Monday, April 28, 2008

Miike Marathon :: Dead or Alive (1999)

I was debating whether to review this or Ichi the Killer for my final entry in this Miike Marathon of mine. Ichi is probably the more (in)famous of the two but I ultimately chose Dead or Alive (not, not, NOT to be confused with the video game adaptation of the same name) for no other reason than that I like it better and find its excesses a bit more tolerable. Also, I think this film nicely rounds out a thematic overview of Miike's work.

If there is a cinematic equivalent to cocaine, Dead or Alive may be it.

In the closing comments of my Audition review I used the William Blake line "The road of excess leads to the palace of wisdom." The reference was a little out of place since Audition isn't really a terribly excessive film. The comment really referred to Takashi Miike's entire oeuvre since many of his most famous works are experiments and excursions into excessive extremes. Dead or Alive is a perfect example of Miike's over-the-top filmmaking. In Dead or Alive, Miike fills, and then overfills, the screen with a boggling maelstrom of taboo-trampling, adrenaline-charged, adolescent wet-dream, fetishist notions of violence and sexuality, all of which play out in the brutal and cartoonish world of Miike's yakuza-infested Shinjuku district of Tokyo. When it comes to the outrageous and the ridiculous, Miike's cup runneth over. Welcome to the end of your mind.

Let me describe, or at least attempt to describe, the opening scenes of Dead or Alive. A naked woman falls to her death while clutching a bag of cocaine; random police officers brutalize random pedestrians; a homosexual liaison in a men's washroom ends in a fountain of arterial spray; a several metres long line of cocaine is inhaled; the term "eating disorder" is radically redefined; a hitman, after being passed a shotgun by a clown, executes a man in the middle of a crowded street. All of this happens quite literally during the film's first five minutes. It's a frenzy of kaleidoscopic edits and extreme camera angles that pummels the unprepared viewer into a state of semi-conscious, cinematic euphoria. It leaves the likes of Kill Bill or Death Proof gasping for breath.

Amidst all this chaos and cinematic bravura a plot does eventually emerge, although any plot at this point begins to look a lot like the flimsiest of pretenses. In Shinjuku, two crime organizations, the Japanese yakuza and their rival Chinese counterparts, are battling for supremacy. In between the two, playing both sides, is a group of (to use Michael Ondaatje's phrase) "international bastards" lead by the buttoned-down psychotic Ryuuichi. Wading through the ensuing carnage is Det. Jojima, a morally ambiguous but probably decent man struggling not only to battle crime but also to find enough money to finance an expensive medical treatment for his daughter. The two of them will spark a personal vendetta that will eventually explode not only their personal lives but all of Tokyo, all of Japan and even, perhaps, all of the world. In fact, the film's extraordinary ending dives headfirst into the deep end of metaphor so suddenly and so unapologetically that it threatens to drown its audience under a crushing wave of blinking disbelief. But it works. It works if for no other reason than that it is exquisitely satisfying to see this powder-keg of a movie lit off with an ending worthy of the incendiary excesses that have come before it. The battle between Neo and Agent Smith at the end of The Matrix Revolutions cannot hold a candle to this titanic and apocalyptic showdown.

Is there a point to such a film? Probably not. Unlike Visitor Q, Dead or Alive more than anything else feels like an exercise in over-the-top cinematic style, the Japanese equivalent to last year's Tarantino and Rodriguez-helmed Grindhouse. While it does have its moments of cinematic transgression (you may never look at a plastic kiddie pool the same way again), these excesses, rather than being the subject of intense or satiric scrutiny, form the landscape of a city and of a world that Miike is all too eager to rip to shreds.

Closing Thoughts on the Marathon. So that's Takashi Miike. Well, that's a sampling of Miike anyway. He is perhaps the most prolific director working today in Japan, in America, or in wherever. His career started in 1991 and since then he has helmed, at least according to IMDb, an astonishing 77 projects. He must not sleep.

As I've been watching his films, Quentin Tarantino has always been a quick and handy point of comparison for me, not because I find their styles to be particularly comparable but because both seem to act like children when it comes to making movies - they simply enjoy what they are doing and enjoy taking their audiences to unexpected places. They are both agitators: they take and rewrite the rules and conventions that you think should be governing them. Miike can disturb you, disgust you and make you laugh out loud, often all at the same time. He's directed comedies, musicals, and yakuza crime sagas. His experimental excursions into horror, such as his Masters of Horror entry "Imprint" or his Three... Extremes segment "Box," can cause your skin to crawl. The cartoonish and ultra-violent excesses of Ichi the Killer can make A Clockwork Orange look tame and can, in actual fact, give you an aneurysm. He can be sentimental and touching and he can be downright sadistic. It's hard to say who Miike is and even harder to define a Miike film. However, he approaches every project, at least the ones that I've seen, with enough verve, audacity and dripping style to make him never boring, always entertaining, and, perhaps, one of the more interesting directors to come along in a long, long while.

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