Dead or Alive Trilogy Blu-ray Review (originally published 2017)
Dead or Alive (Japanese: Dead or Alive: Hanzaisha, 1999)
Tough guy gangster Ryuichi (Riki Takeuchi) and his ethnically Chinese gang make a play to take over the drug trade in Tokyo's Shinjuku district by massacring the competition. Soon after, he meets his match in detective Jojima (Show Aikawa), who will do everything to stop him and his gang. (From Arrow’s original synopsis)
Following nearly a decade of working the salt mines of Japanese B and STV cinema, Takashi Miike established his cult credentials in Europe and America with an extreme version of his already twisted yakuza formula called Dead or Alive (those credentials would be solidified the same year when Audition gained him critical adoration). He quickly topped himself in terms of extreme violence and surreal events with movies like Ichi the Killer (Japanese: Koroshiya 1, 2001) and Gozu (2003), but none of his work would ever be as utterly surprising following the sheer awe of Dead or Alive. Dead or Alive is brimming with wacky moments (including a scene where a character accidentally breads and deep-fries his own hand while blindly reaching for a weapon during a gunfight), but tends to be boiled down by fans and critics to its nearly ten-minute-long opening montage, which depicts the hedonistic behavior and subsequent assassinations of mafia bosses, and its climax, in which the two main characters bring about the literal end of the world with their mano a mano showdown. Ichiro Ryu’s (who also wrote Ley Lines, 1999, and City of Lost Souls, 2000 for the director) boilerplate script is mostly forgotten in the blitz, but Miike needs to establish standard genre conventions (and there are a lot of them) before he can subvert them. Every time it appears he’s going to “right the ship” with a typical narrative shift, he slaps the audience’s expectations in the face with something inexplicable.
Naturally, Miike’s brand of shock value is an acquired taste. While his vulgarity can be quite delectable, his earlier work did take some unsavory shortcuts – namely, the casually barbaric treatment of women. One could argue that this offhanded brutality is merely the director’s way of emphasising the burden of cruel violence to an audience that enjoys his more cartoonish and exciting mayhem – i.e. the violence that men commit against other men may be fun, but look how ugly it is when that same violence is visited upon women. However, the more likely explanation is that misogyny is a simple shorthand for irredeemable evil. Frankly, the emphasis is unnecessary in this case. Dead or Alive isn’t a particularly contemptible entry in Miike’s misogyny circus, but it does feature one of the most stomach-churning acts of murder and objectification in his entire oeuvre (conceptually, if not viscerally). And, unlike the extraordinarily savage Ichi the Killer, women are never really given a chance to participate in the mayhem. Instead, they are designated bystanders and victims. In the end, though, Dead or Alive is a celebration of nihilism, one that ends the only moral way any of the director’s patently opaque weirdo-yakuza epics can – in utter annihilation.
Prior to this Blu-ray collection, Dead or Alive was one of Miike’s most readily available movies, including anamorphic R1 DVDs from Eastern Star and Kino Video, a PAL DVD from Tartan Films, and loads of ‘grey market’ releases from Hong Kong and Taiwan. According to specs, Arrow received HD masters for all three movies directly from Kadokawa Pictures – the same company that supplied them with their subpar Dark Water and Black Society Trilogy materials. As I mentioned in those reviews, there are ongoing issues with the image quality of Japanese movies (especially B-movies) released during the early years of DVD production and Dead or Alive is no exception. That said, I expected much worse for this particular film, given its tiny budget, rough filming style, and the odd yellow/green color-timing that Miike and cinematographer Hideo Yamamoto employ. The inherent roughness is inflated by smoke-filled rooms and smog-covered streets, which leads to some pretty fuzzy wide-angle details and, because the scan isn’t the greatest, some of the grainer elements have a tendency to appear blocky. At worst, this leaves a digital sheen over some sequences, including hints of ghosting. The soupy/smokey contrast levels are probably related to the strange color quality (the brightest colors are designed to bloom a bit), but also the result of being mastered at PC levels (0-255), rather than video levels (16-235) – another common problem for digital home video releases from Japan. Again, even though these shortcomings are pretty obvious, this is still a sizable upgrade, especially in terms of finer textures, elemental separation, and overall clarity (for example, this is the first time I ever noticed that Yamamoto sometimes plays with focus depth during close-ups).
