Randolph Jordan, email@example.com
October 31, 2003
One of Fantasia’s big highlights this year was, of course, the presence of four films by Takashi Miike. And this presence was sweetened by a visit from the good people at FAB Press, who, among several new releases, had just published Tom Mes’ book Agitator: The Cinema of Takashi Miike (1). A better venue for the promotion of this item could scarcely have been found. Agitator is the first serious study of Miike and his work, and several of us couldn’t pull out our wallets fast enough to snap it up. Going straight to the chapter on Dead or Alive 2: The Birds, I was pleased to find that the author and I are in complete agreement that this is the director’s best film to date. Appropriately enough for the festival, however, the author’s best criticism is to be found in his chapter on Ichi the Killer.
The main subject of discussion in Tom Mes’ chapter on Ichi is, as one would expect, the violence. Miike is often considered a misogynist, and this film might appear to go nowhere in terms of de-legitimizing this claim. Mes’ main point, however, is that the film seeks to confront viewers with our own consumption of screen violence, and to test our relationship to this consumption. Mes notes the dual nature of the violence represented in Ichi, one being overtly comical in its absurdity, the other being disturbing in its realism. He suggests that the violence done against men in the film falls under the comical category, and that the violence against women brings us into the realist category. Some would suggest that this adds to the view that the film is misogynistic, since we can’t take the violence against men as seriously as we can that against women. But Mes suggests that Miike’s use of women in scenes of more serious violence is a function of his desire to confront the audience with its consumption of violence, and that women make better victims because of their greater perceived fragility. The confrontation of the audience comes with the juxtaposition of the comical with the brutal, and Mes suggests that women make better representations of brutalized victims than do men. However, I really can’t see how one could avoid claims of misogyny with an approach like this, for regardless of intent to shock, Miike is still perpetuating representations of violence against women.
Interestingly, Mes notes that what we often consider to be greater realism is actually a function of what we don’t see on screen rather than what we do. Mes gives the example of the nipple-slicing scene, where the montage is such that we never actually see the blade make contact with the flesh. I would add that this is similar with the rape scenes, where punches are suggested through montage rather than being explicitly shown, and the sex is totally concealed from view. This kind of violence, Mes argues, exists within the viewer’s own imagination, and thus questions the viewer rather than the film. This is an extension of the basic principle that many horror films adopt, that being the idea that the monster is far scarier when not shown because it reveals the monsters within the minds of the audience. And as we all know, nothing is scarier than our own minds.
This is in stark contrast to much of the violence committed against men in the film, which features buckets of blood, guts, and splatter gore effects. The pinnacle of this overt mode of screen violence comes when Ichi slices a man vertically from head to foot, and he splits apart like a melon. Mes suggests that the function of this mode of violence is to make the audience exclaim “Wow” just before confronting us with depictions of more realist violence. By doing this, we then question why we found one kind of violence to be cool while another to be disturbing.
In actual fact, the Fantasia audience booed the scene where the man gets split in half, likely due to its lack of realism. So the issue becomes a bit more complex, for even in absurdly violent situations we seem to crave a measure of realism that aids in the ridiculousness. If it becomes too fake, it loses all power, even to be comical. And the man/woman distinction between the two modes of violence in the film does not stand throughout, for women are often subjected to the comical/gory style as well. The issue of misogyny thus becomes quite tangled, and I’m quite certain the Miike hasn’t given the matter the thought that we might like to credit him with. The film is a bit of a mess, and however violence is represented, there will always be the problem of “if it’s represented, it has the potential to be interpreted as glorification.” We can argue about it day and night, and we’ll never come to a conclusion. Sure, the audience’s imagination might well be conjuring up more than what is actually shown on screen. But eight decades after Eisenstein’s first explorations into the concept of synthesis, surely filmmakers are not going to blame interpretation squarely on us. Whether we see the knife slice the nipple or not, Miike’s intention is for us to believe that the nipple was sliced, so what’s the difference? The intention for the scene is that the violence be represented in the consciousness of the audience, plain and simple. There is no intended ambiguity surrounding whether or not the nipple was sliced which could call into question the audience’s thought processes.
