Mention the name of director Takashi Miike and bizarre visions of violence and depravity come to mind for many fans of his films. While Miike’s body of work certainly is filled with more than its share of unusual and disturbing imagery, it also has its softer moments. In Dead or Alive 2: Birds (Dead or Alive 2: Tôbôsha) (2000), Miike shows that he is equally skilled with displaying touching and emotional scenes as he is with scenes of violence and mayhem. Two Yakuza hitmen cross paths during a hit and realize that they are childhood friends. Returning to the island where they grew up, they reconnect with each other, their community, and their childhood. Is this a permanent change for them, or will they return to their more violent careers? Dead or Alive 2: Birds explores the theme of where one is in one’s life and how did one get there. To this end, it uses juxtaposition to explore the differences between where one starts and where one ends up. Miike’s use of imagery and fantastic elements help make the film feel more like a fable than one set in the real world.
Those who have not seen the first film in the series, Dead or Alive (1999) need not worry. While Dead or Alive 2: Birds shares much of its cast and crew with its predecessor, the characters and story are completely separate. Mizuki Okamoto (Shô Aikawa) is a hitman for hire, though he does not look nor act the part. With his bleach blond hair, bright Hawaiian shirts, and playful manner, he seems more like a perpetual adolescent than a stone cold killer. He is hired to assassinate a high-ranking mob member so as to start a war between the Japanese Yakuza and the Chinese Triads. When Mizuki has the target in his gun sites, he is surprised when one of the Yakuza’s own men kills his target and all the other men around him. Even more surprising to Mizuki is that he recognized the assassin as Shûichi Sawada (aka Shu) (Riki Takeuchi), one of his closest childhood friends. After accepting credit and payment for the hit, and in a bout of nostalgia after seeing his friend, Mizuki takes the ferry back to the island where he grew up. On the ferry, he meets Shu, and they rekindle their friendship. Returning to the island where they grew up together as orphans, Mizuki and Shu reconnect with another childhood buddy, Kôhei (Ken’ichi Endô), who is now a fisherman married to another old friend, Chieko (Noriko Aota). As Mizuki’s playfulness helps Shu shed his cold exterior and the two revel in nostalgia, the violent consequences of the earlier hit play out back on the mainland. Can Mizuki and Shu remain in the idyllic world of their youth, or will they be pulled back into the violence and mayhem of their lives as hitmen? If they are forced to return, can they channel their rediscovered sense innocence and appreciation of their childhood into their former work?
“Where are you?” Director Miike directly poses this question via title cards several times throughout Dead or Alive 2: Birds. Over the course of the film, the meaning of the question changes. Where are you in regards to location? Where are you in your life? Where are you in your moral and emotional development? The film explores how the innocence of the protagonists’ youth comes to be corrupted and how they end up pursuing their violent professions. The specific “hows” and “whys” are not really of interest. Miike is more concerned with the general idea of how/why his main characters find themselves where they are at this point in their lives. Once they are back in their place (and mindset) of their youth, can they remain there? If they do return to the world of the mainland and to being assassins, can they retain that innocence in spite of the violence of that world? The characters’ moral and emotional development, over the course of their lives and over the course of the film attempts to answer those questions.
Dead or Alive 2: Birds addresses the question of where is one in one’s life versus where one has come from by juxtaposing those two worlds. The film is filled with contrasts. Mizuki’s playful appearance and nature contrast with the dark and dour personality of Shu. At some points, they are even represented as white (Mizuki) and black (Shu) flocks of birds, to further emphasize their initial differences in outlook. Upon returning to the island, Shu eventually abandons his black trenchcoat for a light, white linen outfit, just as he abandons his grim nature for a more lighthearted one, similar to Mizuki. At one point, Mizuki and Shu help put on a children’s play on the island. The silly costumes and lighthearted play are intercut with scenes from the mainland where horrendous gang violence is the result of the pair’s earlier actions. This hammers home the contrast between Mizuki and Shu’s pastoral childhood and their destructive adulthood. On a meta level, there is even a contrast between Dead or Alive 2: Birds and the first film in the series, Dead or Alive. Whereas Dead or Alive opens with a whirlwind eight-minute action-filled montage, Dead or Alive 2: Bird opens quietly with the image of a young man and the question “Where are you?” The endings of the two films are equally different, with Dead or Alive featuring an explosive and surreal ending and Dead or Alive 2: Bird finishing on a quiet, contemplative, and grounded moment.
While Dead or Alive 2: Birds ends on a moment grounded in the real world, fantasy elements and visuals are featured heavily throughout the film. At several points, the protagonists, Mizuki and Shu, are represented by flocks of white and black birds, respectively. Later in the film, the two are even shown to sport feathered wings. While it is tempting to suggest that this represents an angelic turn for the two characters, it is more likely related to the bird imagery. Their rediscovery of their childhood and childlike nature frees the two of them from the weight of their former existence. They are now literally “free as birds.” From the opening and throughout the film, a bright comet is seen in the night sky. It is not an omen of doom or destruction. Instead, it is an object of wonder that the main characters only seem to notice once they rediscover the innocence of childhood. They get so in touch with their “inner children” that Miike represents them with the child versions of themselves, at points Mizuki and Shu are so aware of their own childhood that they can see the other Yakuza as the children they once were, as well. The fantasy imagery is never jarring, even when killers covered in blood are suddenly played by child actors.
Dead or Alive 2: Birds shows the director Takashi Miike is equally adept at depicting quiet and emotional moments as he is in showcasing violence and decadence. This tale of two childhood friends rediscovering their innocence manages to also be a film about gangsters and assassins at the same time without giving the audience tonal whiplash. Explicitly asking the viewer “Where are you,” the film explores the question of how does one find oneself where they are in life. Miike uses contrasts, both in the content of scenes as well as in the tone, to examine the differences between where one is in life and where one came from. Fantastic elements, though used sparingly, give the film the feel of a fable. Those only familiar with director Takashi Miike’s more violent films may be pleasantly surprised by the touching and heartfelt nature of Dead or Alive 2: Birds. While occasionally violent, it still showcases the more thoughtful and emotional side of Miike’s work.
Dead or Alive 2: Birds (2000) (4.25 / 5)