The Black Society Trilogy (Blu-ray)

The Black Society Trilogy (Blu-ray)

Among the prolific director’s finest works!

Everybody has to start somewhere, and famed Japanese director Takashi Miike started out making direct-to-video films for the Japanese market. That shouldn’t surprise anymore familiar with his more famous films (like Audition and Ichi The Killer), as the DTV market puts less pressure of filmmakers to be mainstream. But Miike had his sights set higher and started to make films for theatrical distribution as well. No one paid much attention until Shinjuku Triad Society. It was a solid hit for Miike and launched both his feature directing career and his Black Society Trilogy. Now fans can own the whole trilogy in hi-def and it’s a solid investment for fans of the director.

The Black Society Trilogy includes three films:

Shinjuku Triad Society is the story of Tatsuhito Kiriya (Kippei Shîna, Outrage) and his brother Yoshihito (Shinsuke Izutsu. Tatsuhito is a cop who wants to take down a triad gang (in a Miike twist on the genre, the gang is composed of homosexuals), while Yoshihito has a fresh law degree and a new job representing the triad.

Rainy Dog follows Yuuji (Shô Aikawa), a hitman who’s fired from his gang. He moves to Taiwan, where does freelance work until a former lover shows up with a mute child, claiming Yuuji is the father. She departs, leaving Yuuji to balance his competing responsibilities.

Ley Lines follows a trio of young men who leave their quiet lives in the country to come to Shinjuku seeking fame and fortune as criminals.

Takashi Miike is a difficult director to nail down. He’s one of the most prolific directors out there. Counting TV movies and one-off collaborations, he’s directed close to 100 movies. Many of them belong to the horror genre. Many of them feature gore and perverted sex, even if they’re not horror films. But then some of them don’t, as films like Zebraman veer towards the family-friendly and Ninja Kids!!! outright gets there.

All of this makes the Black Society Trilogy and interesting set of films to view in light of Miiki subsequent career. In a certain light, you can see a lot of his later obsessions manifesting in these first few films.

The most obvious thing to start with is that the Black Society Trilogy is not a trilogy in the standard sense. The films don’t share a narrative, any characters, or even a setting (though two take place in Shinjuku, Tokyo). Instead, it is Miike’s sensibility that unites the three films, as well as their general focus on the immigrant experience and crime stories.

It’s the latter aspect that ties most closely to Miike’s other work. Though the films in the Black Society Trilogy don’t share the usual characteristics of a “trilogy,” they do share an interest in the seamier side of the criminal divide. This lets Miike do a couple of things. The most obvious one is indulge his penchant for violence. Shinjuku Triad Society features a war between a triad and a cop. Rainy Dog is about a hitman. Ley Lines has main characters who end up the target of a yakuza boss. That gives Miike plenty of opportunity for bloodshed and violence.

It also gives Miike an opportunity to explore sexuality, and he’s not interested in the kind of sex that happens within the bounds of marriage. Nope. Shinjuku Triad Society doesn’t shy away from the sexuality of its gay yakuza, while Rainy Dog and Ley Lines feature prominent characters who are sex workers. Though he would take it further in other films, Miike’s obsession with sex and violence are already on display here.

The other way you know these films are from Takashi Miike is that all three are united by his trademark black humor. Because Miike is obsessed with probing the borders of acceptable violence and sexuality, there’s always the danger of the violence not being horrifying and the sexuality not being sexy. Miike embraces that possibility and goes for broke. He’s not afraid to risk a laugh and go over-the-top with his sex and violence. In fact, the black humor is probably the element of the Black Society Trilogy that’s most like the vintage Miike that cinema fans are most familiar with.

Arrow has lavished these films with a fantastic edition. Things kick off with three rock-solid 1.85/1080p AVC-encoded transfers. Unsurprisingly, Shinjuku Triad looks the roughest, and Ley Lines looks the best. But all three feature strong detail and well-rendered grain. Colors are a bit muted, but feel appropriate to the era and the film stock. Black levels are consistent and deep, and compression isn’t a significant problem. All three films feature LPCM 2.0 stereo tracks that respect the original sound design. Dialogue is clean and clear, with a bit of atmosphere and directionality. Don’t expect a lot of movement, but otherwise these tracks satisfy.

The three films are split across two discs. Shinjuku Triad and Rainy Dog share a disc, with Ley Lines on the second. All three films feature commentaries by Tom Mes, Miike’s biographer. He’s full of stories that place the film’s in the context of Miike’s life and work, as well as specific stories about how the films came to be made. All three films also come with their original theatrical trailers. There’s a new interview with Miike that discusses the films, as well as a new interview with Show Aikawa (actor in Rainy Dog and Ley Lines). The set comes with an illustrated booklet with an essay on the film, as well as reversible cover art.

Obviously if you’ve seen other Miike movies, you know what you’re getting into. These aren’t his most outrageous films by any stretch, but those looking for garden-variety should know that Miike doesn’t shy away from pretty extreme sex and violence.

Shinjuku Triad is the least Miike-looking of the bunch. He’s still very much working out his techniques as a filmmaker so the overall effect is a bit slapdash. The film is brimming with ideas and weirdness, but Miike is still figuring out how to bring his world to the screen. The film would slot perfectly into a 90s film festival alongside Tarantino and even Kevin Smith, with its unpolished style.

Rainy Dogs is almost as shocking. Some of Miike’s later films don’t move too quickly (Audition can be stately in its pacing), but Rainy Dog really takes its time. There’s not too much plot to begin with, and Miike isn’t afraid to stretch it out over the course of 95 minutes. It’s supposed to be a slice-of-life study of the oddity of being a hitman, but some viewers will find the slow pace off-putting.

Ley Lines plays like a mashup of the first two films in the trilogy. The focus is more like Shunjuku but the pace is more like Rainy Dog.  It’s the most mature and developed of the trilogy (which isn’t a surprise, since it came out the same year as Audition and Dead or Alive, along with five other features and some TV movies).

Together, the Black Society Trilogy is probably more interesting for charting Miike’s growth as a filmmaker than as individual films on their own.  That’s not a knock on these films. They’re full of Miike’s trademark blend of sex, violence, and black humor. He may have gotten better as a filmmaker, but even his earliest material shows that he’s a unique talent. This release from Arrow showcases that talent to its fullest with a solid audiovisual presentation and informative extras.

Not Guilty.

Tech Specs

The Black Society Trilogy (Blu-ray)
2017, Arrow, 300 minutes, NR (1995-1999)
VIDEO: 1.85:1, 1080p AUDIO:  LPCM 2.0 (Japanese) SUBTITLES: English
EXTRAS: Commentaries, Interviews, Trailers, Booklet ACCOMPLICES:  Shinjuku Triad Society IMDB IMDB for Rainy Dog IMDB for Ley Lines

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