Blu-ray Review: Black Society Trilogy

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Originally published on The National Student and Cultastic on 16/01/17.

4-stars

Japanese shock-master Takashi Miike’s early crime epics are finally getting the blu-ray treatment, and here’s why that’s totally a good thing. 

Horror fans may know him as the deranged sicko behind the original One Missed Call, or late 90s torture-fest Audition. World cinema aficionados will likely be more familiar with the equally celebrated 13 Assassins or Ichi the Killer, and general trash lovers no doubt have more of a soft spot for Visitor Q, Yakuza Apocalpyse or The Happiness of the Katakuris.

No matter your connection to him, Takashi Miike is easily one of the most recognisable names in Japanese cinema; a genuine auteur, who has risen from the ranks of direct-to-video schlock pictures to the world stages of Cannes and beyond. 

His cinematic career only really kicked off though in the mid-1990s, with an indirect trilogy of films that not only served as his first stab at theatrically distributed filmmaking, but also as a twisted signpost to the heights of what he would go on to achieve some years later. 

Although the three crime stories in question – 1995’s Shinjuku Triad Society, 1997’s Rainy Dog and 1999’s Ley Lines – have no clear crossover points in terms of plotting or characters, their overarching connection as part of Miike’s ‘Black Society’ or ‘Black Triad’ trilogy does, surprisingly enough, make sense. 

Aside from the obvious gangland similarities, there’s definite connective tissue here thematically speaking: each deals with issues of assimilation, stories of the dark forces operating deep within Japanese society, and (obviously) each fronts a borderline-ridiculous amount of extreme bloody violence. 

But whilst it would be very easy to simply toss these three aside with the rest of Miike’s splatter-happy efforts (which all served as clear and stated influences on Quentin Tarantino’s stylisation in Kill Bill), there is something significantly deeper under the surface here. As much as the Black Society movies are cheap, nasty and occasionally very, very difficult to watch, they each push inner stories about belonging and being comfortable with who you are within society. 

True, these are dark, grungy crime tales of corruption, prostitution and other unsavoury tastes, but each is cleverly woven together, relatively balanced and stylishly told, serving as a tremendous collection of early nods to Miike’s talents for storytelling, before he quite reached the big-time.

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Occasionally a plot thread will get lost in translation, or a character reveal won’t quite unravel the way it’s supposed to, but it’s worth cementing this down to western tastes: Miike’s never been particularly Hollywood, so there’s no point expecting any of its tropes or clarifications.  

Because of course, it’s worth remembering that these are still Miike movies through and through, and fans of the director’s usual shock tactics certainly won’t be disappointed. Likewise, those with weak stomachs should probably stay away. 

The very opening of the trilogy’s first, Shinjuku Triad Society should serve as warning enough, opening on a shot of a decapitated head, before barrelling into a fairly graphic throat slashing, a woman being hit in the face with a chair in bone-crunching detail, and an interrogation sequence that quickly morphs into a sensationally uncomfortable anal rape. 

The release itself is fairly adequate by Arrow Video standards too, featuring the usual additional commentaries and reversible sleeve artwork. Although the strictly HD image transfers (no 2K/4K restoration jobs here) and lack of any real extra content beyond the odd interview might not sit too well with completists. Nor will the fact that the three films in question have been bizarrely crammed onto just two discs. 

This shouldn’t distract too much though, from the fact that it’s simply just nice to have more of Miike’s filmography available to a wider audience, and in a clean, watchable quality. Whilst the likes of Audition will likely forever be remembered as the director’s most enduring work, the Black Society trilogy serves as a truly terrific look at a familiar but significantly deeper side to one of the world’s most eclectic filmmakers. 

Takashi Miike’s Black Society Trilogy is available on DVD and Blu-ray from today. 

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