Ultimately, though, I do think it’s far too easy to label the film exploitative and misogynist, just as it is far too easy to make a film absurdly violent under the pretence that it is supposed to confront the audience with its own desire for consumption. I think that C’est arrivé prez de chez vous (Man Bites Dog, 1992, Rémy Belvaux, André Bonzel, Benoît Poelvoorde) still holds pole position in cinema’s exploration of the audience’s relationship to screen violence, and displays an intelligence, sophistication and acute awareness of cinema that Ichi doesn’t even hold a thin candle to. Thankfully, Miike’s film has another redeeming quality which I think makes it one of his better efforts. Indeed, the ambiguity that might have made the depiction of violence more open to question has been transferred to an ambiguity surrounding the interaction of the characters involved in the violence. This ambiguity surrounding the character interactions can, in turn, come to suggest a function for violence beyond notions of audience confrontation or testing the limits of cinematic representation. What I’d like to suggest is that the violence in Ichi and so many other of Miike’s films might best be understood as the soil in which much deeper concerns about relationships between the past and the present are played out in the lives of characters involved in physical interaction with one another. Finally, Miike’s films are about death and rebirth, suicide and regeneration, and as such, have found a fine environment here at Fantasia 2003.
To give a bit of context, I’d like to consider a way in which violence can be understood as an embodiment of change. The word “ran” which Kurosawa took as the name of his great masterpiece is often simply translated as “war,” “chaos,” or “rebellion,” all of which have violent connotations. But there are subtler interpretations that suggest some underlying forces behind war, chaos and rebellion. A Japanese friend of mine once explained to me that “ran” could be thought of as the change that results from adding a new element to an existing order, like the ripples that radiate from a stone’s point of entry into a still pond. In Kurosawa’s film, the new element is the handing over of a 50 year old empire from father to son, and most certainly deteriorates into bloody conflict. But the violence need not be the focus, as “ran” might manifest itself in positive ways as well. I think that the idea of “ran” can well be applied to Miike’s films, and I suggest that we take a moment to look behind the violence to the search for change that so many of his characters exhibit.
The “ran” concept is particularly interesting if considered in light of two other concepts that hold varying degrees of popularity depending upon what philosophical circles one travels in. The first concept revolves around notions of dialogue as posited by Mikhail Bakhtin in works like “Discourse in the Novel” (2) and Problems of Dostoevsky’s Poetics (3). When considering the form of a novel, one of Bakhtin’s main concerns is how an author creates an environment in which the authorial voice is not the dominant one. Rather, it exists along side all other voices represented in the work with equal importance. Dialogue between these voices becomes the principle locus of inquiry, and thus the form of the novel is understood through the interaction of its various elements. When the form of a novel truly supports dialogue between equal voices, emphasis is placed on the unfinalizability of these voices given that they are open to constant interaction with one another, resulting in constant potential for change. This is in opposition to a novel which posits the author’s voice as the dominant one, a single authorial voice that speaks through all other voices, thereby offering a finite and definitive take on the world rather than creating an environment in which relationships can be forged.
Understanding form through attention to interaction is also at the heart of Deleuze and Guattari’s concept of de-territorializing the refrain as put forth in chapter 11 of A Thousand Plateaus (4). Here the pair tap into the idea of understanding the form of the universe through interaction, suggesting that creation is the sole purpose and driving force behind all things, and that creation is a function of elements interacting with one another. And so the universe is in constant flux as it continually opens up territories to each other so that new things may emerge, an idea that seems to me to be the essence of unfinalizability through dialogic interaction. If we now put these two ideas in the context of “ran,” and then apply the whole thing to Miike’s films, we might see how his films are so often interested processes of change expediated by characters of given territories crossing boundaries into each other’s lands. Violence is often the result of such border crossing, but Miike always has something more interesting going on behind the violence if we look for it.
Gangsters are pathologically territorial, and Miike’s films constantly struggle with conflicts between warring factions, whether they be the Yakuza against the Chinese Mafia, or internal disputes within the Yakuza itself. Gang warfare is the perfect premise for exploring the idea of de-territorialization. From this perspective, the violence in Ichi is little more than an entry point for Miike’s larger concerns. At the beginning of his book, Tom Mes provides a brief introduction to several of Miike’s major themes. In addition to violence, these themes are laid out as: the rootless individual, the outcast, nostalgia, the family unit, and the search for happiness. These themes form an excellent starting point for understanding Miike’s work, and they all relate to the notion of change.
