Ley Lines Review
Japan has a long history of xenophobia, it’s a country obsessed with the notion of true blood countrymen who can trace their Japanese ancestry back numerous generations. If you cannot meet this criterion then you may find your social status is looked down upon, so it’s not difficult to imagine the climate people of Chinese or Korean descent find themselves in.
Concluding Takashi Miike’s loosely linked trilogy of Black Society films, Ley Lines is an engrossing character driven piece about the discrimination facing people of foreign descent living in Japan. Two brothers, Ryuichi (Kazuki Kitamura) and Shunrei (Michisuke Kashiwaya) and their best friend Chan (Tomorowo Taguchi) are a group of half Chinese boys who have grown up as second class citizens in an idyllic countryside village. With Ryuichi and Chan being somewhat hot-blooded and temperamental it was only going to be a matter of time before they would get into big trouble, and a violent encounter with an offensive scrap yard owner sees the young men fleeing their hometown in search of a better life in the bustling district of Shinjuku, Tokyo. This is a somewhat ambitious dream for three people with zero experience of big city life and eventually their naivety lands them in trouble when they’re fleeced of all their money by crafty call girl Anita (Dan Li). Taking on work as drug dealers to make ends meet the country bumpkins decide the best place for them is abroad, but their enquiries into getting a fake Passport brings them to the attention of vicious Triad boss, Wang (Naoto Takenaka), leading to more trouble than they ever could have wished for.
If you’re familiar with the previous titles in the Black Society Trilogy you’ll know that the films are linked by three major themes: alienation and lack of national identity, the exploration of family and the dream of a better life elsewhere. Ryuichi, Shunrei and Chan are established as outcasts early on, but Ryuichi is also shown applying for a Japanese passport and being refused because of his mixed-race status, so in essence all three are prisoners within Japan’s shores with no sense of national identity. So Ley Lines is really a simple tragedy where three outsiders leave the cold snobbery of their sleepy village and arrive in a place where foreigners can be exploited far more, like the character of Anita, a Shanghai immigrant turned Prostitute who is introduced with a cold unerotic sex scene with a Japanese client. Miike intercuts this sequence with shots of Ryuichi and co. eating dinner downstairs, clearly drawing parallels between their consumption of food and the Japanese consumption of women or people here in Shinjuku’s seedy underbelly, then when her job’s done she goes downstairs and exploits the three newcomers herself, promising them sex but locking them in an abandoned building after stealing all their money. This doesn’t exactly show her in a positive light, but her motivations are made clear in the following scene, where she receives a beating from her pimp for not bringing back enough cash, and what the pimp does next really shows how harsh her life is, he forces her into taking on a client that at first looks like an ordinary, respectable Japanese Salaryman but turns out to have an extreme S&M fetish. Miike’s direction here is excellent, you do not see any details at all, just simple shots that establish what the client is about to do and then a disorientating montage of single cuts, again showing nothing graphic, overlaid with a blood curdling scream. It’s important that this sequence hits hard, not only to get the audience on Anita’s side but also to represent the harsh difference between the life in Shinjuku facing these boys, and their life back home.
These differences are also conveyed brilliantly by the film’s colour scheme. Miike, together with cinematograper Naosuke Imaizumi have put together some gorgeous suffusions of colour to evoke mood and foreshadow future events. The scenes set in the country village are awash with vivid greens, contrasting heavily to the grey concrete landscape of Tokyo but the use of the colour red throughout the film is particularly exquisite, representing either impending danger or antagonism, usually in the form of the Triads with their scenes or scenes leading up to their appearance featuring heavy reds. The opening scene of the film is a flashback to the childhood of Ryuichi and Chan showing us first hand the racism they were subjected to as children, but the overwhelmingly vibrant colours, together with deteriorated sound and scratched print evoke a strong sense of nostalgia, lending a faint poetic beauty to an otherwise harsh childhood memory. However, it being a Takashi Miike film and all, this fantastical, expressionist colour scheme is backed up with gritty realism. Just as he did in Shinjuku Triad Society, Miike incorporates real live shots from the streets of Shinjuku. The effect can be quite alarming, like showing a bruised and battered Anita walking among the unknowing general public and capturing their real reactions on camera, giving the audience an almost documentary style glimpse into the social behavior of the normal everyday Japanese public.
