Review: Takashi Miike’s “Dead or Alive”

This yakuza thriller by Japanese cult director Takashi Miike, above all else, is a letter-perfect illustration of the saying, “Nothing succeeds like excess,” which could also serve as Miike’s credo. We are thrown immediately into the whirring blender of the film’s action in the opening scene, which is cut like a self-contained trailer for the film itself. We become privy to such sights as: in the very first minute, a naked body falling from the top of a building; a black leather-clad stripper writhing on a stage; a man doing what looks like a mile-long line of coke; a blond-haired man vigorously fucking another man against a urinal; the aforementioned coke enthusiast shot to death through the roof of his limousine; and a yakuza gang on a rampage through the club, shooting everyone in sight, and eventually killing the two men having sex in the bathroom.

Things eventually slow down enough for us to discern the plot and main characters. What reveals itself here is a trope that will be immediately familiar to crime film aficionados: the parallel cop and gangster story motif which is a hallmark of such films as John Woo’s The Killer and Michael Mann’s Heat, which Dead or Alive, at least superficially, most resembles. Much like Al Pacino’s character in Heat, Detective Jojima (Sho Aikawa) has allowed his obsession with crushing the yakuzas’ operations to wreck his home life. He no longer sleeps with his wife, preferring the couch. His wife (Kaoru Sugita) constantly reminds him of the importance of saving money for their daughter’s operation, offering to get a job herself. He dismissively waves her away, promising to take care of it.

The yakuza Ryuichi (Riki Takeuchi), who could be an analogue to Robert De Niro in Heat, while as ruthless and violent as can be imagined (illustrated by a scene where he coolly disposes of one of his men caught trying to run off with money from a heist), is not without his admirable qualities. Ryuichi uses the money from his criminal exploits to fund his younger brother’s studies in the U.S. Ryuichi is no mere mindless killer, but wishes in his own way to do right, at least by his own family. In one scene, he ruefully hints that his dissatisfaction over his lack of opportunities in Japanese society has led him down the criminal road. It is Ryuichi who reminds the detective during an interrogation that he also has obligations toward his family.

So far, nothing here veers too far from the well-established tropes of the yakuza genre. But the difference lies in Miike’s approach to his material, which gains its considerable verve and style from his gleeful disregard for convention and general good taste. Miike uses such stylistic tics as extreme slo-mo and endless shootouts to beautifully parodic effect. Miike’s patented eye for the absurd comes through in such scenes as: Jojima’s pornographer informer, introduced filming a bestiality scene using his pet dog; a birthday party shootout featuring a man in a chicken suit riddled with bullets; and most outrageous of all, the final showdown between the gangster and the detective.

It is in this final scene that Miike’s penchant for excess is most extravagantly, and hilariously, revealed. The scene begins with a wickedly funny bit of meta-commentary by Ryuichi, who mutters, “Here comes the final scene,” when he sees Jojima coming toward him. For those who haven’t seen the film, it would be criminal of me to reveal more, but suffice it to say that Miike then proceeds to shatter any lingering sense of plausibility or, indeed, reality in this scenario.