Every movie in this set is presented in uncompressed LPCM and its original stereo sound. Dead or Alive had a theatrical release, but it was largely designed for home video release, so it was never mixed for 5.1 (I’m honestly not sure if the majority of Japanese theaters had 5.1 capabilities in 1999). Most of the audio was clearly recorded on set and not extensively remixed, which leaves everything clear, but sort of flat, until a shoot-out or something similarly loud adds some layers into the mix. Composer Kôji Endô is responsible for the industrial metal score that drives the film forward with heavy guitars, pounding electronic percussion, and hypnotizing Eastern instruments. This score fills a lot of stereo space left empty by the soft, dialogue driven scenes.
Dead or Alive 2: Birds (Japanese: Dead or Alive 2: Tôbôsha, 2000)
A pair of rival yakuza assassins discover they were childhood friends. Then, following a botched hit, they flee together to the island where they grew up and decide to devote their deadly skills to a more humanitarian cause. (From Arrow’s official synopsis)
As in the case of the Black Society Trilogy, the Dead or Alive films are tied by themes and actors, rather than ongoing storylines or characters. Dead or Alive 2: Birds is still quite zany, but more in the tradition of Miike’s more personal and “realistic” criminal dramas. It also might be the director’s most underrated film, one that reiterates his crucial and repeated themes, as established by Tom Mes in his essential Miike tome, Agitator: The Cinema of Takashi Miike (2003, FAB Press), namely acute nostalgia. Elements of nostalgia are certainly found in the first film, but it’s way too much of a ‘kitchen sink’ affair to hammer home many themes beyond ruthlessness, violence, and nihilism. Dead or Alive rejects the sentiment of tragedy with more audacity, while Dead or Alive 2: Birds winds slowly towards an inevitable and inescapable bittersweetness (in this respect, it is a good match for the middle film of the Black Society Trilogy, Rainy Dog, 1997). The screenplay was written by Masa Nakamura, who also wrote a number of Miike’s movies over the years (including Young Thugs: Innocent Blood, 1997, and Sukiyaki Western Django, 2007). His rather chatty dialogue and disarmingly likeable character drive the film more than set-pieces and violent gags – though series fans need not fear a complete lack of bloody mayhem. For the most part Miike also dials back on his cinematic tricks, consigning them more to the Audition-like flashbacks that play with the concept of fluid memories. This gives the cast a little more room to perform, especially Riki Takeuchi, who, unlike co-lead Show Aikawa, doesn’t often have much to do in Miike’s movies beyond sneering and murdering people. Tetsuo series (1989, 1992, 2010) director and Ichi the Killer actor Shinya Tsukamoto also makes a scene-stealing appearance as a yakuza middleman/amateur magician.
Dead or Alive 2 was not as readily available on DVD as its predecessor, but there were still plenty of official (Kino and Tartan again) and unofficial anamorphic discs on the market. Arrow’s Blu-ray transfer has the same backstory as that of the first film – the 1.85:1, 1080p HD master was handed directly to them by Kadokawa and they did their best to make it all look good. The results are similar, but slightly improved, possibly due to Miike and cinematographer Kazunari Tanaka’s use of sunnier photography and brighter color grading (the flashbacks are a particularly vibrant mix of yellow and aqua). Wide-angle details are mushy and a mix of inherent film grain and digital noise create a haze over some of the backgrounds (the flashbacks are also designed to appear particularly grainy), but the close-up textures and medium-shot details are certainly sharper this time. The first two movies share space on the first Blu-ray in this two Blu-ray set, but I doubt this caused any compression issues, since Dead or Alive 2: Birds is so short.
The LPCM stereo soundtrack is a bit more lively, thanks to the use of additional outdoor locations, which offer loads of environmental ambience. Miike also plays with the volume levels of background noise to emphasize emotional impact. Chu Ishikawa’s score leaves behind the industrial noises in favour of more traditional instruments and musical cues that drive home the nostalgic themes. The music is used sparingly and tends to be mixed low beneath sound effects, until the climax, at which point Ishikawa leans back towards the kind of metallic percussion used by Endô for the first movie.
