Judge Adam Arseneau is still wiping the blood off his TV after viewing Takashi Miike's first theatrical feature.
Step one…we can have lots of fun…
Like everything else that Takashi Miike touches, the Black Society Trilogy represents the height of weirdness, isolation, and depravity. In this first film, Shinjuku Triad Society, Miike takes the Yakuza genre and not only flips it on its head, but makes it do cartwheels, screaming profanities and bleeding from the anus. A gritty revenge tale, it delves deep into a dysfunctional and dehumanized underworld with plenty of shocks and twists to keep the viewer entertained for the precious few moments when they are not disgusted and offended. But is this a film you should subject yourself to? Read on to find out…
Facts of the Case
Tatsuhito, a half Japanese, half Taiwanese cop, has spent his career pursuing the ruthless gay Chinese warlord Wang across the blood-soaked streets of Shinjuku, the Tokyo district. Despite his ruthless determination and merciless tactics, Wang manages to stay one step ahead of the pursuing officers, though Tatsuhito is able to arrest a few now and again. But when Wang's lawyers arrive to bail out the detainees, to his horror, he discovers that his brother Yoshito, a promising young lawyer, is leading the legal team. Enraged, Tatsuhito tries to convince his brother to turn against his new employer, but his brother refuses.
Tatsuhito is a bad cop by any sense of the word: he beats his suspects, he rapes his interrogation victims, and he uses every trick in the book to pursue his adversary. His investigation, by hook and by crook, takes him to the seedy underbelly of Taiwan, investigating Wang's past, to pinpoint the financial backbone behind Wang's criminal empire. His discovery soon puts his own body in direct danger…for Wang's money comes from the harvesting of human organs from Taiwanese orphans to be sold on the Japanese black market. Then, when Yoshito disappears, Tatsushito declares full-out war on Wang, and will stop at nothing to rescue his brother…whether he likes it or not!
If you have never heard of Takashi Miike, he is downright infamous in his native Japan, where he churns films out with a unmatched ferocious output (between 2000 and 2001, he has something like twelve feature films credited to his name), each film being different from the last, and with each one managing to push a button with someone. Though he does makes kind, soft-spoken, gentle films now and again, he is more notoriously known internationally as a man who makes the kind of films that cause intolerant people to have conniptions and choke on their own tongue (Ichi The Killer and Audition being his most well-known in North America). Shinjuku Triad Society is the archetypal Miike yakuza film, full of bodily fluids, violent sexuality, isolation, and loneliness. Miike knows exactly how far to take things, and then takes them farther. Then, he takes them another step beyond intolerable.
This is exactly what makes him a fantastic director, and makes his movies the things of notoriety. The undertones of his film are disquieting in a deeply personal and offensive fashion. In that sense, one could compare his body of work to David Cronenberg; except that this is akin to comparing apples to bloody horse testicles, since the two make films almost nothing alike. However, they have in common a view of the world that is decisively uncomfortable and visceral that can be viewed throughout their career, regardless of the particular genre the film happens to be in. No matter which project they work on, each film manages to bear the director's telltale signs of dysfunction.
Tatsuhito, after capturing a young female member of Wang's organization, smashes her face open with a steel chair, then tracks her down and rapes her. She responds in kind by falling for him and dogging him around town like a lovesick puppy. In a seedy nightclub, a young boy gives oral sex to a gangster, and then, in a cascade of blood, casually slits the wrists and throat of a police officer trying to detain his exit. Then, the film really gets started, and then, if you can believe it, things take a turn for the odd. Welcome to Shinjuku Triad Society.
The personal relationships between the characters are so drenched in sex and violence that it repels all logical attempts to deconstruct them down into regular emotions. Emotions are ugly. Sexuality is brutal and disgusting. Love, forgiveness, compassion are all dirty words. That which passes for normality is nothing more than pale façade of decency. The punch line, of course, is that in many ways, Shinjuku Triad Society is a love story; completely dysfunctional love stories surrounded by blood, rape, and murder, love that the characters strive unendingly to hold onto, because they are still the best things in the despicable world the characters have.
Like the other films in the Black Society Trilogy, this film is about isolation and loneliness, but Shinjuku Triad Society is the harshest of the three. Tatsuhito is isolated in his country, a half-breed in an intolerant land, and he searches endlessly for a sense of salvation with little regard for morality. The characters know nothing of goodness in the traditional narrative sense. There are no heroes in this dark underworld, only the interplay of small levels of morality on infinite shades of gray and black. Tatsuhito is the hero of the film not because he emotes any particularly notable or respectable qualities, but because by default, he is the least despicable character in the film, just barely. Indeed, the only genuinely touching moments of love are drenched in blood and sweat, expressed by the villain of the film during moments of homoerotic love and murder. This is confusing and touching in only a way that Takashi Miike can pull off…nay, the only person who would even try to pull it off.
