Made Overseas: Dead or Alive (1999)

WARNING: I will be discussing a Takashi Miike film. If that’s not warning enough… the guy is notorious for incorporating very graphic imagery. VERY graphic imagery. Turn back if descriptive language of disturbing imagery is something that you don’t want to read about.

I’ve always wanted to try some Takashi Miike. Because I am a sociopath. But mainly because of his reputation. That being the graphic sex, graphic violence, and absolutely grotesque scenes you will not find in other films. Outside of, say, the dark web. My first attempt was Thirteen Assassins, currently on Netflix. I had been assured was tame compared to other Miike. So, of course, come movie night, my wife and I settle down for some samurai action. A little bit of Miike goes a long way, though. After the shot of the amputated woman, my wife begged me to change it to anything else. So, maybe another time.

Basically, I knew I was going to be flying solo on this, which meant streaming on my phone and sneaking a peek at a Miike movie like it was my dirty little secret.

“What are you doing over there, sweetie? Are you cheating on me?”

“Uh, no. I’m… I’m watching a Takashi Miike movie.”

“… you could’ve at least told me it was porn.”

OK, so that conversation never happened. Though… admittedly I did have WWE RAW on the big screen to provide plausible deniability. For reasons I will soon elaborate, furtively catching the movie on the private tiny screen of my smartphone ended up being the correct call.

For my second attempt at the proper Miike experience, I picked the 1999 movie Dead or Alive. (Not to be confused with the other Dead or Alive movie, which is about sexy video game babes that sometimes play beach volleyball.) It’s a crime drama that, on the surface, would at least warrant the use of extreme sex and violence. On the American side, after all, we’ve already seen a dude get his head crushed in vice in Casino, and guards with their skin flayed like an angel’s wings in Silence of the Lambs. Surely my mind has been properly vaccinated to the horror. Heck… I saw a couple episodes of Manhunter! I saw a man’s head get blown off! Nothing in this old ass movie is going to shock me given what’s on TV now, right?

Besides, Dead or Alive looked quite cartoony from the onset. There’s a surreal scene near the beginning where a dude dresses up as a clown, and he’s hurling knives at a mostly naked guy that has a puppet biting onto his crotch. Clearly, we’re not meant to take any of this seriously, right? It’s got that a lurid atmosphere like Pulp Fiction, a colorful callback to two-fisted detective stories. I began wondering how much influence Miike and Tarantino had on each other, as they were making movies in similar genres at roughly the same time.

About an hour later, there’s a graphic scene of a naked woman being drowned in a pool of her own feces (which bubbles as she evacuated her bowels), and my whole theory is in danger of being totally out of whack.

Let’s just get the trigger warnings out of the way here: this movie is a hard NC-17. There is a scene featuring beastiality that I am not 100% wasn’t simulated. American movies might not shy away from cinematic depiction of oral sex, but rarely do you see a woman with semen dripping from her mouth. This is not the case in a Miike movie. Name a bodily fluid, and there will be a scene where it’s dripping, gushing, and splashing. It’s pushing the boundaries of bad taste to the point that you’re actively convincing yourself that what you’re seeing must be lumpy oatmeal.

This may, in fact, be the point of the entire movie.

Because the point of the movie isn’t the plot. It’s a standard boilerplate scenario that we’ve seen several times. There are two leads. Ryu (Riki Takeuchi) is the leader of a small gang of hoodlums that works for the Hong Kong Triad in cornering the Japanese drug trade. He is also trying to look after his family, trying to find a way out of the horrible world of crime. His opposite, Joji (Show Aikawa), is a police detective. He’s trying to clean up the city, but is also trying to find treatment for his sick daughter. As more and more people are caught in the crossfire, the lines between good and evil begin to blur. Loyalties shift in the name of protecting family, to the point where there are only two people standing: Ryu and Joji.

Anyone who has ever watched a John Woo movie (and Miike is definitely one of those) knows the basic framework and how things are going to go down. The action scenes are thrilling, but it’s easily telegraphed who’s going to get the bullet and who’s going to keep standing. It’s not as stylish as a Woo movie either. It’s more or less people drawing their guns and people going down in a bang. Repeat.

