Takashi Miike's Dead or Alive trilogy is one of the quintessential works of his early career. The first one in the trilogy is also one of the very first Miike films I ever watched, though it's far from the most successful. Luckily I persevered, as Dead or Alive 2: Birds [Dead or Alive 2: Tobosha] is a serious step up from the first entry. It's a mix of trademark Miike, late 90s Kitano and Japanese island dramas, a surprisingly polished film that's well equipped to stand the test of time.
Around the turn of the century, Takashi Miike's career started to peak for the first time. His early 90s work was still quite crude, but as the magical year 2000 drew closer, more and more flashes of genius found their way into his films. Add to that the fact that he was releasing 4 to 5 movies per year and that Asian cinema was actively booming on an international scale, and you have pretty perfect circumstances for a flourishing director to make himself known to the world.
Birds is the second film in the series, but don't expect Dead or Alive to be a traditional narrative trilogy. There's very little narrative cohesion between these three films, instead they are linked together through their returning central duo and some hardcore Yakuza action/crime elements. Each film then mixes in different genre influences to set itself apart from the others. The third and final film does attempt to tie some things together, but it's probably easier to approach these films as stand-alone entries and look for cohesion afterwards.
Mizuki and Shu are childhood friends. They first met one another in the orphanage were they grew up, but they were placed in different families and lost sight of each other. The film begins when Mizuki is hired to murder some Yakuza henchmen in an attempt to stir up a gang war. Right before taking his shot, Shu steps in and murders half the gang. Mizuki races after Shu and the two decide to return to their home town, in an attempt to avoid the fallout of their succesful hit.
Visually it's a film with two very different faces. On the one hand you have the sunny and idyllic island aesthetic, on the other hand there's the grim, vibrant and energetic Tokyo look. Miike alternates between them quite deliberately, most noticeably during the big performance in het middle of the film, where a fun (albeit weird) children's play is broken up by harsh and ruthless Yakuza killings. Not everyone is going to appreciate this stark contrast, but I felt it worked very well. Add some funny visual touches (like the schematic murder and the wings) and you have a film that hasn't aged all that much.
The music is probably the least interesting part of the film. It's not bad or distracting, at some points it does add some atmosphere, but in the end it's a rather forgettable score that does little to distinguish itself. Miike would work on that later on in his career, the score here is pretty much on par with his earlier work. It's mostly there to fill some voids, luckily there's plenty of other things to keep you busy while watching Birds and thus it's hardly a real negative. It's still somewhat of a missed opportunity though.
One of the main things that defines a Dead or Alive film is the chemistry and presence of its two leads. Sho Aikawa and Riki Takeuchi are two amazing actors and they play off each other really well here. Aikawa is my favorite of the two, mainly because he picked the better films in his career, but Takeuchi can be a mean son of a bitch when given the opportunity. Miike also brings in Shinya Tsukamoto for a fun cameo, introduces Edison Chen to up the international appeal and throws in Kenichi Endo to top off an already amazing cast. Ultimately though, it's all about Aikawa and Takeuchi and they are at their very best here.
While Miike is up to his usual antics for about half a film, it's the other, more subtle half that makes the biggest impression. It's not exactly new territory for Miike, he already directed films like The Bird People in China and Rainy Dog before he started working on Dead or Alive 2, but it's the first time he gets the balance right. The island part of the film feels on point, it doesn't slow the rest down even though there isn't much action and it allows the characters to bond and grow in a way no other Miike film did before. That's what makes Birds so worthwhile.
Dead or Alive 2: Birds is an important step in Miike's progression as a director. It's a well-rounded film, one that works as a drama as well as a crime flick. At the same time it's a film that feels like full-on Miike, with some creative moments and gruesome scenes keeping you on your toes. It's also a big step up from the first Dead or Alive film, which never really did much for me (and is totally skippable if you don't feel like watching that one first). Birds is a good place to start when you haven't seen too many Miike films, but even after having seen 75 of his films there's still plenty of reason to revsiit it once in a while. It's a vintage Miike that hasn't lost much of its shine since it was first released and one that shouldn't be missed.