REVIEW: Dead or Alive Trilogy
– By Sooz Webb
It’s an understatement to say that Takashi Miike lives up to his enfant terrible reputation. Always striving towards provocation, both figuratively and literally, he argues against mainstream aesthetics, instead embracing an anime-tinged storytelling style in his bizarre and violent Dead or Alive trilogy. Opening on a six minute montage which features brutality, sex, drugs, shootouts and buckets of blood, the films offer a no holds barred deconstruction of the many facets of violence. Or it’s an over the top pre-teen wet dream of how uber cool guys deal with sleazy Gangster-esque bad men. If you’re a fan of Miike, then you’ve already made your mind up on which way you view it. If you aren’t, well then be prepared, you’re certainly in for something. Exactly what that is? Well, that remains to be seen…
The trilogy offers us three different stories, or three very visceral descents into madness, depending on your perspective. All fairly straightforward in concept, but a whole lot more unconventional than a simple description can convey. Dead or Alive is set in the heart of a gang war, and the only one who stands in the way of the competing crooks is a tough as brass cop, who puts his job before his family. Dead or Alive 2: Birds sees two childhood friends reunite to fight against the violence which ravages their city, whilst Dead or Alive: Final showcases a dystopian future. Eerily reminiscent to Blade Runner, we watch cybernetic soldiers fight on two differing sides of an oppressive government. All fairly innocuous right? Errrm, no.
I’m fairly torn on how I feel about these movies. Part of me champions the visual aesthetic adopted by the director. There’s certainly no way you could mistake this for anyone other than Miike’s work. His cinematography is stunning, mastering lighting, angles and visual trickery to produce some truly spectacular images. By the same token, it often feels like Takashi is trying a little too hard to be subversive. Yes, there may be enough explicit content to elicit a high yield of bedroom poppadoms from horny teens, but to me it seemed a little desperate. I appreciate sleaze and shock value as much as the next sicko, err, I mean person, but I found his outrageous ideals a little lackluster. Okay I tell a lie. At one point a guy drowns some poor prostitute in a bath full of shit from her own enema. I had to concede to being grossed out at that point. But the transitions between abhorrent or outrageous acts are a little sluggish, and the thrill of waiting for the next WTF moment becomes a little tiresome.
It’s the talent of the two leads that feature in each of the films, rather than the directors willingness to try and shock us, which keeps our attention. Riki Takeuchi and Show Aikawa somehow manage to convey depth and give gravitas to the 1001 plotlines Miike wishes to explore in each film. It’s pretty evident that the guy has a lot to say, but I’m not sure he needs to explore quite so many storylines all at once. Somehow managing to make the trilogy a cohesive whole, the two work in tandem, either in alliance or as enemies, and often convey either poignant or heartfelt sentiment through the ruckus of campy carnage. Quite how they refrain from wandering into pastiche territory? I can only attribute that to their dexterity as performers and their understanding of what the director is trying to convey.
If you’re up for an abundance of martial arts action and over the top ideas, then I highly recommend seeking out Dead or Alive. I do have to pre-warn you that I found them a bit of a slog, but the final showdowns of the first and third film are really worth sticking around for, just for the sheer over the top abstraction. A perfect metaphor for the directors contradictory style, Dead or Alive is hugely entertaining and irrefutably boring all at once.