Production Company: Daiei, Toei Video
Release: 27 November 1999
Length: 105 min.
Director: Miike Takashi
Screenplay: Ryu Ichiro
Photography: Yamamoto Hideo
Music: Endo Koji
Jojima: Aikawa Sho
Ryuichi: Takeuchi Riki
Toji: Kashiwaya Michisuke
Satake: Osawa Hitoshi
Yan: Osugi Ren
Inoue: Terajima Susumu
Aoki: Ishibashi Renji
Chen: Tsurumi Shingo
Laughing at the End of the World
Aikawa Sho and Takeuchi Riki, the two great stars of Japanese made-for-video gangster entertainment, are squatting on the bank of some squalid, industrialized river. The image itself seems in the process of falling apart, with the scratches one sees in an old movie raining down like cats and dogs. The two turn to the camera and, as if starting up their rock band, belt out, “One, two, three, FOUR!”
Then, for the next six minutes, accompanied by raucous rock music, the film Dead or Alive proceeds with one of the most bravura, exhilarating cinematic depictions found on film of a city on the brink of apocalypse at the end of the millennium. From a naked woman plummeting to the pavement with a pound of cocaine in hand to a gay drug dealer slit in the throat as he is back-dooring some boy, from a cocaine crazed gang leader blown away with a shot gun on Yasukuni-dori to a Chinese mafia boss erupting noodles from his belly as it is riddled with bullets, this is not just a comedy of extremes, this is a world fundamentally off-kilter.
Coming from Takashi Miike, the director of the often excessive Fudoh: The Next Generation (“Gokudo sengokushi: Fudo,” 1996), Dead or Alive may seem to be one of those cool exercises in manga-turned-film like Sharkskin Man and Peach Hip Girl (“Samehada otoko to Momojiri musume,” dir. Ishii Katsuhito, 1999). But as his unbelievably prodigious work, ranging from the poetic The Bird People of China (“Chugoku no chojin,” 1997) to the often melancholic “Black Society” (Kuroshakai) series, indicates, Miike is more concerned with the sad unreality of a society that has lost its roots than manga absurdity.
Many of the characters in Dead or Alive (and of many of Miike’s films) are in fact offspring of “zanryu koji” - Japanese children left in China after the war and returned to Japan decades later only to find themselves unable to fit. Even their children, as one character says, feel they are “like Japanese but not Japanese, like Chinese but not Chinese.”
Without a home and feeling no obligation to Japanese society, Ryuichi (Takeuchi Riki) and his small group decide to make their own place by trying to take over the Shinjuku underworld and the drug trade from Taiwan. They commit the above assassinations, rob a bank, then plan an all-out-assault on the remaining Chinese and Japanese mafia kings.
Given their situation - and the fact that Takeuchi, the star, plays their leader - they are presented not unsympathetically, but they still must face the opposition of the police detective Jojima (performed by the other star, Aikawa Sho). Sniffing out the presence of a new force in the underworld, he doggedly pursues the usurpers, confiscates their first drug shipment, and forces a confrontation with Ryuichi.
Ryuichi and Jojima are not dissimilar, because each puts value in his family and friends, but not without complications. For Ryuichi, there is his younger brother Toji (Kashiwaya Michisuke), whom he has sent to college, but whose rejection he earns when Toji finds out all the money came from illegal deals. For Jojima, there is his daughter, who has a fatal illness that requires expensive surgery, but who seems to appreciate little of what her father does for her.
It is the loss of these family and friends that prods the final confrontation between these two men. But one should remember their anger does not stem from the loss of things they actually had. Jojima, after all, is rarely at home, and when he is, sleeps on the couch. Ryuichi’s family never had a permanent home - heck, the family graveyard is in a tidal swamp.
Miike’s characters may yearn for home and group belonging, but in his world of nomadic homelessness, that is an impossibility. Even Bird People of China, while evoking a Lost Horizon paradise, presents that lost home as a impossibility - or a dream in a character’s head.
Miike’s cinema reflects this rootlessness. The extreme, sometime absurd episodes, delightful in their audacity and cinematic virtuosity, are less homages to manga than exemplars of images without basis. This can both be the source of the pleasure of watching his films, as well as the explanation for the melancholy of many of his characters.
Without homes, seeking a place to call their own in a world that makes that impossible, they often, like in Ley Lines (“Nihon kuroshakai Ley Lines,” 1999), try to escape this claustrophobic Japan only to fail. The sometimes comedic Dead or Alive - particularly the outrageously absurd surprise ending - represents the explosion of frustration against that: if we can’t get out of this mess, blow it up.
Perhaps Dead or Alive is Miike’s maniacal laugh at the end of the world.
Reviewed by Aaron Gerow
Originally appeared in The Daily Yomiuri, 25 November 1999, p. 9
Copyright 1999: The Daily Yomiuri and Aaron Gerow