It's the third in Miike's Dead or Alive trilogy, which is going to puzzle a lot of movie-goers. This has the reputation of being the weakest of the three, which is understandable and probably correct, but also partly just down to the genre shift.
(#1) was a balls-to-the-wall yakuza bloodbath that didn't let you breathe and had "explicit portrayals of violence; sex; violent sex; sexual violence; clowns and violent scenes of violent excess." Best tagline ever. It also had a "you have got to be kidding me" ending. Birds
(#2) was less insane, but still had hit men in a movie of magic realism and themes of existentialism and interpersonal relationships.
Final (#3) on the other hand is science-fiction. I'd been expecting this to be a veneer over yet more gangster ultra-violence, but I was wrong. It's proper SF with only occasional action bits, instead being primarily a slow and ramshackle plot of replicants and illegal babies. It's Yokohama in the year 2346 and Dictator Woo (Richard Chen) has outlawed reproduction. You mustn't get pregnant. Officially everyone takes a pill to prevent this, although of course there are people who don't and try to give birth in secret anyway. The result is a sort of inverted Blade Runner, in which the government employs replicants to hunt down dissenting humans. It's like a semi-totalitarian regime... life doesn't look too intolerable if you don't mind the government occasionally butchering babies, but you have to wonder what else is in those pills.
Besides, for all we know, anyone might be a robot. This gets particularly weird when we find that robots can love each other. Was that built into them deliberately? It's an extension of the themes of Birds
, I think.
What makes it a Dead or Alive movie is its two leads. Yet again Show Aikawa and Riki Takeuchi are trying to kill each other, despite the fact that they're fundamentally the same. They're also colour-coded. Aikawa dresses in white, beige and yellow and has dyed blonde hair, while Takeuchi is Mr Black. Takeuchi's machismo unfortunately struck me as charmless, but he has a good presence and it could be argued that he's simply playing the role on the page. Aikawa is more likeable.
Plot links would seem to be absurd. The Dead or Alive series at first glance looks like three unrelated violent Takashi Miike films that merely happen to star Aikawa and Takeuchi... but that's reckoning without some flashbacks towards the end of this one, reminding us of some of the weirdest stuff Miike threw into the earlier films and suggesting that they're all part of the same cosmic continuity. This seems improbable given the end of Hanzaisha
, but only if you're trying to be too literal about it. Personally I still think it's just Miike basically playing with archetypes, themes and lots of cinematic violence, but if you can stretch your brain into the necessary spirals, I think it's an interesting notion.
I like Miike's version of the 24th century, although not everyone agrees with me there. What's interesting about it for me is what I'll call its anti-worldbuilding. One's accustomed to a certain level of fantasy in SF, even when it doesn't look like Star Wars. Here though Miike's obviously just flown to Hong Kong and shot his movie in the streets. Sometimes it looks like the Philippines. What it deliberately doesn't resemble at all, of course, is the place it's claiming to be, Yokohama. Besides, there's also no danger of confusing this with the real world, given the semi-totalitarianism, gun-toting replicants, weird TV projectors, etc. These are far more powerful replicants than in Blade Runner, incidentally, capable of catching bullets, jumping off buildings and running like the Flash.
Then there are the languages. Everyone knows Japanese, Cantonese and English, with lots of conversations that take place in two languages. Most of the movie's cast are from Hong Kong, not Japan.
I've also seen comparisons with Tetsuo: The Iron Man, but there I can't comment as I haven't seen it yet.
That's a lot of interesting stuff. I like the movie. It has strong themes and another "what the hell" ending with a giant penis robot and a final shot that harks back to the opening of Hanzaisha
. However at the same time it's less compelling than the other two Dead or Alive movies and I can understand why some people have been underwhelmed. I reject criticism of its SF universe, but it has to be admitted that the plot doesn't really care who's doing what to whom and often has surprisingly little involvement for both Aikawa and Takeuchi. Aikawa is just a drifter. He doesn't really have any stake in what's going on and his catchphrase is "oh, really", although importantly over time he'll gain emotional connection to the people around him. It just feels like a bunch of random stuff happening until the themes coalesce late in the day. That's not unusual for Miike, but unfortunately his trademark energy can't come to the rescue this time because the movie's protagonists are diffused and its threats tend to feel more abstract than usual. There's nothing abstract about a pregnant woman asking what's going to happen to her child, though.
It's not an obvious recommendation. You'll need to bring goodwill and patience, although eventually it does sort of come together. It's still serving its themes better than its storyline, though, and it's not as exciting or insane as Miike's more famous films. Nevertheless I'm fond of the movie and its little touches. I like the languages, although I realise that's a Miike-ism. I like the homosexual dictator who talks about what the ancient Greeks said about love. My favourite actor here, of all people, is a Cantonese-speaking small boy. I'm oddly tempted to rewatch the trilogy...