Dead or Alive (1999)

deadoralive

The film’s opening sequence knocks you over the head with its rebellious attitude. Intercutting between a strip-show, cocaine snorting gangsters, a shoot-out, and an apparent suicide, are coming at you so thick and fast that it is overwhelming. Once the narrative proper starts there is a clear intent to shock, with bestiality porn shoots, a horrific death involving an enema, and several other alternately horrific and hilarious set-pieces. The central story involves a feud between gangster Ryuichi (Riki Takeuchi) and police detective Jojima (Show Aikawa), though it is hard to say that is what the film is truly about. Rather that rather staid plot is used as a canvas for director Takashi Miike to create a work that is troubling and humorous in equal measure.

Director Takashi Miike’s “Black Society Trilogy” established his reputation as a talented film-maker, with an exciting, politically conscious take on the Yakuza genre. With Dead or Alive, Miike again tackles many of the same issues, but there is something different in “Dead or Alive” a punk aesthetic that is typified in the extreme opening and closing sequences of the film. It almost feels as though Miike is attempting to sabotage his own work, although it might be politer to suggest he is creating a post-modernist masterpiece. There are a number of fantastic scenes here, building character and back story, and Takeuchi and Aikawa give incredible performances throughout. During the interrogation scene there is an almost unbearable tension between the two leads. Watching a Miike film you are aware that he is fully in control. If he wants you to feel panic, dread, to laugh or be shocked or even upset, he can, casually confounding your expectations throughout. The film is such an eclectic mix of slapstick and gross out humour wrapped around a core of serious crime drama that it shouldn’t work, but somehow it does. Miike almost seems to be suggesting that he could make a great Yakuza epic if he wanted, but is constantly distracted by some wild or hilarious idea with which to toy with the audience, or perhaps it is all a commentary on the film industry, or whatever else occurred to him that day.

Miike delights in taking well-worn stories about cops and gangsters and turning them on their heads. There is social commentary here, on crime, the treatment of women, immigration and more, but it feels as though the whole thing has been through a blender. It is a kaleidoscope of ludicrous over-the-top moments, sombre family drama and scatological humour. Obscene, bizarre, satirical, at times emotionally raw, it is a film that pulls no punches.

Hara-Kiri: Death of a Samurai (2011)

Hara Kiri Death of a Samurai
The age of the samurai is drawing to a close with many having fallen on hard times. For a struggling ronin there is a risky, but potentially profitable, gambit that might be attempted: approach a wealthy lord and request to commit ritual suicide in his presence. If all goes well the lord will decide to take you on, or at the very least give you some money and send you on your way, rather than see blood spilt in his hall. This so-called “suicide bluff” is what we see attempted in this film by the samurai Tsukumo Hanshiro. However, following his request to commit ritual disembowelment the guards inform him that another recently appeared there attempting the same thing, and rather than being offered money they had forced him to carry out his proposed course of action. We learn that Tsukumo was aware of this and in fact good friends with the young samurai, who is in fact his son-in-law. We then hear the sorry tale that led him to that juncture, taken in by Tsukumo after his own father perished, and married to his daughter with a young child. Through various circumstances he was driven to the rash course of action that ultimately ended in tragedy. Tsukumo is now here for his revenge.

Takashi Miike is usually known for outrageous spectacle, violence, and even extreme horror. With this film, a remake of the 1962 classic, he takes a much more restrained approach. The tone is sombre, the drama slowly revealed and delicately considered. There is a certain theatrical feel to proceedings, particularly the sequences in the lord’s palace. Everything is driven by dialogue rather than action and this could easily work as a stage play. In fact there are perhaps only two sequence of swordplay coming late in the film. The cinematography by Nobuyasu Kita is incredible, perfectly captures the period, the palaces, feudal era streets and homes. The score by Ryuichi Sakamoto is likewise a gorgeous accompaniment to the drama. There is a lot to recommend the film, both cinematography and music, fantastic acting and a stirring central plot. It is a little overlong and lacking in the sort of frenetic action you may expect in a samurai film. It takes its time, relishing each moment and scene, and it rewards patience.

The film features a great look at the code of honour prevalent in the feudal period. It may seem peculiar that anyone would think to attempt this “suicide bluff”, but it allows us a look at both the relationship and reaction to death of this harsher social climate. There are a few hints to a more biting satire here, such as the shots of a white cat perched atop a pillow in the noble palace starkly compared to the feline corpse lying in the dirt in the lower home of the ronin. This is a world where the caste system rules and the line between rich and poor is clearly drawn. It is also a film about duty, both to your family and superiors, and whether it is possible to be good in such a rigid hierarchy, asking what it means to be an honourable person in such a world.

13 Assassins (2010)

 

The sadistic lord Naritsugu tortures and terrifies his subjects with impunity. One of his retinue Sir Doi decides to attempt a coup by recruiting a band of assassins led by his friend Shinzaemon. As the king returns from Edo the assassins wait in a village along the route to block his path.

A simple fight against the odds tale against a merciless lord. The film never looks less than stunning, with stylistic framing and actions. The final fight scenes employ hand-held cinematography to great effect. The opening scenes of the lords cruelty highlight an unhinged villain and the camaraderie of the assassins is also well-done. Although this kind of story has been done numerous times Miike adds his trademark off-beat humour and sensibilities to it. Occasionally the film seems undecided on whether to be a straight-faced historical drama, or a tongue-in-cheek action film. However inconsistent it is it remains very entertaining.

The focus is largely on the plight of the assassins against the vicious Naritsugu. The lords privileged, out-of-touch take on the world is highlighted later in the film when he remarks how fun it must have been to live in feudal, war-torn, Japan. Meanwhile, the assassins are left to muse on their fates as they face almost certain death. A fun action film with a fair mix of comedy and tradgedy.