Dead or Alive (1999)

Dead or Alive has a plot that sounds like numerous Asian gangster films.  An upstart crime lord decides to take on the yakuza and the triads, and a morally ambiguous cop with family problems is tasked with bringing him down.  Only, this isn't John Woo, Andrew Lau or even Shigehiro Ozawa.  This is Takashi Miike.  

For good or for bad things never go as expected with the majority of his movies.  His seeming lack of style is his style, allowing him to seamlessly drift from genre to genre, whether it be horror movies, cheap crime dramas or expensive period pieces.  Even when he makes a movie with a straight narrative it is still not going to go in a direction one expects, largely because not even movies within a supposed trilogy of films stick to one simple plot line.  So, what should be a rote potboiler with some cool action sequences turns out to be - well, turns out to be that, but something much different as well. 

After a montage of death and debauchery showing the rise of a new street gang of Sino-Japanese children of  war orphans led by the charismatic Ryuichi (Riki Takeuchi), we meet the whole gang as well as Ryuichi's brother Toji (Michusuke Kashiwaya), who has just returned from attending college in the U.S.  He is not happy to find out that his time in school has been funded by his brother's criminal activity, and decides to not pursue the same life as Ryuichi once he sees his brother take action against another member of the gang.  

Det. Jojima (Shô Aikawa) is a police officer who is forced to borrow money from Aoki (Renji Ishibashi), a local yakuza drug lord, in order to fund his daughter's operation.  With his home life falling apart, and the series of murders committed by Ryuichi, he dives headlong into his police work.  After Aoki brutally murders one of Ryuichi's associates, the gang leader decides to take out both the yakuza and the triads and take over once and for all.  Unfortunately, in the conflagration one of Jojima's fellow officers is killed, and he starts concentrating on bringing down on Ryuichi's burgeoning drug trade.  Outraged, Ryuichi decides to take out Jojima, but their escalating fight against each other soon consumes them both. 

The script for Dead or Alive was written by Toshiki Kimura.  I'm not aware of how much of the movie is his and how much is Miike's, but he was the screenwriter on Ichi the Killer, a movie that pretty much outdoes this one in both visceral and sexual violence, so I'm inclined to think it's a bit of both. In fact, Dead or Alive contains so much within the first eight minutes, from a naked woman falling to her death with a bag of drugs (only to have someone on the street grab it from her hands) to a man being shot while raping another guy in a bathroom, to another person doing a 30-foot line of cocaine.  It's almost as if the movie is daring itself to outdo everything that flashes before our eyes at the beginning.

Although it soon settles down into a more traditional narrative of disadvantaged youth turned to crime mixed with a cop facing an emotional and career crisis, the movie decides to take that dare.  There are few times that a scene makes me recoil in outright disgust, but when Aoki's true evil nature is revealed in full, it eclipses everything else.  Unfortunately, it happens to one of the main supporting characters, and although she is just as amoral has her compatriots she is one of the few that at emotional attachment is made with during the film.  It manages to not only be a sick, unimaginable death, but one that stands out in a movie that also involves bestiality (thankfully cut off before being shown) and a number of other violent acts.  

What it all works up to is left up to interpretation.  I find Chinese, Thai and Korean films, despite a huge cultural gap, to be more straightforward that most Japanese cinema that doesn't involve giant monsters, as long as one has the patience to let the story unfold.  Japanese films, on the other hand, have so much that was influenced by Western (particularly American) media, but reflected back in an unfathomable, and often barely recognizable, cultural manner.  While one may understand the actual plot and what happens from scene to scene, not being Japanese severely hampers the understanding of the movie, much more than a lot of other industries.  There are moments of slapstick, Three Stooges-style comedy that never seems to go out of style in Japan, frenetic editing and no regard at times, particularly in the end, for any narrative sense.  I think I know what happened, and what both Miike and Kimura were getting at - the title, Dead or Alive, seems to have a deeper meaning than just sounding like a generic action movie - but whatever I get out of it, and what was actually meant, seems to differ from person to person.  For all I know the whole movie was one giant troll, promising another Asian gangster shoot-em-up and then just taking a detour to mess with the audience, similar to the strange meta-horror film Rubber.  

It is quite a harrowing experience watching, and it's understandable why it has risen to be one of Miike's cult films.  I am with the majority of viewers that that prefers the equally strange, but more effective, narrative of the Dead or Alive 2: Birds.  Some of the subtext here has to do with being an outsider, as well as lingering social problems caused by World War II, which I do wish kind of was more on the surface rather than some need to offend the senses for either some artistic or sadistic purpose.  Dead or Alive is a lot smarter than it looks, or that one would gather from the title, but knowing that doesn't make the movie any less brutal. 

Dead or Alive (1999)
Time: 105 minutes
Starring: Riki Takeuchi, Shô Aikawa
Director: Takashi Miike



Popular posts from this blog

Zack Snyder's Justice League (2021)

Godzilla vs. Kong (2021)

Ant-Man and the Wasp: Quantumania (2023)