Shinjuku Triad Society Review

For the uninitiated Shinjuku is a district in Tokyo notorious for its vibrant nightlife and red-light establishments, something the film’s opening establishes with a montage of sequences that show up close and personal the seedy underbelly of Tokyo’s entertainment capital. A sleazy neon lit world of back-alley fumbles and murder where trouble is brewing amongst the Chinese Triad society because a wildcard Taiwanese immigrant by the name of Wang (Tomorowo Taguchi) has formed a new gang and is taking on the Dragon’s Claw triads at their own game. Caught up in all this is the half-Chinese Police Detective Tatsuhito Kiriya (Kippei Shiina), a dirty cop in the Yakuza’s pocket. Initially the Japanese don’t want to get involved in foreign affairs and Kiriya’s unique heritage means he’s lumbered with the task of keeping the warring Triads under control, but matters are complicated when Wang makes the Yakuza a business offer they can’t refuse.

Shinjuku Triad Society holds a special place within Takashi Miike’s body of work as the first film he made that was intended for theatrical release. Up until this point he’d been primarily directing for Japan’s V-cinema (straight to VHS) market, an industry saturated by the kind of gangster dramas that, at least on the surface this film appears to be. Naturally though, Miike’s films are never quite what they appear, thanks mainly to the director’s own unique style and excesses but Shinjuku Triad Society also has a large dose of complex characterisation and scathing criticism of Japanese ignorance to gloss over any genre trappings it may have.


What’s fascinating is how Miike takes his two principal characters of Tatsuhito and Wang, draws numerous parallels between them and then refuses to side with either character, so neither one acts as protagonist or antagonist within the film. In the early stages it’s probably more natural to side with Tatsuhito because Wang is introduced as a sadistic loose cannon in the morally reprehensible business of illegal organ trafficking. Tatsuhito on the other hand is established as a violent, hard-boiled detective with no sense of national identity because of his half-Chinese status. He can never be fully accepted by the xenophobic Yakuza or his work colleagues and he has an inherent hatred of his Chinese heritage from his harsh upbringing on the Mainland. The only place he truly belongs is with his mixed-race family, but even this solace is upset when he discovers that his own brother is working for Wang, and as the story progresses Tatsuhito’s obsessive need to reunite his brother with the family becomes more and more violent and sadistic. So much so that he no longer qualifies even as an anti-hero. Counterpointing this is the introduction of Wang’s back-story, which lends almost a tragic air to him as a character, something Miike highlights in a couple of scenes where Wang tries to wash away the blood of certain crimes from his hands, an obvious reference to Macbeth. Like Tatsuhito, Wang has no sense of national identity, being a Taiwanese criminal forced to flee his own country after murdering his drug-addled father when he was 14 yrs old. In Japan he’s just another foreigner but his resolve to forge his way to the top of the organized crime world is pretty impressive. It’s brought home in the sequences set in Taiwan which give a suggestive glimpse into his poverty stricken childhood that leaves you with no doubt that he was a neglected child so it’s no surprise that he has a burning desire for recognition now, and a certain vulnerability when it comes to the trust of those he perceives as family, like his lover Zhou, a promiscuous young man who treats sex as a cheap commodity. To say any more about the film would be giving too much away but needless to say that there is an inevitable but powerful confrontation between these flawed individuals at the film’s conclusion.


Kippei Shiina and Tomorowo Taguchi are both excellent in the roles of Tatsuhito and Wang respectively. Tomorowo is given the least screentime of the two because much of Wang’s back-story is told through police exposition but his performance is surprisingly intense at times. I say this because he is not a very physically imposing person at all, being 5ft nothing and stick thin, but he is without doubt one of the most talented character actors working in Japan today and has a very expressive face that perfectly captures the sadistic glee and vulnerable romantic side of Wang. Kippei Shiina isn’t quite as prolific an actor but his performance is equally as intense and he has a more rugged physicality that perfectly suits the brute machismo of Tatsuhito.

