Shortly following his near re-invention of the yazuza film with Fudoh: The New Generation, Takashi Miike solidified his reputation as a cult filmmaker to be reckoned with when he unleashed Dead or Alive in 1998. Contrasting a gonzo anything-can-happen style with old school slow meditative ponderings, he helped bring the classic genre crime/yakuza film into the modern age.
Dead or Alive tells the story of Ryuchi (Riki Takeuchi), a Japanese raised in China, a gangster without a country or an allegiance to either major crime side, the Japanese Yakuza or the Chinese Triads. He cold heartedly leads his gang; his only source of soul being his US college attending brother whom he supports. On the other side is Jojima (Sho Aikawa), a disillusioned cop, dysfunctional family man, and father of a daughter in dire need of a heart operation he cannot afford. Both men try to make the best out of their situation, Ryuchi in a bloodthirsty take no prisoners battle with the leading gangs, stealing from them and committing executions, while Jojimi's workaholic life leaves him little time for his family and professionally he wavers between taking payoffs and cracking down on the local mobsters.
The story is a simple one, two men on opposite sides of the law who find that the people they support, their emotional base, are ineffectual. Despite all of their efforts, the dark world they live in has them stifled and just barely afloat. As far as their personal lives are concerned, both men are on a path that will lead them into a head-on collision with each other. But, the simplest of stories can be lifted by execution and it is here that the film succeeds. Conscious of its archetypes, each man wears a uniform, Ryuchi with his all black outfit, sunglasses, flowing trenchcoat, and Wayne Newton pompadour, Jojima in a bland neutral suit, white dress shirt, no tie, short hair cut. It is this self-consciousness that makes it play out effectively, both in the action but also in the drama. It is one b-cinema strengths, the knowing things wont be high minded or going for outright realism, so the honesty of its cartoonish sketching makes the situations and protagonists endearing. And, then it takes a severe genre twist in the ending, a completely out of the blue change in style, Miike's way of testing and surprising his audience.
For the sequels, Miike opted to cast the same actors in different roles, the stories having no real relation to the original film at all. Dead or Alive 2: Birds tells the story of two hitmen, Shu (Riki Takeguchi) and Mizuki (Sho Aikawa). A war between the Chinese Triads and Japanese Yakuza has been arranged by a smaller gang out to whittle down their competition. Mizuki has been hired to engineer a hit, but finds his assignment comprised by Shu, who takes out his targets before he can fire. On the run, the two meet when they both flee to the island where they were raised. They were childhood friends raised in an orphanage and now reunite years later only to find that they each have become underworld freelance hitmen. Despite being hunted, the two decide to do something better with their life and unite their murderous incomes to sponsor unfortunate children around the world.
With its sentimental and sweeter scenes of clowning around, be it playing kickball with an old friend or putting on a play for the island children, Birds resembles Takeshi "Beat" Kitano's Sonatine in tone- the duality of brutal gangster bloodshed and some softer, laid back moments of relishing in life's simple pleasures. The Miike penchant for oddness and surrealism is still on hand, an apocalyptic comet paints the sky, bird wings are often seen jutting from Shu and Mizuki's backs, and there is a trio of hitmen who communicate solely through their text messaging on their cell phones. While the two tones each work in their own way, the surrealism and violence are even more disarming following the warmer side, Miikelovers expecting Fudoh-style mayhem will be yawning. As the film nears its conclusion, it limps, drags, and eventually just kind of teeters out.
Dead or Alive: Final is a sci fi yarn in the William Burroughs, Philip K. Dick tradition. The year is 2346 and the effeminate Mayor Wu has everyone on a birth control drug that has largely eliminated families and kept the population and resources in check. Those who resist are arrested by the task force lead by Officer Honda (Riki Takeuchi). A group of revolutionaries try to rescue one of their members who has been captured. They are aided by a "replicant" Ryo (Sho Aikawa) an unhuman drifter with a casual demeanor and super speed fighting skills he can employ if he needs them. Things turn personal after they inadvertently kidnap Hondo's son and Hondo begins to question his leaders authority.
As far as dystopian futures go, though the film obviously aspires to greater Blade Runner heights, DOA: Final's visuals and script are about as bare as the Road Warrior. But, Miike doesn't get Blade Runner budget or pre-production time; the guy makes four or five movies a year and sometimes it really shows. A bit plodding most of its running time, interrupted by sporadic moments of Miike weirdness and action, but on a whole it is probably a bit more successful than the second film. Definitely has some memorable moments, but sequences that feel like they are on static autopilot and the lack of a decent budget keep it from being the weirdo, sci fi action allegory it could be.
Overall, this box set shows the positives and pitfalls of the Miike oeuvre. His low budgeted quick output of films obviously affords him a freedom and seeming recklessness that lead to films uniquely Takashi Miike. But, it also can mean less focused work and films where the rushed production and skeletal ideas yield fewer wonders and some paler films than he is capable of delivering.
The DVD: Kino
Picture: Dead or Alive and DOA: Birds are presented in Anamorphic Widescreen. Well, in case you didn't know, the Dead or Alive films were made for the Japanese "v-cinema" market, which is basically like the US direct to video. So there is some low budget image quality that is just a product of the technical limitations the film faced. Kino's transfers do the best they can with the softer, grainier material. As much as I want to groan, they are inescapable quibbles. So, while the color amnd contrast may be a bit muten and murky, it is still a decent presentation and one of the better options for fans.
Dead or Alive: Final is Non-Anamorphic Widescreen and Kino was kind enough to offer a note explaining its lack of anamorphic enhancement. They state that they searched for anamorphic print but could not be provided one and state that even the Japanese DVD release similarly lacked anamorphic treatment. Although it lacks 16X9 enhancement, the picture is probably a tad sharper than the other two films.
Sound: Dolby Digital 2.0 Stereo, Japanese language with optional English subtitles. The sound is pretty basic but gets the job done. Dialogue is generally well mixed. The fx and music, be it he distorted guitar riffs on DOA's opening montage or the electric cracking of a cyborg, also come across nice and clear.
Once again, DOA: Final gets a disclaimer. Some of the film has English and Chinese spoken and the print they used has burned in Japanese subtitles. Therefore, Kino had to opt for black bar subs (white subs in a black frame) to cover up the Japanese subs.
Extras:Chapter Selections— Trailers for all three films plus Sharkskin Man and Peach Hip Girl and Junk Food.— Dead or Alive features an interview (7:13) with Miike. Discussing the film and his work in v-cinema. When asked what he'd like to say to audiences about the first DOA he says, ""It's a cheerful, enjoyable, and healthy yakuza film. Has a surprise happy ending. Please make sure to watch until the end."
Conclusion: When I reviewed the Dead or Alive single release I gave it a high recommendation. It is, after all, one of the better films in this cult icons resume and the DVD is pretty good with decent extras. Dead or Alive 2&3 have their moments, but I'd lean towards giving them individually a "rent it." But this box set is for someone interested in investing in Miike's madness, and in that case it delivers.