More specifically, his characters constantly search for change through a return to the past, and this return to the past often involves crossing the threshold of death, being reborn into a new context. The paradox seems to be that adults seek to regenerate themselves through nostalgia for childhood. By trying to regain what has been lost, one’s distance from the past emphasizes all the more strongly the changes one has undergone. Nostalgia becomes a vehicle for the recognition of change. The lack of homes for so many of Miike’s characters, either because they are rootless wanderers in foreign lands, or because they were outcast from their places of origin, makes them beings of constant change, in a perpetual state of border crossing. And many of these characters find that suicide is somehow at the heart of this constant search for change, either through exposure to someone else’s suicide, or by the taking of their lives into their own hands. Suicide is rampant in Miike’s works, and I suggest that this reflects the intense self-motivation necessary for his characters to evolve. To take matters into one’s own hands to the point of ending one’s own life is an extreme search for change, and this change rubs off on those who bear witness to it as well.
I believe that Ichi the Killer can best be understood as a complex screen exploration of three outcasts who all seek their own death, outcasts who struggle with their past and seek extreme avenues for change. The three of whom I speak are Kakihara (Tadanobu Asano), Kaneko (played by Sabu, reknown Japanese director whose latest film Drive was also a big hit at Fantasia this year), and Jijii (played by the infamous Shinya Tsukamoto ofTetsuo the Ironman fame). Ichi himself might be understood as little more than a projection of this struggle with the past and desire for change onto the worlds of these three outcasts, worlds which end up crossing within the context of gang warfare.
Tom Mes acknowledges the fantasy element of the film’s final showdown between Ichi, Kakihara, and Kaneko. Kakihara, having been firmly established as a masochist who seeks the ultimate partner to deliver him to new heights of pain, hopes that a battle with the infamous killer Ichi will satisfy his needs. However, the showdown is interrupted by Kakihara’s gunman Kaneko. While his son watches, Kaneko is killed by Ichi after putting a bullet in the killer’s leg and thus preventing him from being able to satisfy Kakihara’s intense desire for a matching of skills. Ichi then drops to the ground in pain over his leg wound, and Kaneko’s son begins kicking him repeatedly. Not getting the masochistic gratification he wanted, Kakihara then fantasizes that Ichi musters enough strength to rise to the challenge, slicing Kakihara’s forehead open with his heel blade and forcing him to fly backwards off the top of the building.
It is interesting to note that Mes makes no mention of the fact that a deliberate ruse seems to have been at the basis of the film’s promotion, given that the film’s title was always accompanied by a picture of the Kakihara character instead of the Ichi character himself. And indeed, for the first part of the film, references to Ichi seem to be directed towards Kakihara. When people speak of the merciless killer capable of the vilest of atrocities, there are clear reasons for us to think that they are speaking of Kakihara, whose acts of sadism we witness throughout the film. While many fans would have been familiar with the original Manga comic, many would also be coming to the film fresh. Many would also realize, of course, that “Ichi” means “one,” and thus realize upon seeing the first shots of Ichi that he must be the killer, brandishing a big yellow number one on the back of his suit. Nevertheless, many of the people I spoke with assumed that the Kakihara character pictured on all the posters and trailers was the killer until it became clear otherwise a short way into the film. It seems that Miike intended to play off of the varying levels of awareness of his audience, creating a different initial response for people coming from different backgrounds.
This kind of approach to the marketing of the film calls attention to the importance of sources and awareness of them by filmmakers and film spectators alike. A lack of Manga context for Ichi creates an instability, and the film wants to play with such instability precisely because it is an adaptation of something un-adaptable. The film cannot be the comic, and so it must be something else. This can either frustrate or delight fans, depending on whether they’re comic fans or cinephiles. And after seeing the film, there seems to be a clear reason why the initial confusion as to Ichi’s identity is put forth. The whole film might well revolve around the potential that Ichi does not actually exist, and that he is a function of the sadomasochistic tendencies displayed by Kakihara, an embodiment of the revenge fantasy of Jijii, and a manifestation of Kaneko’s ultimate failure to his son.
