Review: Dead or Alive (1999)

Since I started Kino 893, I’ve watched a lot of Japanese cinema from the ‘50s, ‘60s, and Dead or Alive Poster‘70s, as well as ‘contemporary’ films from the early 2000s onwards, but with a few exceptions I haven’t seen many films from the 1980s or 1990s. I’ve been meaning to rectify that, in part by digging into the filmographies of Juzo Itami and Takashi Miike. Miike began directing in the early ‘90s and has been incredibly prolific, typically directing multiple films per year for most of his career and only recently starting to dial it back – while still directing at least a couple of films a year. Blade of the Immortal, released last year, is widely described as his 100th feature film (though it seems to more accurately be his 100th IMDB directorial credit, which includes a number of non-feature credits) and he has already released two films since then. Rewinding to 1999, he was achieving far more recognition, moving from straight-to-video to theatrical releases. Dead or Alive (1999) was one of six movies he released that year; a stylish, violent, provocative yakuza movie starring Riki Takeuchi (Battle Royale II, Yakuza 0)  and Sho Aikawa (Zebraman).

Dead or Alive infamously starts with a long, stunning intro that sets the tone for much of the film. It introduces the sleaze of Shinjuku’s Kabukicho quarter and the violence, most of it committed by Riki Takeuchi’s Ryu and his gang, that will dominate for the next 90 odd minutes. There are drugs, topless dancers, gay sex, multiple murders, and a man feasting on ramen until he’s shot in the stomach and sprays bile and noodles across the screen. Through it all there’s an incredible thumping soundtrack and the symbolic visual of someone snorted an enormous line of coke up a makeshift ramp, as if ramping up into the film proper.

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L to R: Ryu (Riki Takeuchi) and Jojima (Sho Aikawa) in the film’s opening shot before the mesmerising intro kicks in

Call it my desensitisation, but the violence doesn’t actually feel that extreme, at least as compared to as other, more overtly gory or realistic films. There are some over-the-top, Sanjuro-esque spurts of blood and of course countless people killed, so maybe it’s just the intervening years, but it seems a little tame given what Miike and Japanese shock cinema in general is capable of. On the other hand, it is far more grounded and modern than the yakuza violence in ‘60s or even ‘70s jitsuroku films. If you’re used to thugs pulling the trigger and throwing themselves around a la Kinji Fukasaku’s films, this will be a huge, and for me welcome, surprise. In fact, the majority of the film is so grounded, and a few of the action sequences put together so well, that for 90% of it I was really getting quite impressed.

There are moments when Dead or Alive strays into more familiar Miike territory, where his urge to shock appears to override common sense. These extreme moments don’t completely derail the film – except for, perhaps, the out-of-nowhere change in tone at the end – but do make it slightly more difficult to recommend. Some of the moments seem like deliberate provocations that actually do enhance the mood and tone the film is trying to set, such as when Aikawa’s Detective Jojima visits an informant on the set of a beastiality shoot. The world of Dead or Alive is brutal and beyond sleazy, a post-Bubble nightmare where the streets are filled with kipple and nobody comes away clean. Moments like that help sell the setting. Others are so outlandish they creep right through unpleasant and over into the ridiculous, like when a rival boss drowns a member of Ryu’s gang in her own excrement. Minor transgressions like these could probably be overlooked, though, if not for the final showdown that is so unexpectedly over-the-top that it feels like Miike tacked it on from a different film (Yakuza Apocalypse, maybe).

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In another scene from the intro, a gangster snorts an enormous line of cocaine up a literal ramp, as if figuratively ramping up to the craziness that will follow for the rest of the film

It’s a real shame that the moments where Miike indulges in being “Miike, provocateur” start to override the ones where he’s “Miike, auteur” – as a review in Sight & Sound put it, “the ending demolishes any vestiges of genre credibility”. Much of the film is a surprisingly nuanced – if not necessarily actually accurate or sensitive – take on crime and ethnicity in Japan. Takeuchi’s Ryu is ethnically Chinese, and the very loose plot follows him and his gang trying to take over the drug trade in Shinjuku from the local triads and yakuza by murdering their way through everyone involved. A running thread sees Ryu’s younger brother returning from studies in America and being disheartened to learn that his education was paid for by Ryu’s crimes. Later, he tells Ryu that in America, being in an ethnic minority doesn’t mean someone has to be in a gang (which – let’s just step straight past any discussion of race and socioeconomics in the USA). There is an absolutely fantastic sequence where Jojima and his partner are trying to track down Ryu’s whereabouts and they interview a couple of street thugs who explain that to them, Ryu is a kind of hero. Pressed to elaborate, they tell the cops,

“We look Japanese, but we’re not. Then again, we look Chinese, but we’re not. We’re not really anything. That’s us.”

It reflects the difficulty of fitting into a society that views itself as ethnically homogenous, as Yamato Japanese, even though that is not actually reflected in Japan’s true demographics. Of course, it is difficult to discuss or track ethnicity in Japan because the government does not measure it – it only acknowledged the indigenous Ainu ethnic minority in 1997, and the modern census does not include any questions about ethnicity, instead conflating ethnicity with nationality; thus, a naturalised Japanese citizen is counted as Japanese no matter their country of origin. East Asian minorities living in Japan, including Chinese and Koreans, are often subject to discrimination even though they can sometimes ‘pass’ as Japanese. Given systemic discrimination, it is perhaps unsurprising that minority groups – whether based on ethnicity or connection to old, undesirable Japanese castes – make up a disproportionate percentage of the yakuza.

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Almost hidden among the provocative imagery are more hauntingly beautiful scenes. Several take place at this half-sunken graveyard in the shadow of distant industrial buildings, bizarre and affecting at the same time.

Dead or Alive is so close to being a film I could recommend unreservedly to the Miike novice or a fan of yakuza movies wanting to branch out, but the delirious ending makes it impossible to recommend uncritically. Still, the introduction is so well put together the rest of the film is almost extraneous – from it, you can almost see the influences bleeding through into SEGA’s Yakuza videogame series before it comes full circle with Miike directing 2007’s Like a Dragon. The look at ethnicity and identity is also fascinating, tempered with an acknowledgment that is not especially subtle or sensitively explored. Given that the second and third film in the ‘trilogy’ take a decidedly retro format where Takeuchi and Aikawa return in new roles but increasingly outlandish situations, I have to wonder what themes will be picked up from this entry, and which will be discarded.

Dead or Alive / DEAD OR ALIVE:犯罪者

Director: Takashi Miike

Japanese Release Date: 27th November, 1999

Version Watched: 105 min (Arrow Video Blu-Ray)

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