Drugs and Cocaine. A Hooker falling to her death. A new spin on Bulimia. A bathroom rendezvous. Sodomy. Sex. Topless Dancing. Nudity. Geysers of Blood. Ramen Noodles. A Clown. Grenades. Guns and knives. Shoguns (?). Murder. That’s only the first 10 minutes of Takashi Miike’s “DEAD OR ALIVE” (1999). Miike compressed about 15-20 minutes worth of screenplay because he thought it was too boring and decided that the film needed something original to be injected to its otherwise overused premise of cops and gangsters; that is by adding an almost cartoonish level of audacity.
Takashi Miike only had one feature film under his belt (Fudoh The New Generation) when he directed this film. “Dead or Alive” established his reputation as a cult director to be reckoned with. Miike went on to direct the acclaimed horror hit “Audition” that made him an international household name. The film’s opening highlighted a masterful mosaic of gangland execution, the middle is a perverse energetic display of a Yakuza saga and the finale gives an unconventional showdown between its two main characters.
A gang war between the Japanese yakuza and the Chinese triad threatens to erupt when a key triad member was assassinated in brutal fashion (enter the ramen). These events ruffle the feathers of the Yakuza and the Taiwanese Triad, both of which is on the verge of closing a deal that can prove beneficial to both sides. The one responsible is a gang led by Ryuichi (Riki Takeuchi), a man with no country and no allegiance to either side whose only source for a conscience is a young brother who he supports. This gang work for no one and wants to gain power for themselves. Jojima (Sho Aikawa) is a struggling cop with a distant wife and the father of a daughter with a heart condition that requires operation he cannot afford. Both men make the best of their situations, Ryuichi is on a bloodthirsty rampage; stealing from the criminal element and killing members of both the yakuza and the triad while Jojima tries to stop the master plan of the yakuza and to soothe the needs of his family. The lives of the two become consumed in chaos as fate is about to play its final card.
“Dead or Alive” has a story that is just so remarkably simple and definitely offers very little to offer in regards to originality. However, with Takashi Miike, Sho Aikawa and Riki Takeuchi, the trio manages to inject a needed energy to its bland script. The film’s screenplay will just grab you by your balls and won’t let go until its closing credits. The film is one that you will either love or hate but without doubt it will make you pumped up and will leave you wondering just what the hell happened. Miike’s clever approach to its script is very unique and as with his usual signature, it makes an otherwise overused script a fresh take. The film is your typical “mess with me and I’ll mess with you” and “I’ll scratch your back and I’ll scratch yours”. Aside from a major gunfight, the middle of the film is just full of cliché and may be considered a little slow. But with Miike at its helm, you know that it won’t be conventional as he somehow manages to make the stereotypical elements (that we’ve seen hundreds of times) appear as if it is fresh and new. Miike has a knack for shocking his audiences and whisking them away from their comfort zones.
The film’s main characters are actually what made the film enjoyable. Sho Aikawa portrays a man who appears to be more devoted to his job than his family that his wife’s infidelity is even hinted at. Jojima is a man with a mission with no tie and wears dull colors, and at first impression he seems adamant in bringing grief to the yakuza all for the means to his end. Ryuichi is an impeccably dressed gangster fabulously played by Riki Takeuchi, in Miike’s own words, he has that look that embodies the anime/manga quality that allows him to covey his emotions without even saying a word. The build-up to their final showdown keeps the audience on their feet in anticipation. The supporting characters are also very colorful but only a select few get to get some spotlight. Aoki (Renji Ishibashi) is the perverted gang boss who likes women and subjects them to his fantasies. Inoue (Susumu Terajima) is Jojimo’s partner who has a wife and small child; he is every bit as devoted to his job as his partner. Katsumi Ono plays the sexy stripper that has a hinted at romance with Ryuichi; while his brother plays a small but significant role in the film’s script. The interactions of these characters manufactures a powerful and supplement a certain sense of humanity about them, even though they take part of some several ghastly acts. Miike enforces a sense of ‘family’ between them and the two main protagonists.
Before I forget, Miike still displays his twisted, wickedly clever ingenuity as the middle of the film also displays a sort of a mild display of graphic content. Jojima’s informer is also a pornographer and hookers abound in the film. It is a sideshow for the perverse and the plain weird and disgusting. Miike is all sorts of twisted compared to mere mortals as we see someone who just “crapped” all over themselves…it is such a way to go.
The ending of the film may actually make some watchers scratch their heads as they ask “What the hell just happened?” and it is totally acceptable. Think of it as a form of a metaphor, as the two have destroyed their lives and careers which make up both their own worlds. Miike himself had laughed about it: “why the hell not… Don’t you fantasize about those things?” Some may say that the film is a little too gimmicky and that the first and last scene just hold up a boring middle part. I beg to differ, the film is abundant of humanistic and existential ideas that have the aspects of Japanese society. I am not going to go as far as saying that the film is visual poetry, but it is a humanistic drama that has a lot of sex, drugs and violence.
“Dead Or Alive” is Miike at his best. With the collection of genre films that he has directed, Takashi Miike is poised to stun (Audition), shock (Gozu), please (Great Yokai War) disgust (Visitor Q) and entertain (Sukiyaki Western Django) for many years to come. He is arguably Japan’s most prolific director and arguably the most versatile.