Director: Takashi Miike
Writer: Ichiro Fujita
Cast: Takeshi Caesar, Kyosuke Izutsu, Ren Osugi, Kippei Shiina, Tomorowo Taguchi, Airi Yanagi, SABU, Yukie Itou, Kazuhiro Mashiko, Yoji Tanaka
Running Time: 100 min.
By Kyle Warner
Takashi Miike began his prolific career as a director in ‘V-Cinema,’ Japan’s direct-to-video film productions. His first film that was meant as a theatrical release from the very start was his 1995 dark crime picture, Shinjuku Triad Society: Chinese Mafia War. And though Miike would return to V-Cinema afterwards, with notable movies such as Full Metal Yakuza and Visitor Q, Shinjuku Triad Society put theatres on notice; the madness of Miike could no longer be contained on VHS and DVD alone.
The Black Society Trilogy is one of Miike’s earliest and best works as an auteur in extreme cinema. The three films—Shinjuku Triad Society, Rainy Dog, and Ley Lines—all tell stories about outsiders in Japan’s underworld and the violent hardships they must endure. The Black Society Trilogy is a ‘trilogy’ only in the loosest sense. Like Chan-wook Park’s Vengeance Trilogy, Miike’s trio of dark crime dramas is connected by shared themes and cast members, but not by any continued plot thread.
“I know a love story both sickening and sweet,” begins Shinjuku Triad Society, a film about devotion told with buckets of blood. Detective Kiriya (Kippei Shiina) is looking to dismantle the Taiwanese Triad group known as the Dragon’s Claw. The leader of the Dragon’s Claw remains unknown to the police, but the streets are now overflowing with blood and guns. Working his way up the food chain, Det. Kiriya identifies the leader to be Wang (Tomorowo Taguchi), a gay Taiwanese gangster whose criminal enterprise appears to be international in scope.
Making matters worse is the fact that Det. Kiriya’s younger brother is an attorney for the Dragon’s Claw group. And though Kiriya would like to save his brother from getting further involved with the criminal underworld, it becomes increasingly clear that his brother does not want to be saved.
The way the cops eliminate leads and work their way up to Wang is slightly reminiscent of procedurals like The Wire, but only on the surface. This film is quintessential Miike, made at a time when he most enjoyed pushing the extremes, even if that meant giving in to some unfavorable thematic obsessions. When intimidation does not work to break the will of a male suspect, Det. Kiriya orders a fellow cop to rape the man from behind. It’s sick. Perhaps even more disgusting is that Kiriya himself rapes a female suspect later in the film in the same fashion, and that the woman enjoys it enough to come back to her rapist and ask for more. This is lurid, offensive, and typically Miike. During this stage of the director’s career, sexual violence was a norm. Yes, one can argue that it always serves a point in the story, and at least it’s never made to appear sexy (the entirety of Shinjuku Triad Society has a dirty, in-need-of-a-shower aesthetic), but this does not make me feel better about these sections in the film, or similar scenes in other works from Miike.
Others have found issue with the amount of homosexual acts included in the film. However, unlike the two situations noted above, these moments are consensual and highly suggestive in the ways in which they’re filmed. It would be fair to say that Shinjuku Triad Society belongs to be mentioned in the LGBT sub-genre of crime dramas, and that may indeed turn off some potential viewers, but I hardly think it’s the most provocative thing about the movie.
Still, I do tend to think that Miike hopes to offend you. What’s more, I think he aims to disgust you. The most unpleasant sound effects are turned up extra loud, so that even if you wish to close your eyes you still cannot hope to escape the nastiness as it unfolds. One moment, totally pointless beyond setting tone for the film and its central city, has a cop step on a pile of crap in the middle of the street. Squish! The cop stops, takes a closer at the crap, and wonders out loud, “Is that… human?”
What ultimately makes the movie hum is the solid character work from the film’s leads. Kippei Shiina (Outrage) is a character actor with a wide range. He’s very good as Det. Kiriya, a flawed character that blurs the line between antihero and co-villain in the picture. Raised by a Japanese father and a Taiwanese mother who can’t speak Japanese, Kiriya does not fit in with others either in his homeland Taiwan or in his adult life in Japan. He’s corrupt, he’s abusive… he makes Dirty Harry look like a by-the-book detective. But the one thing he loves is his family, and he does everything to protect it, even if that means going to war with the Triads to save his brother. I found it impossible to like Kiriya, but I appreciate Shiina’s work in the role.
Wang, a villain involved in organ harvesting, gun running, and prostitution, is almost the more likable character of the two leads. Tomorowo Taguchi (Tetsuo: The Iron Man) has a pair of the darkest, most interesting eyes you’ll ever see. They almost look like they’re permanently dilated. In a good guy role, it gives Taguchi the look of a wide-eyed innocent. As a villain, Taguchi looks positively mad without having to speak a word. Taguchi’s villain Wang almost seems like an early prototype for later Miike villains like Tadanobu Asano’s Kakihara in Ichi the Killer. Taguchi is the best part of the movie.
There’s good work from other members of the supporting cast, too. Miike favorite Takeshi Caesar (Fudoh) has a fun part as a yakuza who’s trying to learn Mandarin to better converse with his new boss, Wang. Cult filmmaker SABU (Unlucky Monkey) plays Kiriya’s equally corrupt partner. And popular character actor Ren Osugi (Shin Godzilla) has a minor part as a rival yakuza boss.
The Black Society Trilogy arrives on Blu-ray in the US and UK from Arrow Video. Shinjuku Triad Society looks dark on Blu-ray, but that’s largely because that’s how the film was made; very dark and very rough around the edges. Though Miike’s early films feature the same frenetic energy we’ve come to expect from the director, but it took him some time to improve behind the camera in terms of setting a scene. The sound included on the new Blu is really good, though. Shinjuku Triad Society shares disc 1 with Rainy Dog (the best film in the trilogy, reviewed earlier by Martin Sandison). Also included on the disc are trailers for the two films and new audio commentaries by Miike expert Tom Mes. Though the release will never be a considered reference quality Blu-ray, I’ve seen the old ArtsMagic DVD and can attest that it’s an upgrade.
With Shinjuku Triad Society you can see Takashi Miike at an early stage of development. He gives in to his worst impulses, he shoots scenes with a devil-may-care sense of style, and yet, at the end he manages to hold the film together with spit and blood, thanks in no small part to his solid cast. And though the film has a crude quality to it, you can sense the burgeoning talent behind the camera. There’s no other director quite like Takashi Miike. Rough and unpleasant, dark and weird, Shinjuku Triad Society is unmistakably Miike.
Kyle Warner’s Rating: 7/10