Like many of Miike’s films, the idea here seems to revolve around childhood experience and the seeking of rejuvenation through coming to terms with one’s past. At one point in the film, Kaneko befriends Ichi in the street after scaring off an angry pub owner in the midst of administering a beating. While watching this, Kaneko has a flashback to when he was in a similar situation and was saved by a sympathetic gangster. Now a father, the worst thoughts are those that involve his son getting hurt in any way. And Ichi, for a moment, becomes both Kaneko and his son, poor defenceless children at the mercy of the irresponsibly powerful. This first meeting between Ichi and Kaneko becomes significant at the end of the film when Ichi kills Kaneko in front of his son. It seems that Kaneko has been unable to come to terms with his own bullied past, and suffers the humiliation of a final bullying here in view of the one person that should be looking up to him. His son then becomes the bully, kicking Ichi while he’s down, and fulfilling Ichi’s own failure to overcome his past. In Ichi’s case, however, memories of being bullied seems to have been implanted by Jijii in order to turn him into a killing machine. Indeed, here is the clearest evidence that Ichi may well be an extension of the consciousnesses of others, for he responds to Jijii’s need to exact revenge on the bullies of his past, while also responding to Kakihara’s need for masochistic pleasure and tapping into Kaneko’s feelings of ultimate failure over the break-up of his marriage and loss of job from the police force.
So the violence in this final showdown is really an exploration of the relationships these characters have to their own past, and how this past comes to life in the present through Ichi. Ichi’s existence as pure fantasy in the minds of the others is most clearly illustrated during the sequence when he fantasizes about their final confrontation. After Ichi is being beaten upon by Kaneko’s son, Kakihara resigns himself to the notion that he will not be administered the beating he so sorely wished for. So, to compensate, he takes his metal skewers and inserts them into his ears, puncturing the drums with an equivalent auditory distortion and then silence on the soundtrack. The scene all of a sudden becomes overexposed, and we find Ichi standing up and holding the boy’s severed head. Kakihara stands up as well, and the two confront each other at last. But with one of Ichi’s trademark kicks, his heel blade lodges in Kakihara’s forehead, forcing him to fly backwards, flipping once and then landing on a hand rail teetering precariously over the edge of the high building. After some elaborate balance shifting, he finally falls backwards, hollering “This is fantastic!” as he nears the ground. Below we find Jijii who approaches Ichi’s mangled corpse and gently brushes his blonde hair aside to reveal that there is no wound on his forehead after all. Jijii looks up to the roof from which Kakihara fell, and there is an insert shot from the chest up of Kaneko’s son in the midst of wailing on what we assume is Ichi but could, in fact be anyone. It is not clear if this is a flashback or if it is meant as a cut to what is happening simultaneously on the roof, but given that Kakihara appears not to have been pushed off the roof by Ichi after all, it would make sense that Kaneko’s son is still up there. And it could be that he is kicking his own father for having taken his life. The film’s final montage finds Jijii hanging from a tree below which a parade of schoolchildren walk by. The film ends by framing a teenage figure resembling Ichi from behind and out of his superhero costume. However, the young man turns to look at the camera, revealing that it is not Ichi after all. And so there is a significant ambiguity at work here, suggesting at once that Kakihara has thrown himself off the building, that Kaneko’s son has potentially witnessed his father’s suicide, and that Jijii has hung himself from a tree. Of course, none of these suicides are shown as such, all being placed in the hands of this mythical Ichi.
Here is where Mes’ point about not showing explicit violence so as to force the viewer’s imagination into action might be crucial. Much of this ending is open to interpretation, and we question the relationships between these characters that have been established all along. All three of these men seem troubled by their pasts, but seek solace in different ways. Kakihara masks his suicidal tendencies through masochism, and practices sadism in the hopes that he will eventually meet his match. His voracious appetite for violence gets him kicked out of the gang he worked for, so he promptly walks off with as many of the gang’s men as will support him. The idea of Ichi fit the description of his ideal match perfectly. Kaneko, having been kicked off the police force for losing his gun, becomes a bodyguard for a yakuza gang, and follows Kakihara after his own expulsion. However, he is clearly distressed by his failure on the force, and it is revealed that his marriage has also failed, a fact that affects his son deeply. His death, in the end, is a mark of his overall humiliation in life, the locus for which is found in his son. Jijii has a bone to pick with the Anjo group for which Kakihara and Kaneko work, and succeeds in picking them all off through the figure of Ichi, perhaps nothing more than a tap into their distress and trigger for their suicides.