But strip away all the violence, the sex, and the depravity, and you are left with the skeletal outline of a grim yakuza revenge picture about family relationships, love, and of course, isolation, one of the key thematic bridges between the three films in the Black Society Trilogy. As far as traditional trilogies go, these are not sequels in the literal sense; they have nothing to do with one another directly. Rather, Miike as a filmmaker is very interested in the seedy underbelly of polite society; that behind every neon sign, closed door, and bedroom brooding evil lurks, crawling forms of dysfunction that invade the human mind, and keep human beings alienated from one another. There are no literal monsters, but rather, this dysfunction stems from the simple participation in a modern life. Society itself drips blood, semen, and urine from every steaming orifice, with every human being as dirty, corrupt, stinking, and disgusting as the last. And yet, his characters rarely abandon all hope; in Shinjuku Triad Society and the next two films in the Black Society Trilogy, these people cannot help but search, fruitlessly, for a sense of salvation, a sense of belonging, wading through the waist-deep corpses and rivers of blood, despite all odds. Sometimes they find it, but most often, they do not.
One of Miike's first films to be shown theatrically (previously, he had worked in the profitable and ludicrous straight-to-video Japanese market), Shinjuku Triad Society has a dark, brooding visual style, akin to other straight-to-video yakuza films in Japan in the mid-'90s. Miike specifically requested the film be processed in Taiwan instead of Japan in order to achieve the dark and murky feel he was looking for, so one has to take this into account when criticizing the transfer. Given the quality of this DVD release, it is reasonable to assume that the film looks exactly like it was intended to look. Compared to the two other films in the trilogy, Shinjuku looks rougher, softer, and more blurred, and sounds the same way. However, this is merely a function of the low budget and rough look the director was going for. ArtsMagicDVD has done a great job of transferring this film to DVD, with hardly a scratch or defect visible, though the picture is much softer than what we would normally expect from a DVD. In the film, Japan is shot in murky grays, blues, and blacks, while Taiwan has a sepia-toned yellowish and green haze (a look Miike revisits in his film Dead Or Alive: Final). Colors are hazed and muted, and black levels are overwhelming in their opaqueness, often obscuring facial expressions and character's behavior, adding to a sense of mystery.
The score, a synthetic, dreary atmospheric score with clambering bells, ominous bass thumps, Miami Vice drumbeats and synth lines, and electronic beeps, dates the film quite badly, but is quite an effective piece of cinematic music. The audio, a Japanese Dolby Digital 2.0 track, sounds efficient and moderately low budget, but dialogue is always clear, gunshots ring out effectively, and the dynamic space is utilized in reasonable fashion.
In terms of extra content, ArtsMagicDVD has offered up some interesting tidbits, the most important of which is the commentary track. Tom Mes, Japanese film authority and Miike scholar extraordinaire, narrates the commentary track in a soft Dutch accent, providing outstanding insights into the reoccurring themes in Mikke's work in an approachable fashion. You might have to crank the volume to hear his whisper-quiet voice, but it is worth it…the commentary track should not be missed. Also included on this disc are two interviews with director Takashi Miike and an interview with editor Yasushi Shimamura, where they discuss their influences, making independent films in the Japanese studio system, details of shooting and production, and perspectives and drama into the film. Miike, soft-spoken and polite, is exactly the opposite of how you would expect such an outrageous and experimental director to act. The standard filmographies and trailers are also included. Given the relative obscurity of this title, kudos to ArtsMagicDVD for putting in as much extra content as they did.
The Rebuttal Witnesses
This isn't the best film Takashi Miike has made, though it is an archetypal example of his early Yakuza work, and worth seeing. But this film is not for the casually curious. Be warned: Shinjuku Triad Society is not for the squeamish, like many of the films in Takashi Miike's filmography. This is what happens to a standard straight-to-video yakuza film after it gets sexually molested, hopped up on amphetamines, and getting into a knife fight. It takes a strong stomach and an open mind to get down to the root of the film, to see the levels of artistic merit and skill of the director, and frankly, there are many who will simply be unable to appreciate his films.
If you are one of them, well, then you are stuck with seeing a film that probably offended the living heck out of you. It happens. Try not to let it get you down.
Unapologetic, brutal, and visceral, Shinjuku Triad Society is one of the first in a long line of Takashi Miike films that shock the sensibilities like a hamster biting into an extension cord. A hard-hitting yakuza film twisted into a film about self-depravity, isolation, and revenge, Shinjuku Triad Society film shocks, thrills, and disgusts all at the same time…like it or loathe it, at the very least, you won't find it boring.
As an opening to a trilogy, it is a doozy, and ArtsMagicDVD has presented it quite exceptionally. Though not his best film, this film launched Miike into the world of theatrical features, and is an important film in his career. Now finally available on DVD in North America, it should be required viewing for any fans of the director's later work, if only to see how things got rolling.
Not guilty. The court stands ready for the next film, Rainy Dog.
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Scales of Justice
• Commentary with Tom Mes, Writer on Japanese Cinema
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