The Films (Shinjuku Triad Society 5/5, Rainy Dog 4/5, Ley Lines 3.5/5)
In Shinjuku Triad Society, Kippei Shîna plays Kiriya, a corrupt police detective working the toughest beat in Tokyo, Shinjuku. When he discovers that his younger brother has started working for Wang (Tomorowo Taguchi) the newest and baddest triad boss in town, Kiriya becomes incensed. He dives headfirst into a brewing gang war between the yakuza and the triads over the controlling interest of an organ smuggling ring based in Taipei.
If you can take your eyes off the screen during Shinjuku Triad Society then you’re doing something wrong. Takashi Miike exploded out of the direct-to-video scene with this iconoclastic classic slice of gangster cinema. Released in 1995, this is a gritty, sleazy, explosively violent, and utterly deranged little film that hits the ground running during its frenetic opening scenes and rarely slows down during its running time. (I can’t even imagine what people thought when this badboy came out.) Shîna gives a tour de force performance that is equal parts unsavoriness and badass. Rooting for him will make the viewer feel very, very dirty. And Taguchi’s Wang (hee hee) is a dangerously psychotic villain (with shades of Lady Macbeth) that you won’t soon forget.
Rainy Dog tells the story of Yuuji (Shô Aikawa), a disgraced Japanese gangster hiding out in Taiwan. Forced to work part time for a butcher and take the occasional assassination assignment from the local mob boss, Yuuji couldn’t sink any lower. When his old flame comes to town and leaves him with a mute son -that he apparently sired a decade ago- and he falls in love with a hooker named Lili (Xianmei Chen), things get rather complicated. After a hit goes south and he steals a buttload of money, Yuuji decides to get Lili and his son out of town but the local gangsters and a yakuza assassin (Tomorowo Taguchi again) won’t let him get out that easily.
Take your typical down-and-out gangster storyline and infuse it with a wistful, waterlogged atmosphere, Miike’s peculiar sense of humor, and a kooky, melancholic hitman who can’t pull the trigger when it’s raining and you’ve got Rainy Dog. This film is incredibly sad, funny, and lazily paced but never boring. I highly recommend this film for anyone tired of the typical yakuza films filled with the tough-as-nails heavies that are more concerned with intersecting alliances and plot machinations more suited to a chessboard. This haunting and violent tale will stay with you long after it’s over.
In Ley Lines, the final film is this loose trilogy, the half-Chinese ne’er-do-well Riyuchi (Kazuki Kitamura) wants to escape small town life. He, his little brother Shun (Michisuke Kashiwaya), and their goofball best friend Chan (Tomorowo Taguchi yet again) flee to Tokyo with hopes of pulling some scams and making it big. After getting ripped off by streetwise hooker Anita AKA Wild Pussy (Dan Li) and being forced to sell drugs for eccentric dealer Ikeda (Shô Aikawa), Riyuchi and his buds find that life in the big city is complicated to say the least. They finally score big and want to leave the country but there’s a problem. Wong (Naoto Takenaka), a bloodthirsty and insane gangster, wants to keep Anita by his side so that she’ll tell him traditional Chinese folk tales and he won’t let her go without a fight.
This depressing yet achingly beautiful film does have a few absurd moments of comedy to keep it from being overly serious but be warned, it goes to some very dark places. You’ll be hard pressed to find a film that’s as quirky as Ley Lines. Every character is a dang weirdo or at the very least, a hapless loser -sometimes both at the same time. Miike really attacks the racism against folks with mixed heritage in this film, showing how it breaks people down and forces them to lash out after a lifetime of prejudice.
Audio Video (4/5)
All three films look and sound really good on this set though I think that Ley Lines benefits the most from the Blu-ray format thanks to its kaleidoscopic color palette. Audio is very clear through the set with a great mix of the music scores and the dialog being easy to hear. The subtitles are actually really cool. Since these films are in multiple languages, what Arrow has done to give western folks -who may not be able to tell the difference between Chinese and Japanese- a helping hand with brackets around the less dominant language from film to film. This helps provide context when, for example, a Japanese character doesn’t understand what a Chinese character is saying or vice versa.
The highlight in this collection for my money is a very upbeat interview with Takashi Miike. The interviews that I’m used to seeing him give are so tired that it’s like he’s been working too hard. Maybe Miike is slowing down in his old age by only directing 700 films a year so this leaves him more energy for giving a spirited interview. I also like seeing Shô Aikawa -and his amazing hair- give a fun interview on this set as well though much of it is actor-speak that means very little to me. When asked if he can describe Miike’s directing style, he says “very natural” so I like to nod slowly at my TV and pretend that that was a very profound thing to say. There are three excellent audio commentaries by Tom Mes, author of Agitator: The Cinema of Takashi Miike, for each film. He really goes into detail discussing Miike’s recurring themes and how Shinjuku Triad Society, Rainy Dog, and Ley Lines tie together. There are also trailers for all three films, a booklet with writing about the trilogy, and gorgeous cover art. Highly recommended!
So much of Takashi Miike’s catalog is essential Japanese cinema but these three films are a great starting point for folks looking to see what he’s all about. The themes of how racism affects people -especially those in the criminal underworld- the ties of family that fray but never break, and his penchant for unflinching portraits of gay characters have showed up again and again in his work since these three films were released. For my tastes, Ley Lines has the least rewatchability out of the three films. While the utter sleaziness in the form of rape -both gay and straight- in Shinjuku Triad Society does make it a rather strong bit of brew to choke down, the film is such a whirlwind of mindfuckery that it’s impossible not to get caught up in the madness. Rainy Dog might be the most normal of these three early Miike films but the sight of Tomorowo Taguchi’s giant censored penis shooting an impossible stream of urine keeps things from being too humdrum. Go forth, Japanese film fans, seek out the Black Society Trilogy at once. Be sure to have something cold to drink handy because you’re about to have your minds melted. If you haven't seen these films then you need to do immediately, and if you have the old Artsmagic set, upgrading to the Arrow Blu-ray set is a no-brainer!