These three deaths need to be put in the context of a previous scene in which Kaneko’s son stands on the roof top holding out a piece of meat for a bird. The bird comes and grabs the meat from his hand. The film ends with the bird flying around Jijii’s hanging body and on past the Ichi look-alike, who may well be Kaneko’s son, now grown to a young man. Birds are a principle symbol for regeneration in Miike’s work, and it is of the utmost significance that this bird is present in the context of the child’s exposure to the three adult deaths. The connection between birds and unfinalizability through de-territorialization is a strong one, and some analysis of Miike’s recurring obsession with birds will shed some light on the supreme importance of the bird in Ichi.
The clearest example of Miike’s use of a bird to suggest the regenerative cycle of nature can be found in the opening animation sequence of Happiness of the Katakuris. Like Ichi the Killer and Graveyard of Honour, Happiness is an adaptation of an earlier work and, as such, is itself an embodiment of the regenerative processes of intertextual engagement. Fitting, then, that it begins with a small winged creature being found in a bowl of soup, a creature who then rips out the soup-eater’s uvula because it looks like a little heart, flies off with it in order to consume it, only to then be consumed itself by a bird. The bird is then killed by a strange mutant, transforms into an image on paper which gets blown away, crinkled up, and magically turns into an egg. The egg is eaten by a snake, the snake is snatched up by a bird, dropped into the mouths of its young, where the egg is squeezed out from its innards, falls to the ground, cracks, and the little winged creature is re-born…only to be eaten once again by another bird. This bird then flies off and shits on a man’s head. The man responds by throwing a stick at the bird and knocking it out of the sky. And so the dance of birth and death continues.
I believe that the use of the bird in this opening sequence from Happiness of the Katakuris can serve as a model for understanding the appearance of birds throughout Miike’s work. Birds are always hovering around processes of great change in Miike’s characters, change that is, more often than not, linked to death. So, at the end of Ichi the Killer, the bird flies past the hanging body of Jijii and towards Kaneko’s son, now grown. The bird transcends time here, but more importantly, it draws two evocations of suicide together. Two intense desires for change, the crossing of territories in search of the freedom of the bird. The bird becomes a symbol of the drive for de-territorializing flight, a highly self-motivated drive. Suicide is one of the most self-motivated acts conceivable, whatever one might say about its ultimate reflection of a person’s lack of motivation for life. Ultimately, death in Miike’s films is part of a larger cycle of regeneration, a way of returning to one’s place of origin in order to find their place in the world anew. Everyone knows you can never go home again, so to return home (be it one’s place of birth, or the pre-birth place from which we all might be said to come) is to emphasize the change that one has undergone since leaving this place. To go home is to embrace change, since it can never be what it once was. Miike’s characters embody the process of change that we see in all of nature, and birds are always close at hand.
As Mes has observed, so many of Miike’s characters are rootless or outcasts, seeking a home, preferably that from which they came. The natural world can be understood as that home from which we all have come, but which stark urbanity has obscured from our consciousness. Miike’s Yakuza exist in urban worlds, but they struggle for territory, for a place to call their own, for expansion of their realm of experience. Essentially, the gang wars in Miike’s films, in light of the presence of birds and other signifiers of nature’s way, are attempts at de-territorialization, or recontextualization.
Miike’s better films are all genre-bending efforts at recontextualizing audience expectations. The Dead or Alive trilogy is a fascinating illustration of Miike’s desire to explore people crossing boundaries of personal, professional, and geographic territories. Much has been said about the fact that they are not truly sequels in that the stories and characters do not flow from one to the next. They simply all feature Riki Takeuchi and Show Aikawa. However, if we disregard certain expectations we have of sequels and look more closely at what goes on in these three films, they can be seen as being tied very neatly together indeed. On one level, we have the characters played by the two leads. Though not the same in name or role, they follow a trajectory in their development, literally crossing over one another, reversing roles, and finally coming together as one being - literally. The fact that this being is a bird (of sorts) says a lot.
