First Love (2019) by Takashi Miike

Leo Katsuragi (Masataka Kubota) is an up and coming boxer. Yuri (Sakurako Konishi) is a woman addicted to meth and prostituted out to pay off her father’s debts. Kase (Shota Sometani) is a yakuza about to betray his employers by intercepting a delivery of meth and selling it on. His partner in crime is a crooked cop, Otomo (Nao Omori). Their plan is to grab the drugs, and make Yuri the scapegoat by renting her out on the night of the theft. When Leo receives a terminal diagnosis, a tumour on the brain, he sets off into the Tokyo night, lacking all will to carry on. A chance encounter with Yuri gives him something to fight for and the two head off together, chased by Kase and Otomo, the Yakuza, the Triads and the police.

Miike creates a vibrant world full of colourful characters with a fast paced script that never lets up. From the opening cross cuts of the various storylines we are thrust forward into the action, constantly flipping back-and-forth between the main players in the drama. The film doesn’t take itself too seriously, preferring the extreme or ridiculous rather than the mundane. This is evident early on when we see a severed head blinking in disbelief, and reaches its climax in a triumphant getaway chase beginning with a car flying out of a second story window. The film is packed with fantastic action, black comedy, and humorously idiosyncratic moments. There are two central plots: Leo and Yuri’s relationship and Kase’s drug heist gone wrong. Yuri is given a tragic backstory of abuse, and her attempts to find the boy who once helped her are touching. Her comedown from addiction is also well-played and provides an interesting angle to her character. Likewise, Leo is also a troubled individual, abandoned by his parents and struggling with the weight of his diagnosis. Both Masataka Kubota and Sakurako Konishi give incredible performances and it would have been great to see more of them. One of the issues, if it can be called such, is the film’s dual structure, with both the couple’s relationship and Kase and Otomo’s attempts to discover the drugs taking equal time. As an audience you find that you want more of both of these stories, but are constantly split between them.

The acting from the entire cast is perfectly pitched between blackly comic and serious crime drama, a difficult feat to pull off. Outside the main cast are suitably chilling performances from Seiyo Uchino as Gondo the yakuza boss, and Mami Fujioka as the Chinese Triad Assassin. As in his previous Black Society Trilogy, Miike includes the Chinese underworld as an integral and symbiotic part of the Japanese criminal society, with their dialogue in Chinese. It seems an unusual point to mention, but with much Japanese cinema you would be forgiven for thinking of Japan as an entirely homogenous society with no foreign elements or influences.

Having worked in the genre of crime for his entire career Miike knows all the tropes of Yakuza stories and how and when to subvert them. Examples of this include Kase’s attempts to murder a potential witness to his crimes, being interrupted by her elderly flatmate, and the inventive way he decides to kill her. It seems also there is a knowing wink to the camera in moments such as Godo’s final scene and the Chinese gang member “one-armed” Wang (Yen cheng-kuo), creating a tension between drama and comedy. The design of the film is stylish, with great use of colour and framing throughout. It also manages to capture the grime of the Tokyo streets and run down apartments. Despite the fantastical nature of the plot the set design ensures it remains grounded firmly in reality.

Fans of Miike’s work will find much to enjoy here. “First Love” has almost everything you would expect from the director of “Dead or Alive” and “Audition”. He crafts an understated love story woven through the turmoil of a hard-boiled crime drama. The action sequences, including car chases and sword fighting are all expertly done, and there is a forward momentum to everything that makes it a joy to watch. If anything it is a film about finding your reason for living. In a world where you are beset on all sides by violence and chaos, you can discover that one thing that keeps you focused. At the beginning of the film, Leo has his boxing and Yuri is addicted to meth. By the end, both have found each other and something meaningful to fight for.

Agitator (2001) by Takashi Miike

An underground rivalry spirals out of control in this thrilling yakuza tale from a master of the genre. Two rival gangs, the Shirane and Yokomizo groups find themselves locked in a tit-for-tat struggle following the death of one of their members. Things escalate when the heads of the groups are targeted. All of this is part of an audacious plot to take over the groups and see them affiliated with the larger Tenseikai syndicate.

