Judge Adam Arseneau has nothing but praise for the final installment in Miike's yakuza trilogy.
Step three…it's just you and me…
The third and final film in Takashi Miike's Black Society Trilogy is Ley Lines, a movie about friendship, freedom, acceptance, and of course, liberal doses of bizarre sex and yakuza-style gangster violence. After all, it would hardly be a Takashi Miike film without them. The film harmoniously blends Miike's unique brand of esoteric violence together with solid filmmaking and a moving story to create a heck of a finale to an illustrious trilogy, but should this film be part of your movie evening? Read on…
Facts of the Case
Three childhood friends growing up in a small rural community in Japan have blossomed into ambitious delinquents as teenagers, yearning for a chance to go out into the world and find a place where they belong. As half-Chinese, half-Japanese troublemakers, their legal status as probationary criminals and their mixed-breed heritage excludes their application for passports, so they cannot leave the country to find their solace. With no sense of identity, they hop a train and venture into Tokyo.
In the harsh underbelly of Shinjuku, they run into a black man selling toluene on the streets as a narcotic. Anxiously, they buy up a large supply of the chemical and with great vigor, try and sell it in the night streets of Tokyo. The three youths—Ryucichi, his brother Shunrei, and their friend Chang—soon find themselves scammed by Anita, a Chinese prostitute who steals all their money. They are furious, until they discover her, beaten senseless by an overzealous client and her enraged pimp. They realize that she and they are alike: mixed heritage, lost in the city, trying to carve an identity for themselves. They soon become fast friends.
When Ryuichi tries to get his hands on a set of fake passports, it raises the attention of the Chinese mafia who run Shinjuku's underworld. Brought before the Triad boss Wong, he advises them not to leave, since there is nowhere else for them to go, no place for them to belong. He holds the key to their salvation. But Ryuichi is far too idealistic to take any notice of good advice. The three friends and their female companion devise a plan to rob Wong's restaurant, take his money, and book passage clandestinely on a freight ship to Brazil. Wong, however, is far too hardened to be taken by such a sophomoric stunt, and Ryuichi and his friends soon find themselves fleeing for their lives, pursued back to their hometown…with Wong's men on their heels!
Ley Lines does a fantastic job of balancing its elements in harmony, giving equal weight to the on-screen character violence, sexual abuse, and the seedy underworld of Tokyo life as to the personal degradation of each character and their desire to belong, to form loving relationships, to find a place where they are no longer outcasts. Compared to the other two films in the trilogy, Ley Lines is the strongest of the three and can be viewed as the perfected amalgamation between the hard brutality of Shinjuku Triad Society and the despondent melancholy of Rainy Dog.
In fact, Ley Lines almost exudes a sense of positive optimism and of hope, which seems at odds with the very nature of the Black Society Trilogy, which is so soaked in isolation and loneliness. Its characters are vibrant, poignant, and know exactly what they want—a sense of personal and cultural identity, a sense of freedom, and a sense of belonging. Their plight, while ill fated in the traditions of cinematic storytelling, is a heartwarming endeavor, and one easily acquires genuine empathy towards the protagonists…despite the fact that they suffer from tremendously poor planning and terrible impulse control. Perhaps in Ley Lines it simply feels like the characters have an honest chance at happiness, at finding a sense of contentment, more so than the previous two films, which gives the film this vitality. At times the story suffers from clichéd moments like in Rainy Dog, but Miike keeps the movie vibrant and fresh throughout, so the film never feels derivative or boring.
Miike exhibits himself as a confident and talented director in this film more noticeably than previous films. His camera movements, placements, his skillful usage of colors, and the cool dark, atmospheric cinematography speak of his talents behind the director's chair. There are some decisively Japanese filmmaking moments in Ley Lines, where characters walk in and out of negative space and have conversations directly into the camera, in the style of Yasujiro Ozu. Ley Lines is also a funny film, an element that the other Black Society films lacked, and manages to throw smatterings of laughter and amusing hijinks into the serious mix without any loss of dramatic integrity.
I liked Ley Lines a great deal when I first saw it, and I like it even more watching it again now. If I had to show someone a Takashi Miike movie, I would choose this film…it is one of his most mature pictures in terms of character development, cinematic direction, and thematic expression. All the elements of his work, from the shocking violence and sexuality to the complex and diverse character developments, the cultural isolation and loneliness, and the surprises and the unexpected twists…it's all here, and done expertly well. Ley Lines is a masterful film, and the perfect movie to close a trilogy.
Visually, this is a better-looking film than its predecessors, probably due to the increased production values and the quality of the film stock. Unlike in the previous two films, where colors were intensely muted to give a sense of despair, Ley Lines features Seijun Suzuki-esque bursts of color and expression, which all look particularly sharp on DVD. Though the appearance of the film is soft and occasionally grainy, the clarity is shaper than the previous films, with colors being especially well represented. The overwhelming black levels are less of a problem in this film too, probably because a great portion of the film takes place outside. Again, ArtsMagicDVD has transferred the source material to DVD flawlessly, with nary a scratch, artifact, or imperfection to be seen. Ley Lines is definitely the sharpest looking of the bunch. The score, a melodic accordion piece, feels like it was torn straight out of the movie Amélie, and gives the film a distinctly European feel, like the energy of a French new-wave film, with its characters running about playfully, oblivious of the world. The Japanese Dolby Digital 2.0 track runs fairly neutral, with moderate bass response and clarity, but captures the dialogue and music perfectly. At times, the film is soft-spoken, but overall this is a more than satisfactory audio presentation, if on the modest side.
ArtsMagicDVD has done a great job of putting this film onto DVD, virtually identical to the treatments given to the previous films. In terms of extra content, two interviews with director Takashi Miike and an interview with editor Yasushi Shimamura are included, discussing more technical aspects of the film. But like the previous discs, the star feature of this DVD is the commentary track by Japanese cinema savant Tom Mes, who offers up his analysis throughout the film. Mes knows his stuff, and it is clear by listening to him gush and rave that Ley Lines is one of his favorite Takashi Miike films. It cannot be stressed enough that these commentary tracks are top-notch; Mes brings well-researched information about the actors and production shoots, links themes between each of the Black Society films and to others throughout Miike's career, and acts as a seeing-eye dog, leading the viewer through detailed explanation about color, character development, violence as a form of expressionism, and all the other material required to gain an appreciation of Miike's work. Without this commentary track, these DVDs would be merely average; however, with them, it raises the quality of this release to a higher plateau.
One of Miike's best all-around films, Ley Lines is exceptionally entertaining, well written, and an expertly balanced film, the perfect antidote for anyone who thinks that Takashi Miike is a one-trick shock-and-gore director. As the closing film in the Black Society Trilogy, it is the perfect film to end on; staying true to the trilogy's thematic roots while at the same time, offering up something less dark and disturbing and more beautiful, its images lingering in the memory long after the film has ended. ArtsMagicDVD has completed its trifecta of Miike releases with great success, and if you have taken in the previous two, there is absolutely no reason to stop now.
Not even close to being guilty.
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Scales of Justice
• Commentary with Tom Mes, Writer on Japanese Cinema
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