In part one, Show Aikawa is a cop who chases Riki Takeuchi’s gangster. In part two, both men are assassins hired to kill the same man at the same time. This coincidence prompts Show to track Riki down, and ends up following him to an island which happens to be the place of their birth. Finally meeting, they realize that they are childhood friends, and spend some time reminiscing in their old stomping grounds. All this exists within an extended moment of time’s suspension. If we are to take the end of part one literally, with its apocalyptic explosion spreading across the Earth, then the second part only makes literal sense when understood as a moment in which the Earth is frozen in space. Such a frozen moment in time is indicated by the unmoving comet that hangs over the Earth throughout the film.
This frozen moment becomes the moment of nostalgia that allows the two men to revisit their roots, to return home in order to facilitate the major change that is to come. Putting their present lives in the context of their childhood allows them to transform these lives rather than simply regress to an earlier state. They decide to return to the world in their former capacity as mob hitmen, but all the proceeds from their work will go to feed the starving children of Africa. And so they sprout wings and take on the figure of angels out to do the world good.
However, the angel analogy is less interesting than understanding them as birds. As we have seen, birds are at the heart of the processes of change facilitated by the interaction between people and their pasts. Here they become birds as they change. When they are shot at the end of the film, they continue to exist for a period, walking the streets drenched in blood but showing no sign of being in pain. This is a moment of waking death, of the rebirth that can only take place in the face of ending life, an extension of the suspended moment that the entire film is premised upon.
They return home once again and finally give up the ghost just as a new baby is born. Dead or Alive 2: The Birds is one of the clearest examples yet of Miike’s interest in the use of the bird as a symbol for regeneration through the cycle of birth and death, and the importance of understanding one’s own context in the world in order to facilitate change.
In part three, Dead or Alive: Final, the world resumes. The apocalypse has occurred, and Show and Riki are now replicants, which explains their existence some 300 years in the future. Only now, Show is the hunted and Riki the hunter. They have crossed over each other completely. If we look past the limits of linear narrative and understand these three films in terms of the trajectory of the interaction between Show and Riki, they work perfectly well as sequels. I suggest that, in many of Miike’s films, surface concerns (such as violence) must be looked past in order to get at their real substance, a substance which always comes down to the interaction between people involved in active recontextualization of themselves.
In this final instalment, the notion of context becomes very important, and the film gets very self-conscious as a result. It begins with a projector firing up, and old movies are seen depicting scenes of humans battling great beasts of nature while a voiceover talks about the uncertainty of the future, and that the only thing that is certain is that we are alive today. A lizard monster is killed at the very moment that the voiceover speaks of life, and this ties in with the end of the film when Show and Riki have their final showdown, only to melt into one another and be reborn as a single being: a bird-like robot with a giant penis for a head. “Destruction is our source of life,” they conclude. This rebirth into the robotic penis-bird comes after a montage sequence revisiting the first two Dead or Alive films, actively seeking to put this final episode in the context of earlier interaction between the two men, and also seeking a level of self-reflexivity that began with the film’s cinema-conscious beginning.
Also important for the theme of regeneration is that the future city in which Show and Riki find themselves is governed by a kingpin who demands that no babies be born into his town, and espouses the belief that true love can only exist between members of the same sex. His desire to stop the life cycle is based on his belief that overpopulation leads to the kind of war that results in the state of their present world. So, the film directly addresses an attempt at defying the natural life cycle that Miike’s characters so often seek to tap into, a life cycle that is dependent upon death as much as birth, war as much as peace. The ultimate union of Show and Riki is a confrontation with the kingpin’s abandonment of nature’s way. Riki and Show have danced a typical courtship throughout these three films, coming together and pulling away, changing roles and doing it all over again. They have been struggling with the occupation of each other’s space, and all in the context of territorial gangster feuds: men fighting men over space. Finally, they fight back against the kingpin in order to restore the option of heterosexual relationships and their role in keeping the life cycle moving, even with the potential for further war to break out as a result. This is not a condemnation of homosexuality, but a celebration of choice made possible by the inextricable bonding of two men.
Part two ends with a shot of a newborn baby, followed by an intertitle that asks the question: “Where are you going?” In part three, we see where the world has gone: to an apocalypse where overpopulation is blamed for war, and no children are allowed to be born. But birth must come from change. Creation is the goal of the universe, and creation exists as the result of deterritorialization. These three films have explored the journey of two men on their way to change by going home again, and their continual rebirth in each film while occupying different territories clearly exhibits that oldest of clichés: the more things change, the more they stay the same. Recontextualization is at the heart of Miike’s explorations of gang warfare in the heart of nature.
