At the dawn of the millennium, Takashi Miike released his second film in the Dead Or Alive trilogy: Dead Or Alive 2: Birds. Dead Or Alive 2: Birds doesn’t have a connection to the original Dead Or Alive in any way aside from a plotline about Yakuza and the fact that the film stars Sho Aikawa and Riki Takeuchi in the main roles. Even the story and themes that Dead Or Alive 2: Birds tackles are completely different to the first. Whilst the first film was a ‘1v1 duel’ storyline about a Chinese gangster and a Japanese detective, Dead Or Alive 2: Birds is about two Japanese hitmen who discover they were actually childhood friends during a hit, and they return to their childhood home whilst hiding out from the Yakuza and the police. Once again, Dead Or Alive 2: Birds finds itself marketed poorly as the trailers, posters and such for this movie show nothing but action and gunplay, but Dead Or Alive 2: Birds is much more of a comedy-drama than any form of action movie. Granted it has its incredibly violent moments, probably even more violent than the original Dead Or Alive, but most of the film is a sentimental drama about nostalgia, old friends, better ways of life and new experiences. It’s surprising to see the film take this particular approach, but Takashi Miike definitely does everything he can to tell his story in the best way possible.
After watching Dead Or Alive 2: Birds, it made me reflect upon what I found underwhelming about Dead Or Alive. I found Dead Or Alive to be a good film, don’t get me wrong, but I had problems with it that I couldn’t put my finger on, problems that I found hard to address because it didn’t feel as though anything was ‘missing’ from the film, but it didn’t feel exactly ‘right’. However, upon watching Dead Or Alive 2: Birds, I realized what I found underwhelming about Dead Or Alive: the tone. Dead Or Alive is far too serious for a Takashi Miike film. All of Takashi Miike’s greatest films – Ichi the Killer, Audition, Gozu– have aspects of humor and a sensibility that goes above reality. Ichi The Killer is over the top gory, Audition has its humorous segments as well as its dreamlike horror, and Gozu has an undertone of black humor behind all of its weirdness. In comparison Dead Or Alive took itself too seriously. That’s not to say that seriousness can ruin a film, as some of the best films ever made are overly serious, but the tone it creates can be overwhelming to a viewer, and films that take themselves too seriously seem to blend in to one another in terms of style, tone and approach. There’s no personality, no charm, and the lack of which creates a good yet forgettable experience to me. Unfortunately, that’s what Dead Or Alive lacked for the majority of the movie; there was no charm, no personality, it didn’t feel at all like a Takashi Miike movie with a Takashi Miike personality. I think this is why the ending is so memorable. The crazy, over-the-top sensibility of the ending feels more fitting for a Takashi Miike film than every single scene previous. The ending showed personality, humor, and a love of the bizarre, which is Takashi Miike at his best. All of Takashi Miike’s best films are all about charm and personality, despite how much questionable content is featured. Ichi The Killer had personality, Audition had personality, Gozu had personality, even Visitor Q had personality, but Dead Or Alive did not, and neither did Ley Lines. Good films, but lacking that which made it feel like a ‘Takashi Miike’ film.
The reason why I say this is because Dead Or Alive 2: Birds has so much personality to it in comparison. The story is incredibly heart-warming and sentimental. Instead of trying to push highly serious situations onto the characters, Dead Or Alive 2: Birds creates believably relatable characters by showing them having a good time and being happy instead. Although both methods are capable of creating characters that a viewer can attach themselves to, showing happy characters is much more effective than showing characters in tough situations. A good point to this is to count how many times the main characters smile in both movies. In Dead Or Alive, Ryuichi and Jojima never smile, however, Dead Or Alive 2: Birds features Shuichi (Riki Takeuchi) and Mizuki (Sho Aikawa) having scenes where they actually enjoy themselves, thus creating a strong bond between them and the audience. This is because happiness, no matter if its in real life or onscreen, is infectious, hence why some of the most powerful works of drama contain a lot of strong comedic elements such as Who’s Afraid Of Virginia Woolf, Trainspotting, One Flew Over The Cuckoos Nest and Memories Of Murder. Dead Or Alive 2: Birds definitely follows this pattern. The film definitely isn’t scared of shying away from hard hitting scenes, but it also allows a lot of time for scenes that feel very nostalgic as the movie jumps between the present and the past. A lot of the movie is dedicated to showing the main characters as they are now and how they were as kids, and both sections are so heart-warming to witness. You see the kids growing up, discovering about themselves and the world around them in the way that only kids can, then see how the adult versions of the main characters carry those experiences with them and laugh about it all. All of this made me smile and connect to the main characters as we see where they are, where they’ve come from, and everything feels so familiar that it just creates a very emotionally uplifting mood.