There are a lot of times when you’re a little unsure of how much of the movie is improvisational and how much is planned. There a scene where a conversation between two men is hijacked by a dog that just runs from one side of the room to another. It’s really distracting, and you start to wonder: is that part of the screenplay, or was this just a happy accident? In another, an officer arrives at Joji’s office, knocks over a cup of pencils accidentally, and without missing a beat scoops it up while keeping Joji in the loop of what’s going on. Was that an out-take they decided to keep in? Or was this also a distraction?

These shots stand out because so much of the movie feels so under control. Both Ryu and Joji get to stand around, glower, and strike cool poses. They clench their jaws with rage when people close to them end up as collateral damage. They do everything you expect action heroes to do. And it’s something of a smokescreen.

Despite the plot being predictable, I’m going to flash up a SPOILER ALERT. If you don’t want to know where the movie is going, fast forward to the very end to see where you can watch this and what I’ve got up next. Thanks for reading Made Overseas and may the Force be with you. Or something.

The real spoiler is the theme. You know how Audition (which was released in the same year as this one) is infamous for conditioning the audience to expect one movie but then swerves you into seeing a completely different movie? Dead or Alive does the same thing, only it’s at the very last minute. Oh, there are hints as to where Miike is going with this. The aforementioned puppet that bites a dude’s crotch, for example.

Later, there’s a shot that holds on too long of an afro’ed criminal who’s running away from the police. He seems to be barely jogging, his afro waves in the wind, no one is chasing him, and the shot holds on too long. It’s a comedy shot. But there’s no indication that this a joke. There’s no funny music, even though there really, really should be.

The scene that really disarms you (ha — see what I did there?) is the very final showdown between Ryu and Joji. Both men have lost everything. You are ready for a Pyrrhic moment where both men die in a hail of their own bullets. Instead… we get a car duel. Where, at one point, a grenade is thrown at Joji’s car, which launches into the sky and comes back down. Like it’s a Looney Tune cartoon.

And… Joji survives! Only, his arm is dangling useless from his shoulder. So… he rips his arm off! He and Ryu get into a gunfight, where it seems like both men are going to die. But, after feigning a dual collapse… they don’t. And then, from out of nowhere, Joji unhooks a rocket launcher that had been strapped on his back. (Even though we HAVE seen his back, and there was nothing there before.) But that’s not all! Ryu reaches in his own chest… and pulls out a magical orb that he throws like a Kamehameha fireball from Dragonball! The two fire at each other, and they end up obliterating all of Japan!

You know what? It’s literally the only way this movie could’ve ended that would’ve made me happy. Rotten Tomatoes give this a 55% Freshness rating. That would’ve been my own rating… if it wasn’t for that ending. In a way, it made everything else more palatable. Previous to watching this movie, I’d listened to a podcast that mused how much of Japanese cinema was influenced by Noh Theatre. Everyone talks a little too loudly, and gestures are grander than they are in real life. The conclusion is about as grand as it gets.

Yet it also highlights the movie’s artifice, and how Ryu and Joji themselves aren’t taking the movie seriously either. Yes, they know they are in a predictable crime thriller. But they were just roles they were playing. Had they ended it with an alarm ringing and Ryu and Joji walking off the set because their shift was over, it would be no less ridiculous.

Yes, they know that the previous scenes were super gross. But everything here was fake. Don’t take that gross-out moment in the middle of the movie too seriously because it was all just special effects. I mean, were you paying attention when the naked guy on the spinning knife throwing platform transformed into a fully clothed Ryu? The whole movie was fake from the beginning.

I can see why people like Miike so much. It’s not necessarily the grossout moments… though I’m sure there are fans of those. It’s the way he sets you up. Some of the most graphic moments blindside you because the rest of the scene is just so normal. “Why is this happening?” is your primary thought. And then, once you get used to that level of depravity, he pulls the rug from under you.

Had he played this straight, I would’ve straight up hated Dead or Alive. But he didn’t. Instead, I wanted to slap him on the back and go, “You got me, Miike, you son of a bitch!”

That said… you’re going to have to strap me down to a rotating circus platform to get me to watch this again.

Dead or Alive is available for streaming on Amazon Prime.

NEXT: I ain’t afraid of no ghosts in the manga-to-live action version of Bleach! Which is coming next week.