Takashi Miike's Black Society Trilogy, previously released on DVD years back in North America by Artsmagic, lives again on Blu-ray thanks to the efforts of Arrow Video.
SHINJUKU TRIAD SOCIETY:
Tatsuhito is a crooked cop on the trail of a ruthless homosexual Chinese underworld kingpin named Wang, working out of the Shinjuku district in Japan. Tatsuhito has made it his life's mission to bring Wang down and figure out where all the money is coming from and leading to.
On his quest, he winds up finding his way through all sorts of local hotspots, eventually ending up in Taiwan of all places. His quest will require him to murder, rape (men and women), cheat, lie and steal, but that's not a problem for him in the first place. He's a nasty man who is not above killing a man in cold blood if it gets him what he needs.
Shinjuku Triad Society is a gritty, nasty, unflinchingly brutal film with a mean streak in it a mile wide. Tatsuhito's hunting down of Wang is basically a case of scum searching for scum. Neither of them is really the lesser of the two evils, both are horrible human beings. It does make for an interesting story though, as Miike's camera takes us through the seedy side of Japanese law enforcement in a frenetic, stylish chase to the finish. The cops don't care about the victims, the crooks don't care about the cops, and the entire film is drenched in an unusual sense of hopelessness.
Sho Aikawa (also of Miike's Dead Or Alive series) plays a hit-man named Yuuji living a rather quiet and secluded life working for some Taiwanese gangsters in Japan. His life is turned upside down when a woman he slept with one night, whose name he can't even remember, shows up at his doorstep literally forcing him to take custody of the son his recklessness produced.
Yuuji, used to doing his own thing in this bleak world where it always seems to be raining, isn't quite sure what to do with the boy. Initially he lets him tag along on contract hits, not seeming to care what he does or doesn't see. But as his sense of paternal instinct begins to kick in, Yuuji grows more attached to the child and his sense of responsibility grows. He is still a gangster though, kid or no kid, and that doesn't appear to be changing any time soon.
Rainy Dog is the best of the three films in the set. Sho Aikawa is brilliant in the lead role, bringing a calm sense of confusion to his character that is utterly believable despite the odd lifestyle he lives. You might want to hate him, you might end up feeling sorry for him but the story ensures that regardless of what side of the fence you sit on in that regard, you'll want to know what happens to him. Though not without its moments, Rainy Dog lacks the quantity of brutal violence that Miike is known for so often (and that is peppered throughout Shinjuku Triad Society) but more than makes up for the lack of action with a compelling character drama that sucks you into its miserable world.
The last film in the series takes a slightly lighter approach to the criminal underworld Miike seems obsessed with. Three different men from three different backgrounds find themselves heading to Tokyo hoping to find a job and create lives for themselves. When they arrive though, they're forced to deal with bigotry and racism, poverty, and rampant crime.
After getting scammed by a hooker, the three men take up drug peddling as at this point, they're broke and no one will employ them because of their backgrounds and their race. Eventually, the hooker who once betrayed them ends up becoming friendly with the trio, but by that point their lives are spiraling downhill fast and they decide to give up on Tokyo all together. In order to make it out, they're going to need passports and a whole lot of cash, so they set out to rob a bank, as it's the only option they have left.
This is by quite a margin the most relaxed of the three films. It's quiet and almost calm by Miike standards, replacing his tendency for violent set pieces and shocking situations with a tense, slowly building story that depends on the characters and their reactions to the situations that they find themselves in to work, rather than exploitative elements. And it succeeds beautifully. The movie takes a while to get going but once it starts, it's hard to turn off. The characters, despite what they do to get by, are quite sympathetic and believable and you really do feel for them by about the half way mark. Those who think of Miike as nothing more than a shockmaster owe it to themselves to use this film as a starting point for re-evaluating one of the most interesting directors working in cinema today.
Arrow's Blu-ray debut for the three films that make up Miike's Black Society Trilogy are presented in AVC encoded 1080p high definition, each framed at 1.85.1 widescreen. The first two films are on one disc, a BD50, and the third film on its own separate disc, also a BD50 (the video interview extras are on this disc as well). For the most part, the transfers here are pretty solid. Certain scenes in each film are shot in low light and as such, they don't pop the way that some of the scenes shot in brighter light do. There are moments where some black crush can be spotted but these are not constants. There is a strange sequence in Rainy Dog where the image shows some odd jitter but according to the commentary on that film, it was intentional as Miike asked his cinematographer to try a different shutter speed. The discs are well authored and free of any obvious compression artifacts or noise reduction. Colors are a bit flat looking in some spots but compared to the old DVD release, that was the case there as well.
Each film in the set gets the LPCM 2.0 Stereo treatment in its native Japanese (though occasional bits are spoken in Chinese and English throughout the trilogy) with optional subtitles in English only. Dialogue is clean, clear and properly balanced and the scores used for the three films sound just fine. Sound effects, gun shots in particular, are fairly punchy and there are no problems with any hiss or distortion. Note that the audio censorship you'll notice in Ley Lines, where certain profanities and obscenities are bleeped, is intentional.
Each of the three films in the set has a feature length running commentary with Tom Mes, author of the Fab Press Miike tome, Agitator. These are not the same tracks that were included on Artsmagic's DVD release of the series years back, though understandably there's some crossover here and there. Mes knows Miike's films well and he does an excellent job of detailing their history, explaining their significance and offering a lot of critical and cultural analysis as they play out. He crams a lot of information into all three of these commentaries and his thoughts and insights into the three movies helps to put them not only into a cultural perspective but also into contrast against some of Miike's other films. He explores the themes and characters that make the films work, and he does a very nice job of it.
Also included in the set is a forty-five minute interview with Miike entitled Into The Black. Here the director talks about how he got into filmmaking, some of the movies and talent that inspired him to take the plunge, the training he received early in his career, how he transitioned into directing, his early days working in V-cinema and quite a bit more.
Sho Aikawa is also interviewed in a separate piece entitled Stray Dog, Lone Wolf. In this twenty-two minute long conversation he discusses working on various V-cinema projects, how he came to be involved with Takashi Miike, his work on various Miike projects and his thoughts on some of these films.
Finally, each film in the set has its appropriate trailer. Menus and chapter selection are also provided for each disc. Included inside the keepcase along with the discs is an insert booklet containing credits for each feature, essays by Samm Deighan, Tony Rayns and Stephen Sarrazin and some notes on the transfers. The case containing the discs and the booklet also holds some reversible cover art and fits nicely inside a glossy cardboard slipcover. Arrow has done a nice job on the packaging here.
Arrow Video's Blu-ray release of Takashi Miike's Black Society Trilogy offers a really nice upgrade over past DVD editions that these films have received in North America. The video transfers are quite good and the audio is as well, while the inclusion of interesting commentary tracks for each film and interviews with both the director and Show Aikawa are also well worth checking out. Highly recommended.
Ian lives in NYC with his wife where he writes for DVD Talk, runs Rock! Shock! Pop!. He likes NYC a lot, even if it is expensive and loud.