Reviewing the middle installment of Takashi Miike's trilogy, Judge Adam Arseneau is surprised at the lack of Miike's typical excess.
Step two…there's so much we can do…
The second film in Takashi Miike's Black Society Trilogy, Rainy Dog is a moody and brooding Yakuza film transplanted into the steamy, rain-filled underworld of Taiwan. Those who pick this movie up expecting Miike's signature stylized ultra-violence and twisted sexuality may be let down initially, since this film plays itself amazingly straight and to the letter, with little of the shocking gore and sex that made Miike an infamous household name. So how does ArtsMagicDVD's foray into the world of Takashi Miike pan out the second time around? Stick around to find out!
Facts of the Case
Yuuji is a Japanese yakuza exiled in Taiwan, living in isolated shambles in the rainy city of Taipei. He exists on the fringes of Taiwanese life, and for whatever reason, has been made redundant back in Japan and has nothing to return to. To make ends meet, he takes up the odd contract killing for money, as any respectable Yakuza would. The only other Japanese person he knows is an insane rival who has spent the last three years sleeping outside in a sleeping bag, tracking Yuuji's movements, trying to pin him down and kill him. But being strangers in a foreign land gives them an odd sense of comradery…despite the death vendetta, they can still have the occasional meal together and chat sociably…right before Yuuji beats the tar out of him and leaves him in the gutter. Their relationship is complex, to say the least.
One day, a woman shows up at Yuuji's shack towing a young mute boy. She announces to a shocked Yuuji that this boy, Ah Chen, is his son, and immediately departs, leaving the boy with his pseudo-guardian. Yuuji remembers the woman, vaguely, but cannot remember her name, and has no way of knowing if this is, in fact, his child. Undaunted, Yuuji continues on his life, ignoring the child completely, which is fine by Ah Chen, since he can't speak anyway. The boy quickly finds out what Yuuji does for a living when he walks into a restaurant and shoots a man in the face in plain view. Ah Chen sleeps in the rainy gutters outside of Yuuji's apartment, doggedly tracking his every movement.
Unfortunately, things are in motion behind the scenes in the Taipei underground, and Yuuji finds himself in an onerous position. He takes up a contract to kill a man, and succeeds, stumbling into a large briefcase full of money, which he opportunistically takes. This inspires the ire of the dead man's brother and his rival group, who swear revenge. Suddenly, everyone has turned against Yuuji; hunted on all sides, he takes Ah Chen, along with a prostitute he spent a night with, on the lam, hoping to disappear into the rainy streets of Taipei. But try as he might, it is only a matter of time before he is discovered, and his past deeds come back to haunt him…
For those who think a Takashi Miike film is all about senseless violence, brutal sexuality, and shock after visceral shock, enter Rainy Dog, one of the calmer films in the Miike catalogue. All the telltale Miike themes are present in Rainy Dog in some form: the alienation and rejection, the isolation, the shocking casual violence, the deliciously dysfunctional relationships and sexuality between characters, and so on. But unlike other Takashi Miike films, where all these elements play out on the screen before horrified viewers, things develop underneath the sheets in Rainy Dog. This is a sparse film, subtle, with little dialogue, and above all, something of a character study…all these things take place internally within the characters, rather than on the surface in a bloodbath of bodily fluids. This film is dark, moody, brooding, and melancholy, expressing isolation internally within each character, as opposed to externally via incredibly shocking sex and violence (which Miike has done once or twice). This makes Rainy Dog something of a surprising film, since our expectations have been annihilated from the get-go. You walk into a Takashi Miike film, and you will always be surprised…but not always in the way you expect. Here, we get a film that is digestible and easy to swallow…at least, relatively speaking of course.
In the commentary track, Japanese film buff Tom Mes makes an interesting observation about Rainy Dog, comparing it to Leon, the Luc Besson film. All the basic elements are present: the isolated foreign hitman in a strange land, the young character who years for a parental figure, the child slowly traveling the path towards a life of violence, the half-crazed villain trying to kill the hitman, and so on. The reason, suggests Mes, that nobody ever notices the connection between the two films (myself included!) is that the directors take such radically different approaches to the material that the films are so far removed from one another as to be unrecognizable. This is undeniably true. Indeed, there is much that is recognizable within Rainy Dog, for this is a very genre-driven film filled with timeless action clichés…the lone hitman with the long trench coat and dark sunglasses in itself makes this film incredibly derivative. But one of Miike's great stylistic touches is to take a clichéd sequence to completion, and then, keeps the camera on it long after every other film would have cut to the next scene. The things that emerge then, after the cliché has run dry, can rattle your brain around in your skull like a tin can. And really, through extension of this ideology, this is Miike's film career in a nutshell. In his most infamous films, he takes violence and sex to the edge, and then continues on into uncharted territories, blowing minds in his wake. While the sex and violence in this film is tame beyond even a modern Hollywood blockbuster, Miike still manages to extend sequences far beyond their normal life to fascinating results.
An excellent example, without going into any specific details, is the ending of the film, which feels like it happens three times. The first ending occurs in a timeless gunfight showdown sequence, and things end up pretty much the way you expect them to in an action film. Then, rather than fading to black, like most films would, the film keeps rolling…and suddenly, more events start unfolding. Suddenly, the ending has transformed into something radically different altogether that what we expected. We have a new ending, totally different than the first. But then, the camera keeps rolling…and suddenly, we have something new on top of that. When the film finally ends, indeed, we are left with an ending, but not the ending we expected, or probably hoped for. In short, part of what makes Miike such an intriguing filmmaker is that, literally, he doesn't know when to stop. Ever.