While I believe Dead or Alive 2: The Birds to be Miike finest work to date, The Bird People of China is a close runner up in my books. Here a Yakuza follows an indebted businessman deep into a remote mountain area of mainland China in search of Jade. What they find is a village which houses a school for teaching children to fly. The tradition has been passed down for millennia, as evidenced by a cave painting of a winged figure.
The relationship between flight and change through death hovers over the town due to a nearby lake in which the tail end of a crashed WWII plane sticks out above the surface like a crucifix.
Constantly reminded of the transcendence afforded them by both flight and death, this somewhat primitive village, keeping traditions alive from days long past, is also on the forefront of change, perfectly in touch with nature’s need to recontextualize through creation. These children seek new frontiers, to transcend the boundary between earth and sky that the horizon continually suggests.
The story is also touched with a nostalgia in the form of a song that was sung by the pilot whose plane crashed, now sung by one of the children, but in an almost unintelligible form. The businessman records the girl singing with his portable tape recorder, and then listens over and over to try and decipher the words, originally in English, now mixed with the girl’s native language. So he seeks a source for the song, an origin to give some context to the situation here. His work in deciphering the song is based on a desire to understand the present through the past so that the future can unfold, an ability to acknowledge that change that is happening all around him by unearthing a frozen moment from the past.
Meanwhile the Yakuza is on a similar mission of his own and has decided he’s going to stay in the village, that he has found his home in the land of the enemy. The crossing of borders again facilitates change, and change may be the only real home that any of us have in the end. Change is ultimately the only thing we can embrace. Change is timeless, for to hang onto something in a given state is only to become acutely aware of its inability to remain still. There is a stillness in the village of the bird people to be sure, but the stillness is a function of their goal to embody the very symbol of change itself: to fly like the birds so that they will not remain fixed within a single territory, forging lines of flight that will keep them firmly rooted in nature’s cycle of regeneration.
Finally, the overt image of a man preparing for flight is recontextualized once again in Miike’s remake of Graveyard of Honor. Beginning the film as he does with this image, he acknowledges his own self-referentiality while calling attention to the film’s status as remake. However successful his version of Graveyard is compared with the 70s version is a judgement I’ll leave to someone else. The recontextualization of this man preparing for flight image, though, is worthy of discussion here. Unlike Bird People, which ends with a poetic shot of the winged flight-school students hovering over the mountain peak, Graveyard'’s protagonist comes crashing to earth in a wave of blood that Tom Mes suggests is the blood of all those he took down on his gradual deterioration over the course of the film.
With this suggestion, Mes places a Christ complex on the man, albeit a rather inverted one. If one wanted to argue that Christ allowed himself to die in order to save humanity, he might be seen as the ultimate symbol of regeneration through suicide. And for his deed he was reborn. This is, perhaps, the goal of all suicidals: to be reborn into a state of grace. In Graveyard the hopelessness found at the point of a person’s decision to commit suicide is rampant. The hard cold reality of gravity’s weight on humankind is a reminder that deterritorialization is often a violent struggle, for we do not all possess the disposition necessary to make change so easily, and to so easily give of ourselves to a relationship with another that would open up new territories from which new life can emerge. I think about this all time with respect to my own life, and can’t help but feel that the questioning intertitles of Dead or Alive 2 are directed my way. Where am I? And where am I going? These questions are about putting one’s self in context so that we can know in what direction to travel, the most basic premise found in so many of Miike’s films, a premise that finds its best representation in the image of the bird.
1 – Mes, Tom. Agitator: The Cinema of Takashi Miike. Godalming: FAB Press, 2003.
2 – Bakhtin, Mikhail. “Discourse in the Novel.” The Dialogic Imagination. Michael Holquist, ed. Caryl Emerson and Michael Holquist, trans. Austin: University of Texas Press, 1981.
3 – Bakhtin, Mikhail. Problems of Dostoesvky’s Poetics. Caryl Emerson, ed. + trans. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1984.
4 - Deleuze, Gilles + Félix Guattari. A Thousand Plateaus. Brain Massumi, trans. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1987.