I think it can be easy to think that Takashi Miike is all bluster and spectacle. The director earned his international reputation off the back of violent, depraved oddball films like Ichi the Killer and Gozu. The word that comes to mind with Miike is weird, and this is entirely understandable. Few directors can claim to have worked on something as downright bizarre as The Happiness of the Katakuris or as upsetting as Visitor Q.
However, before all of that, Miike was one of a legion of directors redefining Japanese film in the V-cinema boom. This was a period encompassing the late-80s and 90s, a response to the reducing financial stability of domestic cinema led to the birth of a generation of independent filmmakers shooting and releasing their films largely on home video. This was the era that birthed Sion Sono, Gakuryu Ishii, Shinya Tsukamoto, and Miike himself, the most prolific of his peers. Here is where you see Miike experiment and mess around more than he ever would, with little to lose except the pitiful budgets allotted to these early films. As a result, we see a Miike that is both recognizable yet more subdued than anything we would expect from him today. This is also a more socially-conscious Miike, basing his Black Society thematic trilogy on the experience of non-ethnic Japanese finding themselves trapped between cultures in a post-war Japan. Ley Lines is a characteristically un-Miike work in being not only grounded in a real-world social context but also betraying tremendous sympathy for its doomed protagonists whose only folly is daring to dig themselves out of a crapsack existence. There’s a quiet kind of fury here, not pointed enough to be called political commentary but more of a desperate rant against the unfairness of the whole thing.
In 2000, Miike would make the film that serves as a bridge between the two eras of his career. Dead or Alive 2: Birds is a movie that has all of the sentimentality of Rainy Dog and Ley Lines, alongside the madcap sensibilities of Miike staples such as Audition and Ichi the Killer. A 90 minute bloodfest with graphic depictions of just about everything you would not want to see on a nice night out. This is a movie by an insane person, for insane people. For all of that excess, DoA 2 is also a movie about the trappings of nostalgia and how few of us ever see our lives turn out the way we expected. Its dubious heroes, old killers becoming children again as they reconnect and relive their halcyon days, are doomed. The world is not what they thought it would be and neither are they. The boys come home having debased themselves, scorched by the taint of the gray world lying beyond this island of their childhood. They decide to reclaim their innocence and become heroes. This is a child’s thinking.
We can become heroes by killing the right people for the right reasons. The bloody money can pay for vaccines for impoverished children, somewhere in some third-world country. I’m not a bad guy. I kill for children everywhere.
The logic is warped, a justification for carrying on in a life they know is making them smaller and sadder by the second. This is Miike skinning his archetypical yakuza protagonists alive, showing them to be sad, ineffectual men clinging onto a memory of a myth of outlaw heroics. The casting of Riki Takeuchi and Show Aikawa, long-time Miike alums that personified the Japanese gangster on-screen, was a canny choice. Takeuchi displays a tremendous vulnerability in that boulder of a face, a man crumbling under the weight of his conscience and his own squandered life. Aikawa’s devil-may-care demeanor belies a man who still remembers what it felt to hope for a future. His absurd bleached hair and Hawaiian shirt all the features of a man desperate to play the fool, pretending he’s the same class clown. On the island, they get to play again and rediscover their childhoods. Here, they are armed with their delusions of heroism. So much so, that they return to their lives of crime with flimsy, unconvincing angel wings strapped to their backs.
This is an absurd movie, but one overcome with a profound sadness. In that respect, it remains one of the greatest achievements of the V-cinema boom and an important touchstone in the career of one of Japan’s greatest contemporary filmmakers. More than anything, it demonstrates Miike’s incredible tenderness, humanity, and ability to ground himself in the inner, pedestrian lives of his characters. His sentimentality during these years may have just been a phase, but it serves all the better to demonstrate his versatility that films with such a strong and consistent creative throughline never defined his image. Love him or hate him, Miike is one of the few filmmakers that dare to reinvent themselves at every turn. More than any one film, this is his greatest success.