Dead or Alive (1999) — November 1, 2017
No filmmaker in the world has more fun that Takashi Miike. That’s evident from a late career masterpiece like 2012’s Ace Attorney, or from the last of the prolific director’s films to play here in Seattle, Yakuza Apocalypse. But even going back to 1999’s Dead or Alive, playing one night only today at the Grand Illusion, you find that streak of absurd humor and perversity electrifying even the grimmest of bloody gangster sagas. The movie opens with a music video of destruction, rapidly cutting between locations as nameless gangsters live their good lives (prostitutes and strippers, cocaine and ramen) only to be cut down by a coordinated assault by ruthless assassins. The killers turn out to be a gang of immigrants from Taiwan led by Ryūichi, a pompadoured man in black, who are trying to instigate a gang fight between the local yakuza and Japanese Triads and take control of the heroin importation racket. On their trail is a reasonably honest cop named Jojima, who comes complete with a wife who’s endlessly worried about their ability to pay for a life-saving operation for their sullen teenage daughter. The plot careens wildly from one generic scene to another, enlivened at every turn by Miike’s eye for over-the-top grotesquerie, manic framing, and apocalyptic greens and yellows. Sidelong glances at political relevance (a barely attended lecture on the future of communism in the post-Soviet era, the social pressures that allow an underground economy (and thus the gang warfare that goes with it) to flourish) are smash cut with the most appalling violence and cruelty, daring theory to account for our demented world. In the end, even genre itself cannot contain the depravity and contradictions at the heart of the cop/gangster drama, from The Big Heat to Battles without Honor and Humanity, the lunatic cycles of violence escalate beyond all reason, cop and gangster burning the world and all to red dust.
Ace Attorney (2012) — March 16, 2017
The Speed Racer of courtroom dramas.
The Mole Song: Undercover Agent Reiji (2013) – January 31, 2022
A fairly typical plot about an undercover cop in the yakuza that’s just bursting with energy thanks to dozens of bits both big and small: weird, funny, gross, adorable. How many of those come from the source manga I couldn’t say, probably a lot. But I’ve yet to see anyone but Miike make movies like this.
The Mole Song: Hong Kong Capriccio (2016) – February 1, 2022
More of the same really, but the major crime shifts from drugs to human trafficking and also there’s a tiger.
The Mole Song: Final (2021) – January 31, 2022
The Mole Song: Final is the third and, well, final part of Miike Takashi’s Mole Song series about an undercover cop infiltrating the yakuza. It started with 2013’s The Mole Song: Undercover Agent Reiji, in which an incompetent cop named Kikukawa Reiji is kicked off the force and enrolled as a mole within the Sukiya-kai crime family. There he befriends a supercool higher-up nicknamed The Crazy Papillon (he’s got a thing for butterflies: animal avatars abound in this yakuza world: cats, leopards, lions, flying squirrels, etc) who believes that the only yakuza who deserve to survive are the ones who are either funny or cool, which might as well be Miike Takashi’s philosophy of cinema. Reiji works to catch the boss in a drug ring (Papillon hates drugs and anyone who sells them, but his boss is doing it behind his back), but he slips away. In the second film, 2016’s The Mole Song: Hong Kong Capriccio, Reiji has to rescue the boss’s daughter from a Chinese gang that has infiltrated the yakuza and is engaging in human trafficking, selling off beautiful women at auction to the richest men in the world. The third film finds him again on the trail of drug dealers, this time led by the boss’s son, who, with the help of the Italian mafia, has found a way to turn amphetamines into pasta and distribute it around the world.
The Mole Song films are zany farces, with an unhinged lead performance by Ikuta Toma as Reiji. He’s not a good cop, nor a good yakuza. One person describes him by saying “He’s horny and looks like a fool, but you can count on him.” Mostly the films revolve around his physical abasement: getting beaten up or humiliated sexually (there are a lot of dick jokes), to which he responds with ever greater levels of determination. For all his idiocy (and he is an idiot to be sure) he has a stubborn sense of justice that gets him through all the insane situations in which he finds himself. But it’s Papillon who steals every film. Tsutsumi Shinichi plays him with a joyous grin but otherwise straight-faced abandon. Whether he’s beating people up (with or without the use of his bionic legs (he lost the real ones saving Reiji in the first film), espousing the iron rules of yakuza ideology, or summoning his pal, the “Butterfly of the Sea” (no spoilers), it’s his charm and energy that carries the series through the most tiresome of gang movie tropes or slapstick clichés.
It’s that kind of élan that Miike does better than anyone in movies today. Anything is possible in a Miike Takashi movie, as long as it’s funny or cool. Stop-motion paper cut-out fantasy sequences? Sure. Drug-smuggling terriers dog-paddling through a busy port? Adorable. A giant tiger falling from a building, jaws clamped around our hero’s head? Love it. These films, Final as much as the previous two, aren’t so much parodies or, god forbid, subversions, of the gangster genre so much as they claim familiar structures and characters as an excuse to create things no sane filmmaker has ever thought of putting on screen. The slapstick and corny jokes can grow tiresome, as can Ikuta’s mugging, especially at the 130 minute running time each entry in the series has. Miike has made better movies over this past decade, and he’s made movies that are more consistently fun, and he’s made movies that are much weirder. But nobody makes movies like Miike Takashi.