1999 was a key year for director Takashi Miike. The four films he released that year alongside numerous TV and video projects included the seminal Audition which made his international reputation, but it also produced Ley Lines which went on to complete the trio of films which became known as the Black Society Trilogy, and launched another ongoing sequence which was to cement Miike’s reputation as a maker of crazy gangster flicks. Unlike the Black Society Trilogy, Dead or Alive was conceived as a three part series even if the films share no direct narrative connection save for a shared universe. Each featuring twin stars Sho Aikawa and Riki Takeuchi, the Dead or Alive Trilogy takes its tough guys through the ringer, examining the nature of violence and destruction and what it means to live an outlaw life - to be dead and alive at the same time.
The first film, Dead or Alive, revisits some of the themes from the Black Society Trilogy as Riki Takeuchi plays a petty gangster of Chinese descent caught between yakuza and Triad as he tries to keep his more sensitive kid brother out of harm’s way. Sho Aikawa plays his opposing number in the weary policeman Jojima whose strained family life forces him to cross the line from law enforcer to law breaker.
After beginning with a long, largely wordless sequence thrumming along to tune of the Shinjuku nightlife Miike slows down and gets introspective as Takeuchi and Aikawa stalk each other with the yakuza left to offer nuggets of existential questioning. Following successive casualties on each side, the two man war between Aikawa and Takeuchi heats up until it finally boils over for a bizarre finale which threatens to burn the whole world in an orgy of vengeance.
Nevertheless, despite the apparent apocalypse occurring at the first film’s conclusion Miike returns for a second instalment recasting Aikawa and Takeuchi as orphaned childhood friends who’ve both found themselves trapped in the nihilistic hitman underground. Reconnecting at their childhood home, the pair find a kind of salvation in their boyhood innocence and decide to turn their grown up skills to good use by only bumping off bad guys and then using the money to buy vaccinations for poor children across the world. This does not go down well with their criminal associates and the pair quickly find themselves on the wrong side of the battle for the soul of the melancholy button man.
After the first film’s testosterone filled posturing, Dead or Alive 2: Birds brings things down a little with its gentle nostalgia for the innocence of childhood and sanctity of boyhood bonds. Both betrayed by traditional family at every turn, these lone wolves are lonely men longing for connections they feel incapable of making. Miike contrasts the violent life of the city with the idyllic beaches of the quiet island home which becomes a kind of eternal paradise filled with love and kindess, but our two hitmen can’t stay here as they now are even if their ultimate goal is to preserve that same innocence for the children of the world. Strange and surreal yet filled with nostalgia and melancholy, Birds is among Miike’s most contemplative, if perhaps inscrutable, efforts.
Part three, Final, takes its cues from its name but also quite heavily from Blade Runner. Set in the Yokohama of 2346 but filmed in a suitably dystopian Hong Kong tinted cyberpunk green, this far future world is one of post-war reconstruction in which love has become a political act. Riki Takeuchi plays the police chief working for the dictatorial mayor who has declared a homosexual superstate in which the only true love is gay love and heterosexual relationships are frowned upon as a strict population balance must be maintained. By this point in the future, Yokohama is mostly Chinese and the Cantonese speaking heterosexual resistance has retreated to a ruined part of the city where they hope to raise their children to enjoy a better, freer world. Aikawa plays a “replicant” who later joins up with the rebels and faces off against Takeuchi who once again has some familial troubles which have a strange and unexpected outcome.
Having started out playing Blade Runner, Miike co-opts the ending of Tetsuo: The Iron Man as the two series leads merge to become a kind of angel of vengeance. Despite its high concept, Final features the lowest production values of the trilogy and was filmed on video for straight to DVD release. Nevertheless it makes the most of its meagre budget even if its attempt to paint the regular Hong Kong city scape as a gloomy dystopia is not always successful.
Throughout the trilogy Miike has been building to the final image. The recurrent themes address the fates of children in a violent world, and by extension of innocence, but also of the nature of “family” or the bonds between men which can be as much of opposition as they are of connection. The Dead or Alive Trilogy may have helped to cement Miike’s reputation overseas thanks to its frenetic gangster action as seen in the first instalment but it also lays bare his particular auteurist perspective as his lonely gangsters long for a better world but have long since lost the faith in its possibility to bring it about.
Japanese with optional English subtitles.
On disc extras include: New interview with actor Riki Takeuchi, New interview with actor Sho Aikawa, New interview with producer and screenwriter Toshiki Kimura, New audio commentary for Dead or Alive by Miike biographer Tom Mes, Archive interviews with cast and crew, Archive making-of featurettes for DOA2: Birds and DOA: Final, Original theatrical trailers for all three films,