Dead or Alive Trilogy (Blu-ray)

WARNING: This motion picture contains explicit portrayals of violence; sex; violent sex; sexual violence; clowns and violent scenes of violent excess, which are definitely not suitable for all audiences.

The pantheon of cinematic masters can be split roughly into two camps. In the first are those filmmakers who are absolute masters of their films, producing at a stately place an controlling every aspect so completely that it’s impossible to imagine them any differently. Think Bergman or Spielberg. In the other camp are those filmmakers who have too many ideas to effectively focus on creating any particular film perfectly. Think Orson Welles or Jean-Luc Godard. This second set of directors are so obviously brilliant that audiences are willing to forgive imperfect films because they contain so much that is otherwise amazing that a few boring scenes or ideas that don’t land are a small price to pay for the sublime perfection of other moments. Takashi Miike’s career demonstrates that he falls into this latter camp, and the recent trilogy of releases by Arrow Films amply demonstrate that. Though not a perfect release, The Dead Or Alive Trilogy has enough brilliant moments to please long-time Miike fans while winning him a few new ones.

Dead Or Alive is the story of a yakuza (Riki Takeuchi) who is trying to take over Tokyo’s underworld while Jojima (Show Aikawa), a detective, wants to stop him.

Dead Or Alive 2: Birds is a sequel in name only, as it follows a pair of contract killers (Riki Takeuchi and Show Aikawa again) who have both been assigned the same target. When they come into contact they realize that they have a shared past.

Dead Or Alive: Final transports us to the 24th century, where an android in the employ of a repressive regime (Riki Takeuchi again) must square off against the leader (Show Aikawa again) of the ragged resistance force opposing the oppressive regime.

Takashi Miike has been making an average of three films or so a year for 25 years. Unlike many directors with careers that long, Miike doesn’t seem to have phases in his career. There don’t seem to be (to me at least, who can’t claim to have seen them all) any convenient “periods” to Miike films. This is the guy who made the pervy family drama of Visitor Q, the the psycho-killer yakuza film Ichi the Killer, and the black comedy The Happiness of the Katakuris. What unites all his films, though, is the ever-present sense that something totally insane could happen at any moment. The question, then, is what kind of crazy thing will be most likely to happen in any given film.

With the Dead or Alive trilogy, the most likely crazy thing to happen is something narratively surreal. The usual Miike interest in sex and violence is definitely present in these three films. But rather than the relatively straightforward sex and violence of the Black Society Trilogy, the Dead or Alive trilogy frequently goes off the map.

Dead or Alive is probably the most straightforward of the films. It’s a yakuza tale in the vein of the Black Society films. It’s got the usual Miike emphasis on sex and violence. What sets it apart, however, is way that Miike layers his yakuza tale with an extra helping of Chinese/Japanese tension. Ryuuchi’s Chinese heritage gives his attempted takeover of a local criminal enterprise some added depth. I don’t want to spoil it, but by the film’s final showdown things have gotten really, really weird.

You would think, since it’s called Dead or Alive 2, that the second film would be much like the first. That’s true, at least initially. The film pulls a fake and acts like it’s going to be about a pair of rival hitmen in the opening scenes. And it is, sorta. Except in the second act they end up on an island trying to start over together, which leads to a series of mishaps that have very little to do with killing people for money.

 And if you thought that things got weird in Birds, just wait for Finale. It’s Blade Runner if Rutger Hauer had an Elvis fetish. The narrative might be the most easily digestible of the trilogy, with the government versus resistance story one of the more clear of Miike’s features. But that doesn’t mean the film is without its Miike specific touches, especially evident in the black humor and willingness to subvert audience expectations about what a “futuristic” film is supposed to do.

This Blu-ray set is also a bit of a mixed-bag. It’s very difficult to tell where the fault lies, however. It’s entirely possible that the presentation on these discs is as good as we can ever expect from Miike’s films, made quick and on the cheap. The three films are spread across two discs (DOA and DOA: BIRDS on the first, DOA: FINAL on the second) The first two films feature 1.85:1/1080p, while the third is 1.78:1/1080i, all of them AVC-encoded.  In an odd twist, DOA probably looks the best out of the three films here. There isn’t any significant age-related wear, and the transfer showcases a decent amount of detail. Colors skew a bit blue, but that might be intentional on Miike’s part. Black levels get pretty deep, but there’s definitely some crush happening. There are also some compression hiccups, including some excess sharpening. DOA 2 looks almost as good as DOA, but suffers from even more variable colors. The same strengths and weaknesses from the first film apply there, though. Detail is generally fine, grain okay, and black levels appropriate. But colors can go a bit wild, and there is definitely some crush happening in dark blacks. The first two films are totally watchable, even if they aren’t perfect. With DOA: FINAL, things go a bit off the rails. Shot for TV and on standard-def video, no hi-def source for the film exists, which is why it gets an interlaced transfer. That means detail is negligible, and the overall look is cheap. Colors skew terrible green, and some of that is no-doubt intentional, but it’s hard to imagine Miike intending quite the sickly cast the film has on this transfer. This may very well be the best the film can look, but that doesn’t mean that the transfer. Will endear viewers.

All three films feature LPCM 2.0 stereo track in Japanese. Dialogue is consistently clean and clear, with sound effects sounding appropriately detailed. They don’t suffer from any of the budget problems of the video sources.

Extras start with a commentary on Dead or Alive by Miike biographer Tom Mes, who offers a lot of insights into the trilogy, the method to Miike’s madness, and how the films fit into his other work. Dead or Alive also gets U.S. and Japanese trailers. Dead or Alive 2 gets a decent 10-minute making-of featurette and a theatrical trailer. Dead or Alive: Final gets a similar featurette and a set of promo interviews, as well as a pair of trailers. The second disc also features some non-film specific extras. They start with a 45 minute interview with Miike’s producer Toshiki Kimura, as well as interviews with Show Aikawa and Riki Takeuchi. They’re pretty substantial (averaging 30 minutes a piece) and recent (2016) and definitely should be enticing for Miike fans.

This probably isn’t the best place to start if you’ve never seen a Miike film (that would be Audition, for my money), if only because they’re not his best. If you’ve never seen a Miike film, expect a lot of violence, emphasis on sexuality (especially homosexuality, but references to bestiality are there too), as well as films that don’t have any concern for audience expectation.

The films in the Dead or Alive Trilogy aren’t “good” by most standard definitions that apply to film, but they do showcase Miike’s fascinating cinematic sensibility. The set isn’t a knockout due to so-so presentation, but fans will appreciate having these discs for the (relatively slight) upgrade in quality and the extras. .

THE VERDICT
Guilty of being gonzo.

Tech Specs

Dead or Alive Trilogy (Blu-ray)
2017, Arrow Video, 290 minutes, NR (1999-2002)
VIDEO: 1.66:1 (1080p) AUDIO: LPCM 2.0 (Japanese) SUBTITLES: English
EXTRAS: Commentary, Featurettes, Interviews, Trailers ACCOMPLICES: IMDb for Dead or Alive IMDb for Dead or Alive: Birds IMDb for Dead or Alive: Final

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