Director Takashi Miike is known for his often bizarre and violent films, but, as with George A. Romero’s zombies, the more exploitive aspects of Miike’s movies are generally in service to a broader social commentary. In Dead or Alive (1999), Miike throws his audience headfirst into the Tokyo underworld, where a gangster is waging a private war against both the Chinese Triads and the Japanese Yakuza. A police lieutenant with problems at home is investigating the gangland murders, and when he and the man behind them meet, the results are explosive. Miike sandwiches a traditional narrative structure between a dizzying eight-minute opening montage and a seriously offbeat ending. Though the main story is fairly grounded, Miike still sprinkles quite a few of his trademark WTF moments throughout. Like a number of Miike’s other films, the violence and depravity are there to support social commentary dealing with the plight of the outsider as well as underscoring the destructive nature of violence.
As with all great endeavors, Dead or Alive begins with someone naked and screaming. In this case, it is a naked woman screaming as she falls from a building while clutching a bag of drugs. From there, Miike launches the film into an eight-minute long drug, sex, violence, music, and noodle fueled opening montage. While it may seem disorienting at first, it all comes together and makes sense by the end of the sequence. A small gang of outsiders is assassinating members of both the Chinese Triads and the Japanese Yakuza. Ryuuichi (Riki Takeuchi) is the head of the group carrying on a private war against these larger crime organizations. He and his gang are zanryu koji — the children of Japanese war orphans left behind in China at the end of World War II. While they and their families now live in Japan, they are still considered, and still consider themselves, outsiders. Meanwhile, the murders are being investigated by police lieutenant Jojima (Shô Aikawa). Jojima just wishes the status quo to be kept up. He does not mind the Yakuza, as long as they do not cause too much trouble. As these murders are quite flashy, some being committed in broad daylight even, Jojima is forced to investigate as well as forced to put pressure on the Yakuza to find out what is going on. At the same time, he is dealing with issues at home, where his marriage is not doing too well and his daughter is in need of an expensive operation. As Jojima’s investigation brings him closer to Ryuuichi, both of their lives become increasingly affected by the surrounding chaos. Eventually, the two come head to head for a mind-blowing climactic confrontation.
The opening montage of Dead or Alive is a marvelous piece of filmmaking that is both hyperkinetic and an example of economical storytelling. With almost no dialogue and a dizzying array of cuts, Miike introduces the audience to the main players in the story, sets out the basic plot (outsiders killing off Chinese Triads and Japanese Yakuza while a police lieutenant investigates), and sets the overall tone of what is to come. What is even more amazing is how smoothly he transitions from this montage to a more traditional narrative structure. Instead of slamming the breaks, Miike gently slows down and shifts gears. The bulk of the film follows a more traditional and linear narrative format. That is not to say that the rest of the film is “normal.” Miike peppers the film with a number of his trademark bizarre scenes. It is just that these scenes still feel grounded in the real world. All of that flies out the window, though, during the climax of the film. To say much more about the final showdown between Ryuuichi and Jojima would rob it of its power. Needless to say, it is quite unusual. Some viewers may feel that it is too out-there, giving them a bit of tonal whiplash. On the other hand, it could be argued that Miike takes the film out of its reality-grounded state and thrusts it into the realm of the fantastical to emphasize his points. Regardless of how one feels about the ending to Dead or Alive, one certainly cannot forget it.
Even though the majority of Dead or Alive is indeed grounded in the real world, Miike still injects plenty of unusual and disturbing moments. The fact that most of these bits are things that can and do take place in the real world makes them all the more noteworthy and/or disturbing. In the opening montage alone, the audience is shown the aforementioned naked body falling from a building, someone stealing drugs from that same dead body, sex in a public bathroom, a man doing a line of cocaine several yards long, a very public assassination (with confused real world bystanders looking on from the background), and a knife-throwing clown. Later in the film, a character is murdered in a pretty horrible manner involving a kiddy pool and an enema. At another point, Jojima is questioning an informant who happens to be a pornographer specializing in bestiality, while the informant is directing a scene. This is some pretty serious and disturbing stuff. In another scene, a character accidentally batters and fries his own hand during a shootout. While that is not exactly a “lighthearted” fate, Miike does play that scene for laughs. Not all of the WTF moments in the film are nearly as horrible. Some are more whimsical than grim, such as the police chief who spends all of his time on the roof of the police stations cleaning and playing his collection of flutes.
Underlying all of the depravity and violence in Dead or Alive is a serious story dealing with the plight of the outsider in Japanese society. Ryuuichi and his gang are zanryu koji — child of Japanese war orphans left behind in China at the end of World War II. While they are living in Japan now, they still feel like outsiders. When Jojima questions some other zanryu koji about Ryuuichi, they say, “We look Japanese, but we’re not. Then again, we look Chinese, but we’re not. We’re really not anything.” This eternal outsider status goes a long way to explaining why Ryuuichi and his gang strike out against both the Chinese Triads and the Japanese Yakuza. They do not even feel at home in the criminal underworld. A second issue that Miike touches upon with Dead or Alive is the destructive nature of violence. This may sound odd, coming from a director known for his hyper-violent movies, but it is a not-so-subtle subtext, especially in the third act of the film. This “have your cake and eat it too” attitude of showing violence while condemning it is reminiscent of Michael Haneke’s Funny Games (1997 / 2007).
Takashi Miike films often are filled with sex, violence, and extreme antisocial behavior, but it is almost always in service of social commentary. In Dead or Alive, Miike jumps in feet first with an insane and intense opening montage, segwaying into a more conventional structure. He caps the whole thing off with a truly wackadoodle, but definitely unforgettable, climax. Scattered through the film are moments that manage to be both off-the-wall and grounded in the real world at the same time, making them all that more disturbing. While exploitive, Dead or Alive has serious comments to make regarding how outsiders are treated by society as well as commenting on the destructive nature of violence. Dead or Alive is certainly an unforgettable film and is worth watching for both fans of director Takashi Miike and for those needing an introduction to this prolific and inventive director.
Dead or Alive (1999) (4 / 5)