Dead or Alive: Final (2002)
In a future Yokohama ruled by multilingual gangs and cyborg soldiers, a drifter criminal android and super cop are drawn into a life or death battle. (From Arrow’s official synopsis)
Dead or Alive: Final technically could be taking place in the aftermath of the events of the first film, but I doubt that is exactly what Miike and writers Hitoshi Ishikawa, Yoshinobu Kamo, and the returning Ichiro Ryu had in mind for this cyberpunk-infused series finalé. The third movie suffers from the breadth of its conceptual ambition. Do-it-yourself ingenuity aside, what is meant to be an opulent, Heavy Metal and 2000 AD magazine-inspired dystopian morality tale is hindered by a lack of budget, story focus, and a concrete concept. Miike could certainly compete with his contemporaries in the realms of live-action anime, but his talents are almost always better utilized when he’s taking a more subversively comedic swing at comic book/cartoon/video game-inspired properties, as evident in the success of family friendly oddities, like Zebraman (2004), Ninja Kids!!! (2011), and Ace Attorney (2012). In other words, his work should not be confused with that Ryuhei Kitamura, director of Azumi (2003), Longinus (2004), and other over-the-top action opuses. Sadly, Dead or Alive: Final tends to verify the critical accusation that Miike covers his lack of substance with meaningless music video editing techniques and camera work. The appeal of a Takashi Miike version of Blade Runner is enough to make Dead or Alive: Final entertaining in fits and starts (as is the occasionally explored ‘found family’ dynamic), but this feels like the husk of a better idea (the ending is more or less borrowed from the first Tetsuo), puttering along without the shock of the first movie or the emotional contingent of the second.
According to this disc’s opening text card, Dead or Alive: Final was shot and produced digitally in standard definition. Arrow was handed an NTSC tape master and converted the footage to HD as best they could. That means this is the best possible version of a film that is never going to look very good. Even by SD standards, this is a very fuzzy and artefact-strewn transfer, because there was no pre-production film master and the Betacam rigs that Miike and returning cinematographer Kazunari Tanaka used infused the footage with interlacing effects and compression issues. I can’t argue that there was any point in putting Dead or Alive: Final on its own, separate Blu-ray disc (the first two movies are on one BD50 and Final shares the second disc with most of the video extras) instead of sticking it on a DVD or onto a shared space as an SD transfer, but I can point out that Miike and Tanaka designed the film around the artifacty look of the digital cameras. Rest assured that this is the best it can ever look.
The LPCM 2.0 soundtrack more or less matches the limits of the SD video, because so much of the sound was recorded using subpar or at least limited equipment. Unlike the second film, where the environment becomes an integral part of the mix, the wind and other ambience here mostly just muffles dialogue and creates distortion issues. The additional effects, which are added to emphasize the sci-fi environment, sound just fine, even if they rarely blend with their surroundings. Returning composer Kôji Endô gives this score a bit of extra character with the inclusion of saxophone-driven free jazz alongside his thrasher guitar riffs and computer programmed drums. Much of the dialogue is in Chinese or English and the Japanese subtitles were burned into the master materials, so Arrow was unable to remove them.
Dead or Alive commentary with writer/critic Tom Mes – The aforementioned author of Agitator: The Cinema of Takashi Miike offers up a typically informative commentary track with just a bit more personality than usual. The writer is typically a very down-to-business academic, but he has some real affection for this, the first Miike movie he ever saw. The track is also a nice companion piece to his book, considering how much has occurred since its 2003 publishing date. Opinions on Miike have evolved and the man’s oeuvre has expanded to include a number of mainstream pictures.
Dead or Alive 2 archive making-of featurette (10:17, SD)
Dead or Alive US and Japanese trailers
Dead or Alive 2 trailer
Toshiki Kimura: Drifting with Miike (43:43, HD) – An extensive interview with the producer of all three films, who recounts his career, lasting relationship with Miike, and writing a number of movies (under a pseudonym). After a lengthy intro, he delves into the specifics of each of his Miike productions (with emphasis on the ones that Arrow has copyright access to).
Riki Takeuchi: Deadly Outlaw Riki (30:28, HD) – The Dead or Alive co-star, who may appear in more Miike films than any other actor, discusses breaking into the industry, his early V-cinema (STV) success, the unpredictability of working with Miike, and expresses disbelief at the prospect of his overseas popularity, all with a big smile on his face.
Sho Aikawa: Cop, Killer, Replicant (22:47, HD) – The other star of the series and guy that appeared in the second most Miike movies talks mostly about the Dead or Alive series in this interview, having already discussed much of his extended career during the Black Society Trilogy extras.
Dead or Alive: Final archive making-of featurette (11:25, SD)
Dead or Alive: Final archive promotional interviews with Aikawa, Takeuchi, and Miike (11:00, SD)
Dead or Alive: Final animated announcement and theatrical trailers