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Reviews » DVD Video Reviews » Takashi Miike's Black Society Trilogy
Takashi Miike's Black Society Trilogy
Artsmagic DVD // Unrated // August 31, 2004
List Price: $69.95 [Buy now and save at Amazon]
Review by Carl Davis | posted January 8, 2005 | E-mail the Author
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Highly Recommended
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Why me? This always seems to happen and I run into trouble when I am reviewing the work of an artist I truly respect and admire. It took me months to tap out my meager reviews of Kino's release of Krystof Kieslowski's 4 earliest releases and now I find myself in a similar situation with Takashi Miike's Black Society Trilogy. I am a lover of film and it is directors like these who I feel have genuinely added to the language of the cinema (Kieslowski) and continue to challenge the medium today (Takashi). Those who can't move beyond the body count of a typical Miike outing don't always see the ways in which he takes rudimentary scripts and ideas and through the sheer force of his will molds them into "grand guignol" spectacles that push the very limits of storytelling.

As luck would have it, DVD is the near perfect format to view a Miike picture on, as there are sometimes so many ideas present and being bandied about that often times, things don't always become clear until a second or even third viewing. Not to mention the level of extra features which often enhance the movie as a whole, offering additional information to complete the feeling of sensory overload one often comes away with from one of his films. I say "one of", but thanks to Artsmagic, the Black Society Trilogy contains the first three films that set Takashi Miike on the path which he continues to travel today.

Related by theme rather than narrative, they express the feelings of isolation, paranoia and rage that exist within the small population of Chinese and Japanese/Chinese living in Japan. Often the victims of intense discrimination by the native Japanese, this group, and their underworld Triads, have carved out a niche in Japanese society for survival. The saga was originally titled the Triad Society Trilogy, which was taken from the name of the first film, Shinjuku Triad Society. However, the series was renamed for release here due to lack of recognition for the name Triad.

At it's heart, Shinjuku Triad Society is about honor, family and revenge. Following the Half-Japanese/Half-Chinese cop, Tatsuhito, as he ruthlessly tries to single-handedly dismantle the effeminate Wang's Triad in the Shinjuku section of Tokyo. He has no love of the Chinese, having grown up in China and being constantly beaten and berated by the natives there, and so his job brings about a sense of satisfaction to him. It seems his younger brother feels otherwise. Having just graduated law school, Yoshito has gravitated towards representing the worst of the worst of the Triad leaders, identifying more with his Chinese heritage than his hard-boiled bro.

This family feud is set against a backdrop of crooked cops who use rape as an interrogation tool, deviant gangsters who bankroll their organizations through the illegal harvesting of black-market organs and one of the strangest love triangles since Lynch's Blue Velvet. Leave it to Miike to show us not just the ugliness, but also the fleeting instances of beauty amidst the sorrow. Every one of his characters is trying to find their place in this cruel, ugly world, and are willing to do anything to get there. It's this sense of hope against the often overwhelming odds that truly link these three films.

The next film in the series is Rainy Dog, which once again explores the impact of isolation and loneliness on the soul, only this time from the perspective of Yuuji, a Japanese Hitman living in Taipei. Having been banished from the Yakuza and disowned by his family, he ekes out a meager living doing hits for the local Taiwanese Triad. There is no joy, meaning or even purpose in his life, and yet he still carries on. One day a mysterious woman (since Yuuji cannot remember her name!) brings him a reminder of their night together, a young son named Ah Chen. Leaving the boy with the disgraced assassin seems like a terrible idea, but we come to learn that these two needed each other more than we, and even they, realized.

Before Ah Chen came into his life, Yuuji's only company was the constant presence of a second Japanese Hitman, one that was sent to kill him. Their shared situation as strangers in a strange land forged a bond that even repeated assassination attempts can't spoil. Eventually, the brother of one of Yuuji's targets decides that enough is enough and calls on the local Triads to take down the foreign killer. Focusing on the family unit in all it's dysfunctional glory, Miike makes Rainy Dog one of his most straight forward films, with few of the warped detours into the realms of Sadism or Deviancy that have made him infamous the World over. Some might see this as a misstep, but I feel that it actually helps show that Miike doesn't rely on style over substance.

Ley Lines is the third and final film of Miike's Black Society Trilogy and it also happens to be his best. Once again dealing with the themes of mixed heritage, family and loneliness, Ley Lines follows half-Japanese/half-Chinese brothers Ryuichi, Shunrei and their friend, Chang as they venture from the purgatory of their rural Japanese town for the seedy underbelly of Tokyo's Shinjuku district. Unfortunately things don't go so well for the boys, as they get robbed by Anita, a Chinese prostitute, and are forced to sell a chemical high called Toluene in order to earn enough to smuggle themselves onto a ship for Brazil.

Shunrei again encounters Anita, only this time she is the vulnerable one, having just taken a beating from a sadistic client and her lowlife pimp. Taking her to the small room the three boys share, he nurses her back to health and they all realize that they have much in common, namely the isolation of being a second-class citizen in the big city. The four attempt to get fake passports and are brought to the attention of the local Triad boss, Wong. Undeterred by this setback, the group devises a plan to rob one of Wong's operations and use the money to escape to Brazil. Their brash optimism in the face of mounting opposition is heartening, but as Wong's men pursue them back to their home town, there's just no way it can end well.

The DVD:

Picture: Artsmagic has done an amazing job of bringing each of these three early Miike films to us in a 16:9 Anamorphic Widescreen presentation. Each transfer is flawless with nary a scratch or blemish on the print, so it's assumed that each film is as it should be since the look and feel of each is so unique.

Shinjuku Triad Society has a rough and gritty look, similar to most of the V-Cinema output of the time, and a format in which Miike was well acquainted when he made this, his theatrical debut. Rainy Dog has a similar look and feel to it, but really goes out of it's way to show the washed out feeling of the soaked streets of Taipei. Ley Lines, as the finale to the series feels free enough to juxtapose the scenes of grainy underworld night life with often dazzling bursts of expressionistic color.

Sound: All three films are in crisp, clear Japanese Dolby Digital 2.0. The English subs are spot on and easy to read, but the real highlight of these three films is their very different Scores. Shinjuku Triad Society features an otherworldly, electronic soundtrack that is hard/driving one minute and somber/morose the next. Rainy Dog's sad, blues-inflected score perfectly fits the dreary, melancholy nature of the film. Ley Lines playful accordion score stands in sharpest contrast to the two previous films, if for no other reason than the briefest glimpses of hope in its dulcet tones.

Extras: Artsmagic have put as much care and detail into compiling these extras as they have every other aspect of bringing these 3 great films to DVD. All three films have English Audio commentaries by Miike expert, Tom Mes, Interviews with Takashi Miike and his editor, Yasushi Shimamura, relating to each film, Cast/Crew Biographies and Trailers. To have so many meaningful Extras on these relatively obscure titles shows that Artsmagic went above and beyond the call of duty, and as a fan I give them props.

Conclusion: Each movie is unique and they can certainly all be enjoyed on their own, but when viewed together within the pretense of the Black Society Trilogy the themes present in each film build upon one another and reinforce what Miike is showing us, heightening the enjoyment of all three films. Presenting compelling and challenging ideas about family ties, racial pride and the built-in isolation of modern society the way that only Takashi Miike can, makes the Black Society Trilogy a must have for fans of Miike, fans of progressive cinema or even just those searching for the antidote to the common "Hollywood Blockbuster".

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