With his “Black Society” and “Dead or Alive” trilogies of the nineties, Miike established himself as a director with a unique style, with often bloodspattered and extreme stories of violence. “Agitator” owes more of a debt to the former than the latter, something akin to a modern day “Yakuza Papers” in its complex hierarchies and increasingly dangerous vendettas, albeit with fictionalised Yakuza families. At the heart of the film is the rivalry between Shirane and Yokomizo gang members, that gives the audience larger forces to split up the large cast of characters. Much of the narrative involves plotting and manipulation by the higher-ups of the yakuza, punctuted by the violence carried out by their underlings. A few characters do fall by the wayside and there are relationships that are underdeveloped. Miike has a fantastic eye for blocking and framing scenes, using inventive camerawork to enliven what would otherwise be tedious scenes of exposition.

“Agitator” deals with themes familiar to many yakuza films: the shifting line between honour and duty; the cycle of violence engendered by revenge; and the hierarchical nature of criminal gangs, and by extension society, that sees people suffering at the whims of their superiors. The film is a sprawling gangster epic with excellent performances and a plot that keeps upping the ante with every twist and turn.

Blade of the Immortal (2017)

Takashi Miike’s previous forays into the samurai genre, in the shape of “13 Assassins” and “Hara-Kiri” show a reverence for the genre which is also evidenced here in “Blade of the Immortal”. The film is based on a manga by Hiroaki Samura and follows the story of a man cursed with eternal life. In the opening scenes we are introduced to Manji, played by Takuya Kimura. He is on the run from the law after killing several constables and taking care of his sister, Machi. Manji’s immortality comes from a bloodworm given to him by a witch and it also gives him the power to recover from any injury. He also gains the less heralded ability to produce any number of weapons at will from beneath his robes. Later he comes across a young girl, Rin, played by Hana Sugisaka, who reminds him of his sister. Her own parents have been killed and Manji agrees to take on her mission of revenge.

Miike clearly has a love of samurai and swordplay and there are some beautifully choreographed fight-sequences. Both large scale battles and one-on-one duels between the protagonist and the swordsmen of the Itto clan. The cinematography is as good as any classic samurai film. The opening sequences use the chiaroscuro to great effect and the use of shadows throughout evokes an atmosphere of the clash between right and wrong. There is also great use of colour, in the vibrant red of Rin’s kimono and purple of Makie’s gown (another of the Itto clan) contrasting with the black and white of Manji’s robes. Everything about the film shows a quality and attention to detail, with excellent set-design and costumes. The tone of the film flits between serious drama but also includes flashes of Miike’s black humour. In large part these are off-hand remarks, or unbelievable moments such as when a character is impaled on a number of weapons at once. The film is long and perhaps suffers a little from an attempt to replicate a manga structure. The screenplay by Tetsuya Oishi does a good job of getting a lot of information across, but could have done with a less loyal adaptation of the source material. It becomes a little formulaic when Manji is taking on the third or fourth villain to appear. However, the final triumphant fight sequence, itself an incredible feat running to almost half an hour of uninterrupted action, brings the film to a thrilling close. The fights are bloodsoaked and brutal and there is enough variety in the opponents, locations or impetus of the sequences to keep you interested, but it is clear that they are attempting to rush through several important characters without giving too much time to develop any one in particular. The relationship between Rin and Manji is poignant and enjoyable to watch, with both giving exceptional performances.

The film discusses the rights and wrongs of revenge as well as the idea of the cycle of violence. In many ways Manji is the embodiment of this notion. He is trapped in life that is never ending, forced not only to relive his own mistakes, but in taking on Rin’s mission he is possibly beginning the same pattern again. He yearns for death, having grown tired of living, but is unable to achieve it. In his determination we also see his character go through a change of heart as he moves from being apathetic and wishing to end his life, to rediscovering a meaning to fight. This cyclical nature of violence is something that the film is somewhat ambivalent about. Later in the film the villain tells Rin that whether he lives or dies men like him will return, time and again. Humanity can never walk away from its fundamentally violent nature. But there is the hope that there will always be heroes who rise up to fight on the side of justice. An enjoyable swordplay epic with a heartwarming central relationship and exceptional action sequences.

