The Black Society Trilogy Blu-ray Review (originally published 2017)
Before he turned heads with the ghastly yakuza delights of Dead or Alive (1999) and Ichi the Killer (Japanese: Koroshiya Ichi, 2001), maverick working-class director Takashi Miike delivered a slightly more emblematic series of crime dramas collectively known as the Black Society Trilogy] (aka: Kuroshakai Trilogy). These films – Shinjuku Triad Society (1995), Rainy Dog (1997), and Ley Lines (1999) – are connected by their yakuza and Chinese triad backdrops, as well as cultural themes found in their shared locations/settings. They do not share characters or continue specific plotlines. They may be occurring within the same universe, like Nicolas Winding Refn’s Pusher series, but there isn’t a specific indication either way. For the most part, they stand on their own and are vital viewing for readers who seek a comprehensive understanding of Miike’s work.
Shinjuku Triad Society (Japanese: Shinjuku kuroshakai: Chaina mafia sensô)
Set in the bustling Kabuki-cho nightlife neighborhood of Tokyo, Shinjuku Triad Society follows a mixed-race cop (Kippei Shiina) struggling with private issues while hunting a psychotic criminal (Tomorowo Taguchi) who traffics children's organs. (From Arrow’s official synopsis)
Following a number of straight-to-video market genre pictures, including eccentric manga adaptations, like A Human Murder Weapon (Japanese: Ningen kyôki: Ai to ikari no ringu, 1992) and Osaka Tough Guys (Japanese: Naniwa Yūkyōden, 1995), Shinjuku Triad Society was Miike’s first movie made for theatrical release (though not the first actually released in theaters). In many ways, it is a practice run for the brand of cartoonishly hyper-violent and nihilistic yakuza cinema that made him (in)famous. Under the guise of Shinjuku Outlaw (also directed by Miike, 1994) writer Ichirô Fujita’s heavily-plotted Asian crime pastiche (somewhere between Kinji Fukasaku and John Woo), Miike begins to solidify his individual standard of brutality and anarchy, as well as developing early versions of future sequences. For instance, the chaotic opening, which cuts frantically between overlapping events, and blow-out finale feel like wind-ups for Dead or Alive’s utterly outrageous bookends. The pervasively bleak tone is lightened only if the audience is willing to accept the director’s jet-black sense of humor, which extends to the extreme violence and absurdly evil characters (we only root for the woman-beating, rapist cop protagonist when we learn that the villain is literally trafficking the organs of young orphans). Of course, Miike being Miike, it’s almost impossible to differentiate real horror from sarcastic horror.
The most interesting aspects of the film are actually its unconventional gender politics. Many of Miike’s movies – especially his yakuza movies – are brimming with misogynistic characters committing horrible acts of violence against women. Defensive fans will often point to similar acts committed against men as a show of equal opportunity sadism, but there’s no doubt that certain Miike movies thrive on images of tortured women. Shinjuku Triad Society has its share of misogyny, but it is such a uniquely male-centric film that the majority of the violence, torture, and rape is visited upon men by other men. Moreover, the prominent male gaze is usually fixed on other men, in part because the main villain is openly homosexual. The femme fatale position is even filled by a young man who navigates advances from male thugs as he maneuvers through the criminal underworld. It’s unlikely that this is a progressive or homophobic statement on Miike’s part; rather, sex is just another indication of the universe’s pervasive violence. Loving embraces and tender kisses are replaced by scenes of men raping women and other men for information and as an indication of their power, not lust.
The now-defunct Artsmagic released their own Black Society Trilogy collection on anamorphic DVD in the US (that would be the one I had originally reviewed), Tartan Video released standalone anamorphic discs, and there were also Japanese and Hong Kong DVDs (I’m not sure if they were anamorphic or not). 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 materials and, I assume, the same company that supplied Artsmagic with the material they used for their SD release. I don’t have that Artsmagic collection on hand for a direct comparison purposes, but I can say that these 1080p Blu-ray images look like less compressed versions of those same transfers. That said, they’re about as dull and fuzzy as most of us have come to expect from the early days of Japanese DVD video. The problems can usually be blamed on weak, noisy scans and the fact that many of these movies were mastered at PC levels (0-255) rather than video levels (16-235).
Shinjuku Triad Society is the roughest of the bunch, in part because it was shot on a lower budget and shorter schedule than the other two movies. The contrast levels of the original material is already pretty muddy. Miike and cinematographer Naosuke Imaizumi lace the film in deep, soupy shadows and tend to create contrast with diffused lights and sickly green/yellow gels, both of which create fuzzy edges and murky gradations. In addition, the better lit interiors are often caked in smoke/fog, creating further noise, which is chunked-up, due to the less-than-ideal scan. There’s also a noteable amount of horizontal frame wobble. Arrow has ensured that there is next to zero compression artifacts, meaning that edges are free of jaggies and blends aren’t as blocky/posterized as those on the DVD. The color quality is nice, too. The more vibrant hue quality helps expand the distinct palette change from Japan (cold and blue) to Taiwan (warm and green/red).
