigrant through the relationships of its three main characters. The movie makes a point of showing their bullying as young kids and how it made their relationship stronger throughout the years, thus leading to relatable and believable characters for an audience to empathize with. This is emphasized by the fantastic acting on display from Kazuki Kitamura, Tomoro Taguchi and Michisuke Kashiwaya who portray each character perfectly, personifying each of the character’s personalities clearly with tons of humor and believability.

What’s important to note is that although Takashi Miike is known for his strange, perverse weirdness; Ley Lines is the most down to earth Takashi Miike film I’ve seen so far. Unlike his other films, Ley Lines doesn’t blend reality and surrealism at all, nor does it indulge in lashings of violence and sex; instead, it chooses to stay grounded in reality in order to tell its story of the criminal underworld. Although the film does choose to indulge in a few scenes of the perverse, because its Takashi Miike and that’s what he likes, unlike Takashi Miike’s other works that I’ve covered, these perverse acts don’t go beyond the realms of reality and they end very quickly. In all honesty, it’s somewhat strange and refreshing to see Takashi Miike tackle a completely down-to-earth story instead of an over-the-top craze-fest such as Ichi The Killer or Visitor Q. It definitely proves that he is capable of so much more as a film-maker than what his reputation in the west dictates. However, this strait-laced, character driven story seems somewhat like a prototype for his more outlandish works. The underlying elements of more outlandish Takashi Miike films are there, such as the physical humor, perverted scenes and sense of the odd, but it’s very restrained underneath the films character centered story.

As for the technical aspects of Ley Lines, it’s definitely cheaper than Takashi Miike’s post millennium works. The quality of the special effects and camera-work are much less extravagant than, say, Audition or Ichi The Killer. However, despite the low-budget affair of the movie, Ley Lines also demonstrates a high-level of technical prowess. The camera-work is amazing to witness at times with a lot of memorably creative shots full of movement spaced out between well-crafted shots full of beautiful yet realistic lighting. However, one very odd inclusion of Ley Lines is the strange censorship. Japanese cinema has very strict censorship laws, which is why you will never see a Japanese film with full frontal nudity, but Ley Lines censors itself in a very odd way: any shot of nudity is censored with what seems to be a moving white scribble, and even language is censored with a high-pitched bleep. It may have been done as a punkish way of rebellious censoring by Takashi Miike, but in my opinion, this actually harms the movie. It’s incredibly distracting and the first moment I saw something censored I was very confused as to what I was actually seeing. The film could have done without that and should have kept to the burred censorship featured in Visitor Q, but the film stills shines above this odd decision nonetheless.

In my opinion, I thought Ley Lines was a very good film. A very ‘different’ film, especially when one sees Takashi Miike’s name on the front cover, but Takashi Miike does manage to pull off a socially conscious crime thriller quite well. It’s not what I would call one of his best or most iconic movies, but it definitely shows that Takashi Miike’s talents can be used for more than just extreme cinema. I recommend giving it a watch, but unrestrained Takashi Miike is much more memorable than this.

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