Comprising mostly of local Taiwanese talent, Rainy Dog is a well-acted film, with solid performances from everyone in the film. One of only two Japanese actors in the film, the notorious Sho Aikawa (his first in a long-running collaboration with Takashi Miike) plays Yuuji, the displaced Japanese gangster abandoned in Taipei, and gives an excellent performance, balancing his successful icy-gangster persona alongside his hilariously exaggerated facial expressions and movements. As an actor, Aikawa gives some of the most animated performances you are bound to see, and it doesn't surprise me in the least that he is one of the most popular video actors in Japan today. One of my favorite Japanese actors, his presence alone almost guarantees excellence in any film he takes part in. The second Japanese face, Tomorowo Taguchi (who played ganglord Wang in Shinjuku Triad Society), plays a small role as Yuuji's crazed nemesis, and while he gives an intense over-the-top performance, his screen time is sadly limited, which is a shame.
Compared to the previous Black Society film, Rainy Dog exhibits a slight, but noticeable improvement in the visual quality department. The film still exhibits the same murky graininess and softness as the previous film, and like the previous film, was processed in Taiwan to achieve a dark and gritty vintage cop-movie feel, casting the whole film in an indistinct haze. This is not a failing of the DVD transfer—this look is intentional. Black levels are very solid, but the film occasionally gets washed up in indistinguishable shadows. Colors are muted to the point of being downright bland, which accents the subdued haze of rainy Taipei quite effectively. While these might qualify as flaws in other DVD presentations, rest assured, these are all the particular qualities of the source film itself, and the picture is on par (if not higher) than other low-budget Japanese films in the straight-to-video market. ArtsMagicDVD has transferred the film very cleanly, with hardly any scratches or marks, rough edges, or anti-aliasing, providing a very authentic viewing experience of the film's peculiar visual qualities. All in all, an excellent visual transfer to DVD.
The score, in sharp contrast to the synth-rock soundtrack of Shinjuku Triad Society, is a slow-moving, mournful blues guitar piece, with wailing slide guitar notes, very much in the bebop-jazz flavor of the more laid-back Cowboy Bebop anime soundtrack songs. The score fits the atmospheric and melancholy film perfectly, like a perfectly tailored suit. A Japanese Dolby Digital 2.0 track is the only audio option, and the mix performs quite well, with dialogue always clear, gunshots ringing powerfully throughout the sonic space, and reasonable bass response. The grassroots production values limit the amount of clarity and detail in the track, but overall, there does not seem to be anything amiss. The audio quality is not disappointing, considering the film, and one could reasonably assume it to be an accurate representation of the original source material.
As on the previous trilogy DVD, an audio commentary track with Japanese film guru Tom Mes is available and should be mandatory listening to anyone who watches these films, since Mes provides the kinds of insights that only a man who has spent a large portion of his professional career researching the films of Takashi Miike can provide (he wrote the only book on Takashi Miike available in the English language, after all). Two interviews with the director and an interview with the editor are also available on the DVD, discussing the difficulties of taking a Japanese film to Taiwan, as well as the standard biographies and trailers.
The Rebuttal Witnesses
In a crazy sort of way, Rainy Dog almost qualifies as a happy film with a positive ending…almost. By any other standards, or by any other director, this would never be so, not even in the slightest; but in the world of Takashi Miike…well, you get the idea. Oddly, there is no glorification in the violence and murder in Rainy Dog. The deaths have consequence, and they have direct effects on the characters in the film, which is so unlike the casual orgies of blood and body parts in just about every other Miike film.
But as stated before, anyone who comes on board Rainy Dog expecting to see an orgy of blood, gang rapes, mutilations, or lactating women (don't even ask about that last one) will be sorely disappointed, since Rainy Dog steers clear of all such things. This is a character-driven film, a slow and brooding development into inner demons and personal isolation, and while the occasional bullet flies about, this can hardly be called an action flick, or even a typical Yakuza flick. So after coming off the action-packed and twisted Shinjuku Triad Society, prepare yourself for a mellow and deliberately low-key ride this time around.
One of Miike's most accessible films, Rainy Dog makes for a perfect set of training wheels to brace the uninitiated into the fantastic and challenging work of Takashi Miike. Slow, deliberate, melancholy, and moody, Rainy Dog is the most somber of the trilogy, offering a subdued visage of the isolation in society and the anxieties expressed therein. Though predictable and formulaic at times, Miike throws enough twists and abrupt surprises into the mix to give this film a freshness and vitality that is quite appealing. And though the film is less exciting than many of his other works (including the other two films in this trilogy), Rainy Dog is still an excellent film, well thought-out and satisfying in its deliberate pacing and complex character development.
With this DVD release being virtually identical to the previous trilogy entry, Shinjuku Triad Society, it seems reasonable to assume ArtsMagicDVD will continue the presentation of Ley Lines in similar fashion. Here's looking forward to more goodness to come.
The perfect Takashi Miike film for when you get tired of semen-soaked bullets. As if.
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Scales of Justice
• Commentary with Tom Mes, Writer on Japanese Cinema
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