Ley Lines (1999) Review

Black Society Trilogy | Blu-ray & DVD (Arrow Video)

Black Society Trilogy | Blu-ray & DVD (Arrow Video)

Director: Takashi Miike
Writer: Ichiro Ryu
Cast: Show Aikawa, Samuel Pop Aning, Takeshi Caesar, Yukie ItouMichisuke Kashiwaya,Kazuki Kitamura, Dan Li, Ryuushi Mizukami, Ren Osugi, Tomorowo Taguchi, Naoto Takenaka, Koji Tsukamoto, Hua Rong Weng
Running Time: 105 min.

By Kyle Warner

Takashi Miike’s Black Society Trilogy kicked off with a lurid and offensive bang in 1995 with Shinjuku Triad Society. He followed that up with Rainy Dog in 1997, a quieter, more reserved crime drama. (That’s not to say that Rainy Dog is a tame film—it is violent and shows no pity for childhood innocence—but compared to the sexual violence and seedy darkness of the first film, Rainy Dog feels almost elegant by comparison.) 1999’s Ley Lines, the final film of the trilogy, is something of a blend of the two previous films. Miike pushes the extremes like he did in Shinjuku Triad Society, but the interest he showed in cinema as an art in Rainy Dog continues to grow.

We enter the film with a hyper stylized glimpse of our main character’s childhood in the country, when he was bullied by Japanese kids for his Chinese heritage. The stylization of this scene—the upper half of the frame is crimson and the lower half is green—returns to the film at a few key points, and serves to signify the almost supernatural bond between our main character Ryuichi (Kazuki Kitamura) and his younger brother Shunrei (Michisuke Kashiwaya) when the one of the two is in distress. Fast forward to the present and Ryuichi is a punk with priors who’s desperately hoping to escape his country town and move to Brazil. That dream is put on hold when he’s denied a passport. So, Ryuichi decides to flee to Tokyo instead, taking with him his dimwitted friend Chang (Tomorowo Taguchi), with little bro Shunrei unexpectedly following close behind.

Once in Tokyo, the rough but naïve Ryuichi ends up getting pickpocketed, so they must work at selling toluene on the streets for a drug dealer (Sho Aikawa). With hope for an official passport dashed, the Chinese trio plans to buy forged passports, which in turn puts them in the sights of another Chinese immigrant, the loan shark with a short fuse Mr. Wong (Naoto Takenaka). All of these competing interests—money, drugs, revenge, and childhood dreams—build slowly before ending up on a collision course in a tense and unpredictable final act.

Until that action-driven finale, Ley Lines is a peculiar character drama with an ensemble cast. There are some things I personally would’ve cut (the Chinese prostitute Anita meeting up with a pervert comes to mind), but nothing necessarily feels out of place in Miike’s film. His vision of Tokyo in Ley Lines is one where outsiders are stepped on, women are used, and the powerful do as they please. Ley Lines goes off the rails at times, ignoring the central plot in order to explore perversions, bizarre character quirks, and minor revelations, but even these strange, side alley deviations serve to enhance the character development.

Ley Lines is a sad film. In the director’s career, and especially in this trilogy, Miike tries to tell the stories of the immigrants and outsiders. Shinjuku Triad Society was about Taiwanese Triads in Japan. Rainy Dog was about a Japanese hitman in Taiwan. And Ley Lines is about Taiwanese youth trying to escape Japan. Miike regular Kazuki Kitamura (Killers) plays the bigger brother Ryuichi as a young man lashing out at all that would hope to confine him. And as younger brother Shunrei, Michisuke Kashiwaya (Kids Return) plays the more innocent of the two, one who doesn’t like how things are but is hesitant to go to the extremes in order to change his plight. Even the villain Wong played by Naoto Takeneka (Tokyo Fist) is a sad character. Though he claims to think that Japan is the land of opportunity, Wong forces women from his hometown of Shanghai to tell him old Chinese folk stories in order to find some kind of peace.

Ley Lines also has a fun (and dark) sense of humor, though. Tomorowo Taguchi, who played the coldblooded villain in Shinjuku Triad Society and a different, wild dog sort of bad guy in Rainy Dog, is nearly unrecognizable as Ryuichi’s goofy buddy Chang. Watch the trilogy and admire the actor’s range. And Rainy Dog’s Sho Aikawa has a fun role as the drug dealer who thinks that he could make the world a better place if everyone had a sample of his toluene.

It’s not important to watch the Black Society Trilogy in order of release, as the films are only connected in theme, but if you do so you can clearly see Miike improve as a filmmaker. Shinjuku Triad Society has rough, poorly lit visuals, and no off switch. Rainy Dog shows Miike exploring more artistic qualities and a more leisured pace. And Ley Lines has Miike coming into his own as a visualist, setting scenes with creative shots or extreme colors.

In addition to Miike’s larger cinematic interest in the outsider and the immigrant, Ley Lines has much in common with one of the director’s other most common reoccurring themes, that of the dangerous youth. Miike has repeatedly told coming of age tales, often doing so with a flair for violence. Ley Lines feels like a not-so distant relative to the director’s other violent youth pics like The Way to Fight, Osaka Tough Guys, Crows Zero, and his two Young Thugs films. Fans of those films may be interested in Ley Lines, and vice versa.

The Black Society Trilogy hits Blu-ray in the US and the UK from the good folks at Arrow Video. The first two films share Disc 1 and the majority of the special features join Ley Lines on Disc 2. New features include commentaries on all three films from Tom Mes, an interview with Sho Aikawa, and a 45 minute interview with Takashi Miike. All the new features are excellent and are recommended for fans looking to learn more about the movies and their stars. Also included is a booklet with essays on the films from Samm Deighan, Tony Rayns, and Stephen Sarrazin. The Black Society Trilogy movies were never the sort of movies that film collectors dreamed of seeing in high definition. But even so, the Blu-rays are a noticeable upgrade over the old DVDs. It’s a really good release, full of nice extra features for fans of the films and Takashi Miike in general.

When I first saw Ley Lines years back, I remember thinking that it was the weakest film of the trilogy. No longer. Now I think it’s second best, ranking below Rainy Dog and a step above Shinjuku Triad Society. It’s an interesting blend of the themes and the attitudes of the first two films. And though occasionally I found it tested my patience, the final 20-30 minutes of Ley Lines are fantastic at playing with your emotions and defying your expectations, so I’m giving it an extra .5 in my rating. Plus: that final shot. I’m still thinking about it. The final shot of Ley Lines remains one of the most memorable images of Takashi Miike’s prolific career.

Kyle Warner’s Rating: 7.5/10

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