The depiction of sex and violence in Miike’s films has certainly stirred up a lot of debate over the years and here in Shinjuku Triad Society the director is at his most provocative. Within the 105minute runtime we are barraged with images of gay fellatio, cavity searches (with extra “juicy” sound effects), eyeball plucking and the anal rape of both men and women. It’s not a film for the faint hearted so I urge anyone with delicate sensibilities to steer well clear. One scene features a rather eccentric method of interrogation, in which a comically tiny Judo exponent sodomises a tight-lipped prisoner under Tatsuhito’s careful observation. Of course in a typically warped Miike twist the “victim” happens to be a gay Chinese nymphomaniac who only gives the police what they want when they threaten to STOP the sodomy. I’m not going to defend the almost blasé way Miike throws scenes like this at the viewer, sometimes it is crass and insensitive but it’s also a way in which Miike injects originality and life into otherwise boring, conventional sequences. It’s an excessive way, granted but the film’s opening should leave you in no doubt that this is a sadistically warped world with no boundaries as far as taste and decency goes. If you can accept the insanity then there’s much to enjoy, with numerous quirky moments throughout the film that are thankfully more restrained than the aforementioned interrogation. Like the initial meeting between Wang and his rivals the Dragon’s Claw gang, a seemingly dull, clichéd sequence that’s hilariously concluded with Wang flashing the elderly Triads.


Aside from these surreal touches the style of the film remains relatively understated and grounded, incorporating real-time shots of the streets of Shinjuku and Taiwan perfectly into the fictional scenes. Miike also uses single-shot flashbacks, scarcely but effectively to flesh out the character of Wang, again nothing fancy but it’s a technique that accentuates the nuances in the character. It’s somewhat ironic that such an outlandish director has proven to be one of the biggest sticklers for using genuine locations, particularly when you consider his fantastical comic-book approach to sex and violence. But his use of locations is an effective way to adopt these surreal Manga touches within a world that can develop real human drama and in my opinion Shinjuku Triad Society represents a successful merging of excessive violence and involving drama.


Presentation

Although this DVD has been released individually in America courtesy of ArtsmagicDVD it can be bought, packaged alongside Rainy Dog and Ley Lines, as part of the Black Society Trilogy Boxset.

The good news is that the transfer is 1.75:1, Anamorphic and free from any noticeable print damage. The bad news is, well just about every other aspect of the transfer. We have a very soft image with little detail and loose, hazy colours. Brightness and contrast levels are very poor with little to no shadow detail showing, meaning the many dimly lit sequences in the film merge into a murky soup of black. The encoding also leaves a lot to be desired in places, which isn’t surprising given the lack of detail in the image. You can clearly see digital grain throughout the film and static noise when the cameras spring into motion, so it’s not a very film-like transfer. Edge Enhancement is present throughout and the film is also interlaced.


It would be very easy to lay all the blame with ArtsmagicDVD, but the truth is that most V-cinema Yakuza dramas suffer from the same soft and murky look and although this film was intended for theatrical release it was shot on a V-cinema budget. I doubt Shinjuku Triad Society would ever look good on DVD without heavy remastering, which certainly isn’t cheap and I’m sure the time and funds ArtsmagicDVD have at their disposal for each film project only stretches so far.

How the film looks might be a disappointment but I have no complaints about how it sounds. The sole audio track is a no-frills, Japanese DD2.0 Pro-Logic track that keeps vocals centralised and uses the rears mostly to up the ambience. The sound in general is quite solid, handling the moody synth score well and ensuring the few gunfights in the film never sound flat. Dialogue also remains consistently clear throughout.

Optional English subtitles are present with no spelling or grammatical errors that I can recall.


Extras

Artsmagic have put together a nice set of extras for this release. First up is an Audio Commentary with Tom Mes, a man with an encyclopaedic knowledge of Japanese cinema. He provides an extremely insightful analysis of the film and its importance among Miike’s work, he also shares some useful information on the cast and crew. Next up is not one but 2 interviews with Takashi Miike, running about 30minutes and 5minutes each. Both stick mainly to discussing Miike’s work on this film but in the lengthier interview the director strays off topic many times and gives us a brief glimpse into his work ethic and what he looks for in actors. The final interview is a 6minute discussion with film editor Yashushi Shimamura, who has worked on almost every film Miike has directed. Here he sticks solely to discussing his work on the film. The rest of the extra material is taken up with the usual Theatrical trailer, Cover Artwork/Liner Notes for all the DVDs in the Black Society Trilogy and Cast/Crew Filmographies, with lengthy Biographies for Takashi Miike and Kippei Shiina.


Overall

Shinjuku Triad Society remains one of Miike’s wilder films even to this day, meaning fans of the his most notoriously warped works will lap it up. It's a good introduction to the graphic excess and nuanced character development that typifies Miike’s approach to filmmaking and I thoroughly recommend the film to anyone who can stomach it. The transfer of the ArtsmagicDVD release might be lacking but the inclusion of some excellent extra features ensure that this is the definitive DVD release of the film for Western fans.


Film
8 out of 10
Video
5 out of 10
Audio
6 out of 10
Extras
8 out of 10
Overall

8

out of 10

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