Often pigeonholed into the realm of ‘extreme cinema’ in which resides his most notorious work, Takashi Miike is in fact a prodigiously experienced director in most genres you can name. His IMDB page lists sixty feature film credits, and this number rises to a hundred if you include straight-to-video and television productions. This new Arrow Films edition of the Black Society trilogy presents HD transfers of the first Miike features to garner wide public attention; Shinjuku Triad Society (1995), Rainy Dog (1997) and Ley Lines (1999). Narratively unrelated and disparate in style, they share thematic concerns like ethno-cultural displacement, the fallacy of morality, and laying to rest a troubled past. They’re a well-balanced introduction to Japan’s foremost auteur, with Shinjuku Triad Society exhibiting the boundary-pushing tendencies of later infamy, and Rainy Dog and Ley Lines showing proficiency in form and storytelling.
The worst assumption one could derive from Miike’s ‘shock director’ reputation is that his movies lack depth. While there is shock aplenty to be had, it comes from the emotional intensity of the work, without which the violence would be as forgettable as in the Saw sequels. Shinjuku Triad Society contains the most extreme material of the three films, but is a far cry from torture porn tedium or the levity of exploitation films. It’s a family drama, a crime thriller, and in the narrator’s words “a love story that’s both sweet and sickening”. It’s not a cynically calculated exercise in vulgarity; the crudeness in it derives totally from the characters. The same is true for Miike’s Audition (contending Ichi the Killer for his most infamous movie); there’s blood, vomit and body parts, but at the core a ruthless evisceration of misogyny, or feminism, or maybe both.
Besides, ‘extreme’ and ‘bizarre’ are words too easily thrown around. Sometimes the bizarre shot is simply the right shot. In Ley Lines, the prostitute character Anita is tied up and abused by a client, and the camera shows us the perspective from inside her vagina (his sordidly fascinated face peering in). It’s completely deranged, but the most bluntly effective way to communicate the appalling, irreversible distress of such violation.
In 2015, Arrow re-issued Kinji Fukasaku’s Battles Without Honor and Humanity – a quintet of Yakuza films with a huge cast of characters. Miike is a big Fukasaku fan, but their concerns in the crime genre are markedly different. The Battles films (based on actual history) span decades, and power through story beats and turning points at breakneck pace. Miike’s contributions care less about ‘gangsterism’ – the power struggles and territorial disputes – than about the philosophical minutiae of criminal life; moral impasses, doomed desires, nature vs. nurture. This allows him to be abstract and truly get under the skin. The Dragon’s Claw triad in Shinjuku Triad Society, led by the psychotic Wang, verges on being wholly metaphorical. It’s termed an “ancient organisation” but Wang and his disciples are notably young, full of lust and wild aggression. Headquartered in Wang’s gothic, velvety bedchamber, the triad is a cult centred around sex, violence and generational resentment – symbolic of ancient things, not ancient in itself. In Ley Lines, the triad boss Wong is an archetypal gangster when company compels it, but his private mind is in disarray. In one scene, we find him sitting on his bedroom floor sucking his thumb, lost in a maelstrom of dread and disturbance. This imagery of crime’s peculiar underbelly is compelling and memorable.
Miike’s control of pace and use of colour and symbolism are noteworthy. In Rainy Dog, shot entirely in Taiwan, the near-constant downpour aids contemplation, as does the film’s unhurried tempo. The exiled hitman Yujiro moves through the drenched village in a long white coat and sunglasses, head down, steadfast in seclusion. “What are you doing with your life?” he’s asked. “Travelling,” he responds, “until the rain stops.” His isolation is broken when a child is thrust upon him, alleged to be his son. The boy follows the initially indifferent hitman from place to place, always a dozen paces behind. Like a beacon in his bright yellow raincoat, the boy is emblematic of both Yujiro’s guilt and his hope for better things. In Ley Lines, the use of colour elevates a fairly conventional crime story to a higher resonance. The rural locations are filtered through warm yellows and oranges, while the city is awash with ethereal blues and angry reds (emulated recently by Nicolas Winding Refn). Early on, we track the prostitute Anita on her way to see a client. Centrally framed, her loud pink jacket embodies punkish determination, but also vulnerability. And as the triad boss Wong discovers an umbilical link to a lost childhood, the colours on screen shift and jostle for prominence.
Miike had a sometime mentor in Shohei Imamura, and aspects of his filmmaking draw substantially from the post-war Japanese masters. Conversing characters remain within the same still frame for minutes at a time – Miike holds off on close-ups. Taking a line from both Ozu and Kurosawa, he moves his characters, not his camera. Shooting stationary like this achieves numerous things; in Ley Lines, following her ordeal with the abusive client, Anita confronts her pimp in the street, and is promptly pushed over and kicked. We watch from a distance, impartial and unmoving, like we’re a bystander normalised to the brutality. In Rainy Dog, Yujiro’s son first arrives accompanied by his mother. Motionless, we see fierce words exchanged, the mother storming out, and Yujiro following moments later. The boy is left with his back to us, centrally framed, looking at an empty room – a condensed illustration of his fate in one take. Miike often lingers on a shot for longer than seems appropriate, hence you stop merely waiting for what comes next, and instead contemplate what is. Action sequences necessitate going handheld, but things stay coherent. Kinji Fukasaku used shaky-cam to lend operatic melodrama to the carnage in his Yakuza series (and later also in Battle Royale), but Miike keeps it steady, exposing the insipid reality of violence. His filmic statements in this regard need no exclamation marks.
A socio-cultural concern spread across the trilogy is the multifaceted ethnic tension between Japan and its neighbours. During the 1990s (and to a lesser extent today) Japan was regarded by many as “the most tenaciously insular among the world’s top industrial powers”. In Shinjuku Triad Society, the bent cop Tatsuhito is handicapped by his mixed heritage, and the semantic barriers between Japanese and Chinese communities are recurrently emphasised. The protagonists of Ley Lines are Japanese ‘returnees’ – those of Japanese ethnicity born outside the country, who upon their return are forced to assimilate impenetrable cultural norms. Estranged in the land of their ancestors, they dream of permanent escape. The subtitles on this edition usefully indicate when different languages are being spoken, for those of us hopelessly monolingual.
These films are very worth a look – just leave moral preconceptions at the door. For sympathetic anti-heroes winning the day, go elsewhere. The moment you’ve accepted the bent cop as a man serving the greater good, a heinous act on his part knocks you back to square one. But in film, as in most things, it’s good to stray out of your comfort zone. Enter Takashi Miike.
Takashi Miike‘s ‘Black Society Trilogy’ is out on Blu-Ray from Arrow Video from January 16
 Race and Racism in Modern East Asia: Western and Eastern Constructions, Rotem Kowner & Walter Dernel (eds.), BRILL (November 2012).