Takashi Miike’s ‘Black Society Trilogy’
by Del Harvey
Finally available in the U.S., an intriguing collection of Yakuza stories from prolific Japanese director Takashi Miike.
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Shinjuku Triad Society (1995)
Miike tackles the traditional Yakuza film with this fast-paced entry that turns the genre on its ear.
Perhaps the most linear genre film I have ever seen from Miike, Shinjuku Triad Society follows the story of two brothers; the older Kiriya, a detective in the corrupt Shinjuku District, and Yoshihito, a lawyer who representents some of the district’s most violent Yakuza. As the story unfolds we see Mom and Dad are the glue holding their fragile relationship together. While Kiriya tries to be a good brother and an example to his younger sibling, Yoshihito remains distant, obviously mistrusting and rejecting any brotherly advances from Kiriya.
Kiriya is far from righteous, but Miike’s hand bestows a brutish if somewhat pathetic sympathy upon the character. What rings true in all of Miike’s over-the-top violence is the brother’s relationship. All around them are twisted, perverted characters such as Wang, a local underboss whose vicios qualities are best represented in a scene where he plucks out the eye of an old woman shopkeeper when she refuses to pay an increased tribute. Miike’s landmark scenes, designed to shock, are alive and well in this film, including an interrogation scene where Kiriya calls in a short, milque-toast-looking peer to “do his thing” to an untalkative suspect. This means sodomizing the perp while Kiriya continues his questioning.
The film is the first of a trilogy which is not connected by character, chronology, or storyline, but by theme. In each film the main character(s) are a mixture of Chinese and Japanese. The conflict between these two countries can best be compared to our own Civil War or the Bosnia Conflict. There is little difference between these peoples on the surface, but deep inside burns a dark hatred which will not easily be forgotten. Miike attempts to show how much or little affect this has upon these character of mixed descent. For Kiriya, it seems he has overcome the stigma, at least in the eyes of his peers. For Toshihito, its seems to have left a permanent scar since childhood.
Shinjuku Triad Society is the kind of film any action lover can enjoy. For the growing number of Miike fans, it is a must-have addition to your library.
Rainy Dogs (1997)
Second in the Black Society Trilogy, Rainy Dogs is vastly different from its predecessor in form and shape. The pacing is slower, almost numbing at times, and the film resonates with symbolism. To increase the audience’s perception of this symbolism, the film’s look is at times monochromatic, so that the overall impression is dreamlike.
The title reference to “rain dogs” is seen everywhere. The main character is a former underboss now in hiding. In order to survive he does hits for a low level Shinjuku underboss who is constantly praising him the way a master does a favored pet. When a nearly forgotten lover shows up only to dump a little boy on Yuji, our main character’s doorstep, the mute child is treated as a pet, and he follows his master wherever he goes, always at a respectable distance. When Yuji takes up with a young prostitute for a few days, we are shown her life through the perspective of a kept animal that is fluffed and primped and trotted out when needed, the relegated to her cage and forgotten when not. There is even a minor character who trails Yuji, like a hunting dog given a long leash, who is simple-mindedly bent on fulfilling a contract on Yuji from someone in his distant past. This character is perhaps the most symbolic of all, as he wakes up one morning in his rooftop homeless perch and urinates off the side of the building, marking his territory unconsciously.
The film ends symbolically, too, with a message that we are all, like those misanthropic Chinese-Japanese, just mutts who exist only at the whim of Fate.
Ley Lines (1999)
The final entry in this trilogy features a story of restless teens in a remote suburb just dying to get into trouble. The leader of this group of friends decides he has to get to the Big City (Tokyo). His four buddies meet him at the train station, but three chicken out at the last minute, and only his closest friend joins him on the journey. As they are riding the train they spot the leader’s younger brother furiously pedaling his bicycle on a frontage road, trying desperately to keep up. Eventually he does and the three end up in Tokyo’s Shinjuku District.
Once in the city they wander aimlessly, eventually bumping into a fellow with his own homemade drug business. He convinces them to invest all their cash in his little bottles of Toluene, and they spend the next day or so pedaling the stuff on the street. Finally flush with cash, they go to a restaurant and order a huge meal. The restaurant owner runs a side business, renting out rooms to prostitutes, and as the boys eat there is a rather vigorous client in the room above them who causes bits of plaster to fall into their food. When they’ve finished, the client leaves and the prostitute sits at the table next to the boys. They strike up a conversation, but nothing happens, yet. Later on she will take up with the leader, but first they have to get in trouble with the local Yakuza boss for selling drugs in his district without his permission. A rather reckless back-and-forth duel ensues, until finally the boys decide to rob the Yakuza underboss and return to their small village, with the aide of the prostitute. They succeed, but there is a double-cross, and things go badly before they are able to return home.
Miike offers no solution to the dilemma of being mixed Chinese and Japanese, and perhaps that, in itself, is an answer: Time heals all wounds. And if a character can survive Miike’s world, they are most likely able to survive anything.
All three DVD’s are available from ArtsMagicDVD. ArtsMagicDVD has also just released the trilogy in a fantastic boxed set, which is available here. Each DVD contains the following: Interviews with Director, Interviews with Editor, Biographies & Filmographies, Commentaries by Tom Mes (Acclaimed Writer on Japanese Cinema), Trailers, Scene Selection, and more. In Japanese with English subtitles (optional).
Del Harvey is a founding father of Film Monthly who finds Miike’s films to be an acquired taste.
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