by Takashi Miike, 1995, 102 min. starring
Takeshi Caesar, Kyosuke Izutsu, Ren Osugi, Kippei Shiina, Tomorowo Taguchi, and Airi Yanagi.
Takashi Miike, I propose, is the Robert Pollard of Japanese cinema. Pollard, frontman of the late, lamented Guided by Voices, is fabled to be able to write five songs while on the toilet, three of them being any good. 60% hit rate? Sounds about right. Bearing in mind making films is an inherently much slower process than writing songs, but equally bearing in mind that Takashi Miike makes about 12 of them a year seemingly, 60% is a damn good hit or miss rate.
1995's Shinjuku Triad Society is a comparatively early work by Miike and was his first cinematic release. It's also filmed, which seems to me to always make a huge difference to Miike's work, his V-cinema works always being somewhat too slapdash and superficial for my liking. The first movie in his Black Society Trilogy (the two sequels being Rainy Dog and Ley Lines), STS tells the story of a brutal Shinjuku policeman Tatsuhito Kiriya's attempts to track down and arrest gay Triad leader Wang Zhi-Ming, originally from Taiwan and in charge of the Dragon's Claw gang. Both parties' viciousness is exposed in the opening scene in which Tatsuhito raids a nightclub – Tatsuhito beats up a couple of punters in his search for Wang, whilst Wang's lover Zhou (who also doubles as a rent boy) murders a policeman who gets in his way.
It's clear there's a turf war going on too – Uchida, the leader of the Yamame gang (ably played by a menacing-as-usual Ren Osugi) clearly wants Wang to disappear from the scene, not least because he's not Japanese, and also because Uchida's former right-hand man Karino is now filling a similar position for Wang. Wang has just had Sun, a member of the Yamame gang, decapitated for moving in on his turf too, something which does not endear him to Uchida. Things aren't helped when, in a tense meeting between Uchida and Wang, Wang fails to take the thing seriously at all and instead exposes himself to his rival...
Back at the police station, the investigation into the murder continues. Tatsuhito only has a few suspects to hand, and takes to rather underhand tactics to get the necessary information out of them. After an intimate body search of Karino's girlfriend (and part-time prostitute) Ritsuko, which yields no clues, he just hits her over the head with a chair. When that line of questioning is fruitless, he has little choice but to let her go. Ritsuko is unwilling to let her humiliation pass unpunished, and later, in the heat of passion, demands that Karino kills Tatsuhito. Meanwhile, the turf war steps up a gear – Wang has a protection racket running involving Chinese prostitutes, and when their madam refuses to hand over the new increased rate of 60%, and calls them Taiwanese rats, Karino simply rips out one of her eyes in retribution.
Things are complicated however when the lawyer for the detainees arrives; it's Yoshihito, Tatsuhito's brother. Tatsuhito, of course, is none too pleased that his brother is now in the pay of the Dragon's Claw gang. This motivates him yet further to hunt down Wang; the only trouble being, he doesn't really know where to start. He only has one final prisoner left, a Taiwanese man who's unwilling to speak any language that they ask of him. So, quite simply, he sets up someone to pretend to be his lawyer, who greets him in Cantonese, the prisoner responds, and then is raped by the "lawyer" until he gives up the details of where to find Wang.
So Tatsuhito turns up to where his prisoner said Wang would be, and finds him standing by a car with Karino and Yoshihito. The three spot the Shinjuku cop and escape in the car, not before Tatsuhito gives chase on foot and manages to keep up for a mile or so, barely out of breath (that Tokyo traffic must be a killer). Relations are scarcely less strained when the two brothers both go to visit their elderly parents – and even more so when Yoshihito suddenly disappears. He turns up talking to a man about an illegal organ deal for his sick daughter, in desperate need of a transplant – unsurprisingly, the price has risen dramatically.
Tatsuhito does some digging about Wang's past, and discovers that Wang paid for a brand new hospital in the Taiwanese village he originated from. When the detective is sent over there to escort a deported Taiwanese mobster into the hands of the Chinese police, he takes a little time to investigate the village and the brand new, state of the art hospital in the middle of nowhere. What relationship does Wang still have with the village? What's the significance of the children with huge scars on their torsos? And how is Tatsuhito going to reconcile his desire to throw the book at Wang with his need to protect his brother? And how is Wang going to deal with the rivalry with the Yamane gang?
Shinjuku Triad Society is a taut, if over-complicated thriller. It's fair to say there are more plots than a cemetery in Vegas, but nevertheless, while confusion reigns every time a new one is added to the pot, by the end of the movie Miike has successfully tied up pretty much every loose end. The only problem is that thrillers, by definition, are meant to thrill, but there's little sense of dramatic tension in the movie, although it moves on at a fair old pace. It's clear from the start that Miike's trying to ask us about the nature of right and wrong - is what "good guy" Tatsuhito does in his pursuit of Wang any better than the Triad leader himself, as Wang actually seems to look after the people in his employ?
The performances are dependable – Takeshi Caesar in particular as Tatsuhito oozes brutality when necessary, but is equally comfortable when portrayed as a family man, caring for his mother, father and brother. The character of Tatsuhito is quite fascinating in any case; he's not afraid to use any method to get the information he desires about Wang (including two incidents of rape, and several beatings) yet, when he discovers Yoshihito tied up with the Dragon's Claw gang, seems to care deeply that his brother does not get hurt. Indeed, he at one point sacrifices his own well-being to safeguard his brother.
Unfortunately, the now-familiar Miike failings are ever-present; there's a deep swathe of misogyny, particularly in the way Ritsuko is portrayed, and there's as ever the impression that Miike goes out of his way to shock - not least in the rape scenes, a favourite device of his. That said, it's a good place to start for those who up until this point have not known where to start with Miike. Granted, his work can be an acquired taste, but there's enough of a conventional movie here to win over new converts before dipping their toes in some of the more, er, out-there movies in his canon. Shinjuku Triad Society impresses, not least in showing that Miike is able to make movies that aren't solely shock-fests.
Snowblood Apple Rating for this
Entertainment value: 7/10
Violence: 8/10 - definitely a brutal film, and be prepared to be shocked if you haven't seen a Miike film before
Sex: 5/10 - this being about organised crime, there's a fair amount of you-know-what
Flasher Count: 1
Manual Eyeball Removals: ouch/10
Arty Shots Of Run-Down Taiwan - dozens
Films in a Similar Style: Rainy Dog, Ley Lines, Brother, Oldboy, Sonatine, Ichi The Killer
***Recommended if you don't mind concentrating really, really hard for 100 minutes***
This film is released by Artsmagic.
Shinjuku Triad Society Wallpaper
please note: the actual paper does not have the Snowblood Apple logo on it.
You can download this wallpaper here: [800x600] [1024x768]
Wallpaper credit: Mandi Apple, 2004
Snowblood Apple Filmographies
http://www.artsmagicdvd.com/ - Shinjuku Triad Society is available direct on Region 1 from Artsmagic, who very kindly provided us with the screener copy used for this review
http://www.thegline.com/dvd-of-the-week/2004/07-17-2004.htm - comprehensive review from thegline
http://www.thespinningimage.co.uk/cultfilms/displaycultfilm.asp?reviewid=419 - a decent review by Daniel Auty
http://www.monstersatplay.com/review/dvd/s/shinjuku.php - Monsters At Play do an excellent job of summing up the movie
http://dvdmaniacs.net/Reviews/A-D/black_society_trilogy.html - nice page summing up all three movies in the Black Society Trilogy