However, since Dead Or Alive 2: Birds was made by Takashi Miike and Takashi Miike loves his sense of the bizarre, Dead Or Alive 2: Birds contains a lot of very weird, even cartoonish moments of obtuse silliness. However, this all adds to the charm and personality of the movie as a whole. Dead Or Alive 2: Birds is a film that can flit between serious drama and the strangely cartoonish very effectively, creating an uplifting tone that doesn’t take itself too seriously. One thing that is important to note about this movie, however, is that with a lot of the weirder moments comes with a lot of symbolism, some of which I understood and some of which that went straight over my head. The film talks a lot about nostalgia, and what it’s like to be an innocent child in comparison to a corrupted adult, and a lot of the more symbolic scenes – the man with a telescope, the wings, the play, the constant use of “Where Are You?” – represent these themes of nostalgia, childhood, protection and loss of innocence. However, when the film wants to be dark and disturbing, it definitely doesn’t hold back. I believe that Dead Or Alive 2: Birds is far more violent than its forebear, with blood, gore and rotting carcasses being featured in some of the movies most intense scenes, however what makes Dead Or Alive 2: Birds very different to its forebear is that there’s a limited sense of the disgustingly perverse this time around. This definitely makes Dead Or Alive 2: Birds a much more palatable and enjoyably fun film than Dead Or Alive overall.
As for the acting, Sho Aikawa and Riki Takeuchi are on point. Dead Or Alive 2: Birds definitely proves that both actors are far better suited when they are portraying a non-serious role rather than a serious one. In this movie they suit their roles perfectly as they flawlessly entertain both elements of comedy and drama within their performances. Dead Or Alive 2: Birds even brings back Kenichi Endo (Visitor Q) and Shinya Tsukamoto (Ichi The Killer) in perfect roles as well. Shinya’s performance as a mad magician hitman is memorably funny if incredibly short, and Kenichi Endo’s endearing performance as Mizuki and Shuichi’s childhood friend is downright silly, yet lovable. Add to this the fact that each of the actors in Dead Or Alive 2: Birds genuinely looked like they were having a great time making the film, unlike the first film, and it all adds to the memorable charm and personality of Dead Or Alive 2: Birds.
As for the movie’s technical aspects; first and foremost, there’s far more CGI elements in Dead Or Alive 2: Birds than there was in the original. I have stated before that 2000s CGI was incredibly dodgy at best, but all of the CGI in Dead Or Alive 2: Birds works very well. This is because the CGI is balanced with practical effects and is only ever used for effects that aren’t meant to be perceived as realistic in any way, which works because the CGI itself doesn’t look realistic in any way. In comparison, Dead Or Alive used its unconvincing CGI realistically, and it definitely makes the film feel flawed when I know that Takashi Miike can just use practical effects for such scenes instead. With Dead Or Alive 2: Birds, Takashi Miike draws a firm separation between the real and unreal, and the CGI confirms this separation whilst also adding a lot of silly moments to the film that breaks up the seriousness of some of the darker scenes. All in all, there seems to a be a firm concentration on creativity behind the scenes as well, and not just in the post-production: camera angles are used very well in relation to what happens onscreen, the lighting plays with soft, warm colours to create a nostalgic feel, and the films practical effects are far more bloody and convincing than the ones in Dead Or Alive.
In conclusion; Dead Or Alive 2: Birds feels like a vast upgrade from the original. I firmly believe that this is Takashi Miike as his best and most free, free to create a grand and relatable story through the use of character, relatable themes and an unrestrained sense of the weird and wonderful. I thoroughly enjoyed my time with this movie, so much so that after watching it I instantly wanted to watch it again and see the action, comedy and heart-warming moments once again. Unlike Ley Lines and Dead Or Alive, Dead Or Alive 2: Birds has character oozing from every scene. It is, in my opinion, one of the best that Takashi Miike has to offer. I thoroughly recommend it to everyone, not just a niche audience, because this shows the grand, yet varied talents of Takashi Miike, once known only as a ‘master of extreme cinema’.
But I’ve still got this trilogy to finish…