Dead or Alive: Final (2002)

Set in a future dystopia, “Dead or Alive: Final” is a speculative science-fiction involving replicants, totalitarian government and a nascent rebellion. Show Aikawa plays a replicant, imbued with powers of super-speed, able to catch bullets, and indestructible. He is taken in by a family who are fighting against the oppressive regime of a flamboyant dictator. The population are kept under control by being forced to take a pill that makes them infertile. It is suggested that procreation is no longer required in a world where replicants are prevalent. Riki Takeuchi plays a police officer who is attempting to root out and destroy the resistance fighters that threaten the dominance of the leader.

The third part of this trilogy is quite a departure from what has gone before. Being a future science-fiction it allows Takashi Miike to explore themes from a new perspective, by examining what a future Japan might look like. There is an international feel to the film, with Chinese and English spoken frequently alongside Japanese, in common with his previous work on the “Black Society Trilogy”. The idea of a population being kept in a state of oppression and forced to consume the birth control drug is a clear satire of Japan’s problems with population decline, subservience to government, and perhaps even the conservative values that typify modern society. A few of the elements may seem derivative, such as the idea of replicants, but there are definitely unique flourishes. The film is a little uneven in terms of the balance of comedy and drama. Usually, Miike is good at this, but here it is unclear what is parody and what is serious. This is partly due to the lack of money and resources to create an effective future world. The special effects are stretched to breaking point, especially towards the  end of the film. The ending is somewhat incomprehensible for another reason. It draws in scenes from the previous two “Dead or Alive” films that really have no place being here. While there are parallels between the films, sex, violence, crime, themes of childhood and fate, woven through each, and the main actors are the same, there is really little connecting them. It comes across as though the leads here are remembering past lives, but doesn’t provide the audience with enough to make any coherent point about the three films as a whole

There are some interesting ideas here, but a lot have been done before and better. The concept of replicants is raised though never fully addressed. This is exemplified in the scene where Riki Takeuchi discovers that his family are replicants. It should be a dramatic moment, but since the concept is only vaguely established in the world this revelation has little impact. The idea of a society struggling with a lack of reproduction, or the diminishment of the importance of sex and reproduction is likewise a fascinating avenue, but it seems the film always shies away from exploring anything in depth. Worth watching for a couple of standout scenes, and again capped with a bizarre, unforgettable ending, but doesn’t quite live up to the standard of the earlier films.

Dead or Alive 2: Birds (2000)

Two assassins meet unexpectedly when they are both contracted to kill the same man. After realising that they were actually childhood friends, they decide to escape from the city and return to the island where they were brought up, visiting a third friend who is now living there with his pregnant wife. After their respite the two decide to return to the metropolis and use their skills as professional killers to benefit orphans in the third world, by sending the money they make overseas. This soon brings them back into contact with the violent gangs they had previously escaped.

After the grotesque comedy of the first Dead or Alive film, this is a much more sedate affair. There is still puerile humour, sex, violence, and quirky storytelling with bizarre plot twists, but throughout is a strong central theme helped along by fantastic performances by Show Aikawa and Riki Takeuchi. The two actors this time play the assassins returning to their hometown, reliving former traumas and triumphs along with their old friend. Both are charismatic and it is good to see them getting more screen time together. The story meanders its way through their reminiscences and may not appeal to those fond of the more frenetic pace of the earlier film, but it does a much better job of creating likeable characters. Takashi Miike brings a visual flair and intelligence to the directing that keep things interesting. There are moments of pure cinema, such as when the characters sprout wings, one black, one white, or when we see feathers falling from nowhere after a murder, or when the characters transform into their childhood selves.

It may seem out of place to have a school play half-way through a film about hit-men, especially one that is juxtaposed with a sex scene and gangland murders in another part of the country, but it typifies what makes this movie great. By creating a powerful contrast between the placid life of the small island community with the horrors of inner-city crime we get a picture of divided characters, contract killers who still retain their basic humanity. The film is essentially about a loss of innocence as we see what these young boys have become, and their attempt to regain that through travelling back to their old town. The plot involving the two killers helping young children out with money through the proceeds of murder is a fairly pointed commentary on what is wrong with society, and done in a way that makes it seem like common sense (why not kill bad guys and give the money to helpless orphans?). It is great to see a film that has the confidence to tell its audience uncomfortable truths, while at the same time not being overly moralistic.