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DEAD OR ALIVE: HANZAISHA(director: Takashi Miike; screenwriter: Ichiro Ryu; cinematographer: Hideo Yamamoto; editor: Taiji Shimamura; music: Koji Endo; cast: Riki Takeuchi (Ryuuichi), Renji Ishibashi (Aoki), Hitoshi Ozawa (Satake), Kaoru Sugita (Mrs. Jojima), Shingo Tsurumi (Chen), Ron Osugi (Yan), Sho Aikawa (Det. Lt. Jojima); Runtime: 100; MPAA Rating: R; producer: Katsumi Ono/Makoto Okada/Toshiki Kimura; Tidepoint Pictures/Kino; 1999-Japan, in Japanese with English subtitles)
“A trashy work of so-called art.”

Reviewed by Dennis Schwartz

Takashi Miike’s Dead or Alive is a sadistic satire of a turf war between traditional yakuzas and the ethnic Chinese mafia living in Japan, and of the police going after them. The wall-to-wall gunplay action is set in Tokyo’s Shinjuku’s Kabuki-cho entertainment district, where a Chinese gang pulls a bloody bank robbery in the opening scene that upsets the Japanese gangster organization. When the police arrive after an explosive scene of the Japanese and Chinese gangs killing each other and everybody else they could, the police officer in charge orders his men to “Round up everybody who looks suspicious, even if they aren’t Chinese.” This sets the stage for all the violence that’s to follow and to hint at how the Chinese who have lived in Japan for centuries are not all assimilated into the Japanese culture. After this brain draining but eye-opening scene the film goes through a lackluster middle period covering as many of the gangster-cop clichés as it possibly could plus a healthy dose of killings to keep one occupied while waiting for the main event. It isn’t until it builds to the unforgettable cartoonish climax that the film earns its reputation as a perverse gangster classic, with an entire reel devoted to gratuitous violence that starts with an explosive restaurant ambush by the Chinese gang of the yakuzas and culminates with the laconic police lieutenant in charge of the case, Jojima, going after an absurd sort of revenge in a final shootout with his nemesis, the hardened Chinese gang leader, Ryuuichi, and a few of his demented cronies. The film boils down to these explosive two bookend montages to hold one’s interest and gain notoriety for the original way of shooting the mayhem, as in between there’s a conventional filler story about the cop struggling to support his family on such a meager salary and of the Chinese gang leader carrying out a series of killings to gain mob turf and power.

Miike is the renown director of “Audition.” He has taken this trite gangster pulp script and jazzed it up further with excesses that go over the boundary line of decency. Its scenario, excluding the excesses, is something likely to be found on the popular but conventional American “N.Y.P.D. Blue” TV series, a program that’s mentioned with glee by Jojima’s police boss.

The mind-blowing opening scene is accompanied by loud guitar gyrations in the rock and roll style while the screen shows the banality of evil in the form of how casually accepted are sleaze, prostitution, carnal sex, drugs, violence, gangsters, and how deadly it could be just to dine out on su chi noodles in this flick. Miike has eschewed any serious attempt to say anything important and has purposely created a trashy work of so-called art. The heart of this film lies oozing with mirth in the excessive visuals of violence.

“Dead or Alive” is an ode to decadence. It’s filled with shots of bare-breasted club stripper-dancers in black leather, sodomy between men in a public restroom that turns bloody when one of the men gets his throat slit, gangsters snorting lines of cocaine that cover the length of a long bar restaurant table, a yakuza eating noodles while blasted away with a shotgun as the contents of his bloody stomach gets splattered all over the screen, a prostitute is casually drowned in a bathtub of feces by a yakuza leader after being sought for sexual favors, a porno movie is staged as the bored actress is coaxed into making it with an Alsatian dog as the stud, and a cop in pursuit of the yakuzas has a deep-fried hand after he accidentally sticks it in frying oil. There are also an assortment of novel deaths, as in one a lady plunges from a tall building with a bag of cocaine and splatters against the ground to the delight of the crowd gathering in the contents of her bag. The more traditional killings come from gunplay, and the body count is staggering.

The middle part of the story unfolds back and forth between Jojima and Ryuuichi. The honest cop is hard-pressed to come up with 20 million yen for an operation to save his daughter’s life, and forces himself to make a corrupt deal with the local yakuza leader to borrow the money. The daughter shows no appreciation for what he did and treats him as if he were a leper. Ryuuichi pays for his kid brother’s college education in the States as he wants to keep him out of his criminal affairs, but the kid rejects him after learning his money comes from killings and drugs. No matter their failings, each foe tries to be a loving family man.

I’m afraid there’s nothing more accomplished by the talented and flashy Miike than shock. The story seems as an afterthought, tacked on to all the stylish gore and violence and sicko spectacles. It is probably best suited for the viewer who relishes the cartoon-like dazzle of watching gangsters and cops in dark suits do their thing without seeming human and the lead criminal adorned in a pompadour and full- length black duster playing the baddie with his machine-guns blasting anyone who gets in his way. It all leads to a seemingly apocalyptic ending in the form of a ball of fire exploding like a nuclear bomb. I didn’t feel any better for seeing it, so I guess I’ll take a pass on a recommendation. Though it was entertaining and artistically well-presented despite all its grossness it, nevertheless, still never made much of an impression or sense to me.

REVIEWED ON 6/22/2003 GRADE: C +

Dennis Schwartz: “Ozus’ World Movie Reviews”