Takashi Miike isn’t really much of a judgmental or political director, but his films do have a tendency to show Japanese society in a rather harsh light. In Ley Lines just about every true-blood Japanese character has a narrow-minded opinion of people of foreign descent. Ryuichi’s aforementioned Passport application is met with derision from a bigoted Civil Servant who asks him “Are you really Japanese? If you were you’d follow Japanese rules”, also when the boys try to sell a scooter to the local Srapyard owner they’re met with racial insults from his co-worker. It’s interesting that the racist remark is actually bleeped out, something the director repeats later on for another racial word. This could just be a quirky jovial touch on Miike’s part, but given the nature of the words perhaps this was his way of drawing attention to the fact that even the Japanese language has many derisory terms for foreigners. Nevertheless the discrimination these boys have faced in their hometown clearly shows in their individual characters, Ryuichi and Chan are hesitant and quick to over-react whereas Shunrei is the exact opposite, he’s laid back and studious, but to the point of total detachment from everything around him. He rarely gets involved in his family or brother’s affairs, probably because he realizes there’s no place for him in this close-minded village but he does at least share his brother’s dream of finding a place to belong. In Tokyo their heritage is unknown but instead their naivety lands them in all sorts of trouble, first from Anita, who as I explained earlier is every bit the victim and outcast they are and then from their drug dealer friends and Wong. Out of all these outcasts it’s Wong who seems to have adapted to live in Shinjuku best, but the fact he’s a sadistic sociopath doesn’t really say a lot about the qualities you need to succeed and adapt to life in Japan. Still we do get some fascinating glimpses into the affection he holds towards the Mainland in his fetish for listening to old folk tales from his hometown, just another example of some great Miike characterisation.
The cast perform admirably all round, Kazuki Kitamura demonstrates just the right mix of rebellious angst and un-assured naivety as Ryuichi and Michisuke Kashiwaya is suitably stand offish and non-chalant as Shunrei, but I think it’s Dan Li and Tomorowo Taguchi that steal the show as Anita and Chan respectively. It must have been an exhausting shoot for Li considering what her character goes through during the film but it never shows in her performance, imbuing just the right mix of mental toughness and vulnerability into her part. Tomorowo can always be relied on to put in a memorable performance and as the only actor to appear in all three Black Society films he brings some much needed comic relief to proceedings, playing the mentally stunted but endearing Chan with a boyish enthusiasm that belies the fact he was more than two decades older than the character he was playing. Another quality character actor famous for taking on light-relief cameo roles in Miike’s films is Naoto Takenaka, who this time around plays it completely straight, putting in a calmly assured performance as the principal antagonist, Wong.
It’s worth noting that Miike first came to the attention of Western audiences in 2000 with the screening of three films at the Rotterdam Film Festival: Dead or Alive, Audition and Ley Lines. The former two were an instant success, spring boarding the director’s status abroad. Ley Lines however has been overlooked and that’s a real shame because it is undoubtedly one of his best films and deserves to be held in as high regard as anything else in his filmography. I can only imagine that they screened it in black & white because with its vivid colour scheme alone it remains an unforgettable film experience in it’s own right.
Although this DVD has been released individually in America courtesy of ArtsmagicDVD it can be bought, packaged alongside Shinjuku Triad Society and Rainy Dog, as part of the Black Society Trilogy Boxset.
Given the film’s luscious colour scheme I probably would have cried like a little girl had the image been as soft and washed out as the Shinjuku Triad Society DVD, but ArtsmagicDVD have provided a decent (albeit interlaced) 1.75:1 anamorphic transfer. My only real gripes are the encoding, with static noise rearing it’s ugly head during scenes with plenty of camera sweeps and the ever poor brightness/contrast that the Black Society films suffer from, the shadow detail here is as non-existent as ever. Aside from these irritants the image is reasonable, it is soft, but this is down more to the filming conditions. Colours are reasonable, although the lack of detail does mean they appear a little hazy and the print itself is nice and clean, although you can detect some very faint Edge Enhancements in some scenes.
As with Rainy Dog the film has been subjected to some tinkering by the director, so if you see scratches in the image during the opening scene or a superimposed squiggle over private parts then rest assured that it’s all deliberate.
A solid Japanese DD2.0 Pro-Logic encoded audio track is present, which keeps the dialogue centred, audible and clean. It also provides enough bass to handle the few action sequences and has some sparse but effective use of the rears when needed.
Optional English subtitles are included with no spelling or grammatical errors I can recall offhand.
Matching the extra features of the previous Black Society Trilogy releases we start off with an Audio Commentary by Japanese film expert Tom Mes. As ever he provides a comprehensive discussion, delving deeply into the themes and importance of this work among Miike’s ouvré, make sure you check this feature out. Three interviews are present, two with Director Takashi Miike. The first runs for roughly 14minutes, sticking mostly to discussing the main feature, it’s pretty informative with some good information on lead actor Kazuki Kitamura. The second Miike interview runs for around 15minutes and for me is the better of the two, with some very appropriate questions being flung at the director, like why does he use CGI in his films, how does he view his Yakuza films as a whole within their genre and why is the theme of outsiders such a major part of his films. Rounding off the interviews is an 8minute discussion with the film’s editor, Yashushi Shimura who gives an enthusiastic discussion on how he likes to edit action sequences. The rest of the extra material is taken up by the usual Theatrical Trailer, Cover Artwork/Liner Notes for all the DVDs in the Black Society Trilogy and Cast/Crew Filmographies, with a lengthy Biography for Takashi Miike.
Ley Lines is a film of contrasts, from the gritty realism and harsh seediness of the Tokyo sequences to the gorgeous expressionism of the country sequences it perfectly conveys the two sides to Miike as a stylish director of engrossing character studies. With ArtsmagicDVD providing a solid presentation of the film backed up by some insightful extra features I cannot recommend this release enough, better yet buy the whole Black Society Trilogy.