Takashi Miike Reflection – Dead Or Alive (1999)

After the Black Society trilogy, Takashi Miike started another trilogy of movies straight away in 1999 after the release of Ley Lines; the Dead Or Alive trilogy. This trilogy consists of Dead Or Alive, Dead Or Alive: Birds and Dead Or Alive: Final. These three films are fondly remembered with Takashi Miike fans, even though not a lot of information exists on them at all. The Dead Or Alive trilogy was, and still is, heavily marketed as a trilogy of crazed action films full of Takashi Miike style, flair and absolute craziness. Hence, I had to check out these three movies for myself and see if they delivered what they promised: craziness, high action and an unrestrained Miike sensibility.

The first Dead Or Alive was released in 1999, the same year as Ley Lines and Audition, and it was marketed as a mad action movie with exploding cars, gunfights and plenty of fast-paced action galore. Upon watching the film, however, to my surprise, this could not be farther from the truth. Dead Or Alive is not so much an action film as a rather down to earth, character centric crime thriller about a struggling Japanese detective and a Chinese gangster both looking to disgrace and destroy the local yakuza. However, their stories run into each other, and they become sworn enemies. In all honesty, this ‘1v1 dual’ type of plot is nothing new as it originates from early samurai movies and has managed to find its way into many other movies such as Hard Boiled and Infernal Affairs (or its remake, The Departed). As for Dead Or Alive: Takashi Miike doesn’t exactly do anything new with the story from a narrative viewpoint, as the story is still very cliched and typical, although Takashi Miike does add in lashings of his own sense of perverted wackiness throughout the movie. In some ways, Dead Or Alive seems rather schizophrenic in tone. The film will jump from sad, relatable scenes, to scenes of high action, to scenes of very sickening and perverted acts such as bestiality. I would say that all of this seems rather unfocused, but in a way, Dead Or Alive is actually quite focused as each scene, no matter how obtuse and how sickening, makes sense in relation to the story. Unlike some other obtuse scenes in Takashi Miike film, there’s a definite plot thread that flows throughout the movie, even though Takashi Miike has a tendency to indulge every now and again with his extreme tastes.

However, I have to mention the ending because, like its reputation dictates, it is absolutely, nonsensically crazy. It comes out of nowhere and absolutely derails the plot and the serious tones of the movie, thus ending the movie on one of stupidest, yet glorious notions I think I’ve ever witnessed. That’s not to say it’s a terrible ending, because it was certainly memorable and does cap off the stories of each of the characters quite well, but it’s just so out of left field that it surprised me, especially when taking into account that the whole movie up until then played it cards firmly close to reality, but the ending forgoes any notion of normality and just decides to indulge in absolute craziness.

With Dead Or Alive being a character focused story, the characters are a major part of the overall experience. The characters themselves I found very typical, but Dead Or Alive fleshes out these characters so that they become empathetically human. Both of the main characters; Jojima the cop and Ryuichi the gangster, played by returning Miike stars Sho Aikawa and Riki Takeuchi respectively, have relationships and struggles of their own to contend with that build them up as more than just one-dimensional action movie characters. I found myself caring for their struggles because the movie gives a viewer a chance to see into their personal life and the struggles that make them human, so when it comes to the final act of the movie, it becomes quite a tense section of the film because the film has made it clear that there’s a lot at stake and both of these characters have such a lot to lose. Even the supporting characters are quite well developed with their own motivations, relationships and story to tell, which is a tell-tale sign of Takashi Miike story-telling at its best. However, unlike Ley Lines, Dead Or Alive tries to share the film out between not just the main characters, but near enough every character introduced as each have a stake in the over-arching plot. Thus, the emotional impact of some of the darker scenes is somewhat lost to a viewer. Dead Or Alive does do a good job at fleshing out its characters, but I find that, because there’s multiple characters that one has to be aware of, its hard to just focus on the main characters because of the multiple simultaneous stories going on at once. However, in my opinion, this is more a symptom of that particular plotline rather than a downgrade in Takashi Miike’s story-telling talents, as this flaw is evident in many other films that follow the same type of plot: with multiple main characters comes less development in their stories, and thus hard hitting scenes become less hard-hitting in comparison to films that focus on one character.

On the technical side of things, Dead Or Alive isn’t the most impressive. The effects look cheap, even for 1999 standards, and the whole movie has a slightly shoddy quality to it that makes it look more like an early 90s movie instead of one that was created near-millennium. In comparison to Audition which came out the same year, looks polished and creative, and has some absolutely amazing special effects, Dead Or Alive just doesn’t have that same amount of talent or polish behind the camera. The special effects are disappointing, the camera-work is decent at best, and there’s hardly any creativity behind the lighting. The production aspects are just ‘serviceable’: not bad, but not amazing either, just standard for the story the film is telling, and there’s not much else I can say.

In conclusion, I didn’t find Dead Or Alive as enjoyable as other Takashi Miike works such as Ichi the Killer or even Ley Lines for that matter. It’s a decent movie, don’t get me wrong, but I know that a more unrestrained Takashi Miike is capable of much better movies. It’s a good film, but not one that’ll be remembered as one of Miike’s best.

However, I still have two movies left to see in this trilogy…

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