The original stereo tracks are presented in uncompressed LPCM 2.0 sound. Much of the dialogue is in Japanese, but there are moments in which characters speak Chinese and Taiwanese dialects. These are represented on the subtle track with various brackets to signify the difference. The mix is relatively simple in terms of layers, but the sound editing is complex and lively, ensuring plenty of left/right enhancement and decent dynamic range. Atorie Shira’s original music alternates between moody throbs that almost disappear beneath the dialogue/effects and excitable drum tracks that drive some of the more intense scenes.
Rainy Dog (Japanese: Gokudô kuroshakai)
An exiled yakuza (Show Aikawa) finds himself saddled with a son he never knew he had and a price on his head after the Chinese gang he works for decides to turn on him. (From Arrow’s official synopsis)
Despite its connections to the other Black Society movies and a lead performance from Show Aikawa, Rainy Dog doesn’t immediately bear too many Miike hallmarks – or at least not many from the earlier era of his career. This surprisingly tender story of an aging gangster finding redemption in the eyes of his estranged child has its share of bleak and violent moments, but it isn’t preoccupied with cartoonish violence, rarely dwells on nihilistic imagery, and dials back on the absurdist comedy. With all of that vicious pomp and circumstance peeled away, we can see the director’s more mature side, arguably for the first time. Repeated concepts, like brutality, familial/cultural ties, and redemption mingle with a raw and sombre, but not unattractive visual style. The editing is loose and the tempo is confident in its leisure (like their B-grade Hollywood contemporaries, many of these movies are designed around action sequences, rather than characters). Screenwriter Seigo Inoue’s unvarnished plot leaves room for the director and cast to craft a more tonal story – one that works most eloquently when characters aren’t speaking to each other.
Rainy Dog occupies a rare position in that it might be the best film in the Black Society Trilogy (from a mainstream Western perspective, at least), but, to truly appreciate its value to Miike’s canon, viewers really need to compare it to the other two movies in the series. At times, it appears to recontextualize its themes as a sort of Taiwan-set neo-western or a modern version of the Lone Wolf and Cub manga/movies (there are also parallels to be drawn to Luc Besson’s Léon, 1994). Considering continuity isn’t an important metric for these movies and noting the steady deceleration of Miike’s most manic impulses – from Shinjuku Triad Society to Ley Lines, culminating in Rainy Dog’s more understated resolutions – I actually think it might work best to view Rainy Dog last, despite Ley Lines being released at a later date. It is perhaps the movie that stands apart the most from the series, while still involving so many of the tropes that define the director’s crime movies (noting that he shows similar tenderness in non-crime movies, like The Bird People in China, 1998).
Rainy Dog debuts on Blu-ray with a stronger 1080p transfer than Shinjuku Triad Society, but much of this comes down to the quality of the original photography. Miike and cinematographer Atorie Shira shoot a lot of the film outdoors in natural light and emphasize a greater dynamic of color and depth than seen in the first movie in the trilogy. The pseudo-vérité look is less kind to darker sequences, which are usually quite dim and would probably remain as such no matter the condition of the original material. That said, the Kadokawa HD scan is still quite noisy and dull. The edges appear soft, pattern differentiation is weak (for an HD release), and natural grain texture is often replaced by more machine noise. As a result, it sort of looks like it was shot on digital video. Again, Arrow has done their best to present the film as clear and uncompressed as they can manage, which certainly helps contrast range and color quality (reds and greens are much punchier than their DVD counterparts had been). Note that there is a scene around the 20 minute mark with a weird frame rate and dialogue sound quality. I guess this might be an error in the material, but seem to recall the same thing happening on the DVD release.
Rainy Dog is also presented in uncompressed LPCM 2.0 stereo. This is another generally low-energy track, overall, but the ambient sounds are very effectively layered to create a consistently immersive aural arena. The omnipresent rain effects and inner-city crowd noise offer stereo depth and the more violent sound effects (guns cocking, guns firing, punches, stabbings, et cetera) are extra loud to semi-cartoonish degree. Kôji Endô’s (aka: Sound Kids) score blends electronic tribal drum melodies with bluesy slide guitar, setting the sombre, yet sometimes hopeful mood. Again, brackets are used in the subtitle track to signify the difference between Japanese, Mandarin, and Taiwanese.
Ley Lines (Japanese: Nihon kuroshakai)
Three Japanese youths of Chinese descent seek their fortune in Tokyo, only to run afoul of a violent gang boss. (From Arrow’s original synposis)
Rainy Dog is the most mature and emotionally rewarding film in the trilogy and I stand by recommendation to watch it last. That said, Ley Lines is the film I found myself re-evaluating most extensively upon this second viewing. This is in part due to reading about it in Miike expert Tom Mes’ Agitator: The Cinema of Takashi Miike (FAB Press, 2003), where he refers to it as “the quintessential Miike film.” His appraisal isn’t necessarily equal to considering it the ‘best’ Miike film; rather, Mes sees Ley Lines as a centerpiece in the director’s career that encompasses every one of his fundamental themes. These are, as defined by the author, the ruthless individual, the outcast, the search for happiness, nostalgia, the family unit, and, of course, violence. Nostalgia, particularly the loss of youthful innocence, permeates throughout the fabric of Ley Lines, more so than either Shinjuku Triad Society or Rainy Dog. Miike also focuses more directly on racism and cultural xenophobia, rather than confining direct references to a couple of interactions, like he does in the other two movies (the subject is further underlined by the fact that racial slurs are bleeped, despite other curses flying freely).
Mes considers Ley Lines a signature Miike film in terms of its style, as well as theme, which is not something I really agree with, at least not based on the two dozen other Miike films I’ve personally seen. I do, however, agree that it is the most cinematically sophisticated movie in this trilogy. Often, Ley Lines is even more anchored in realism than Rainy Dog, but Miike drops a number of hyper-stylized inserts to create a stronger emotional impact. These include flashbacks that look like rotted 8mm family films, a distinctive use of color for emphasis, and an outrageously off-putting gynecological torture sequence that would’ve probably be a better fit for something like Gozu (2003). This sense of fidelity is supported by another character and event-driven screenplay by Ichiro Ryu (who later wrote Dead or Alive and The City of Lost Souls  – a movie that is rooted in a very similar story). The emphasis on situational, rather than plot-heavy, storytelling produces some of the most sympathetically human characters in Miike’s earlier canon without sacrificing his absurd and sarcastic sense of humor.
It’s probably worth noting that Tomorowo Taguchi appears as a major character and, like Rainy Dog, he is introduced as a urinating in public. His presence throughout these films is interesting in that he ends up playing vastly different versions of the same basic character. Here, he is a pure-hearted soul that holds the protagonists together, but appears as a bloodthirsty aggressor in Shinjuku Triad Society and a limp-wristed bystander in Rainy Dog.
Ley Lines’ Blu-ray transfer features the same dynamic range and fine detail problems that are seen on the other two transfers, but still exhibits advantages in terms of overall clarity. Miike again utilizes mostly natural light; this time with help from cinematographer Naosuke Imaizumi, which becomes an advantage, based on the number of daytime, outdoor shots. The fuzzy edges and sheets of noise (some of it obviously film grain, this time) are not prevalent enough to flatten wide angle patterns this time and, even in darkness, there is enough element separation to differentiate characters/shapes. The palette is largely divided between warm, green and red tinged interiors and artificially cooled exteriors (a very popular choice for similar films from the ‘90s – Japanese and otherwise). As a result, most colors are homogenized into these categories, leading to richer, more vibrant highlight hues. The opening sequence, which reappears throughout the film, is, quite obviously, meant to be raw and ravaged with film damage artifacts.
Ley Lines is also presented in uncompressed LPCM and its original stereo. It is a hyper-naturalistic mix with far fewer effects layers than its predecessors. Most of the dialogue and incidental sounds seem to have been captured on set and sit softly between the stereo speakers with the exception of moving vehicles (trains, cars, a helicopter) and crowd noise. Endô returned as composer for this final chapter and continued working with Miike throughout Audition (1999), Dead or Alive (1999), The Happiness of the Katakuris (2001), and many more films. He moves away from the electronic sounds of the previous films, opting instead to set the nostalgic mood with romantic accordion/violin melodies. The music only crops up a handful of times, where it is given complete reign over all other sound. Yet again, brackets are used in the subtitle track to signify the difference between Japanese and other languages.
Commentary tracks for all movies with Tom Mes – Mes specifies that these are all new tracks recorded specifically for Arrow’s release, not ports from the OOP Artsmagic DVDs. These are typically great work from Mes, who fills the time with behind-the-scenes factoids, critical analysis, and contextual information. While he certainly repeats some of what he already said on the old tracks and wrote in his book, a considerable amount of time has passed since then, allowing him to expand the commentary to include more recent changes in Miike’s career.
Takashi Miike: Into the Black (45:07, HD) – This brand new interview with Miike discusses his pre-filmmaking life, his cinematic inspirations, his STV market movies, breaking into theatrical releases, his filmmaking techniques, the characters that inhabit his ‘outlaw’ films, respecting the work of screenwriters, shooting the Black Society movies out of country, and more.
Show Aikawa: Stray Dog, Lone Wolf (21:42, HD) – The actor chats about his career, working with Miike over the years, and his roles in Rainy Dog and Ley Lines.
Trailers for all three movies