Takashi Miike’s Black Society Trilogy Blu-ray Review

Gritty filmmaking from Takasi Miike before he became a household name

The Black Society Trilogy is a series of films from celebrated Japanese director Takashi Miike. Exploring the Chinese immigrant experience in Japan, these three movies are some of Miike’s first films that garnered critical acclaim for him as a filmmaker. Thematically connected by their gritty storytelling and nuanced perspective set against the backdrop of the Japanese underworld, the Black Society Trilogy movies reveal a maturing director mastering his craft in swift progression.

Takashi Miike had been working for years in Japan’s so-called V-cinema market before putting out the first film in his Black Society Trilogy, Shinjuku Triad Society (1995). Having previously churned out direct-to-video fare that could kindly be called b-movies, Shinjuku Triad Society is a complex cop drama that mixes violence with social commentary. It follows a mixed-race Japanese cop (Kippei Shiina, Outrage) struggling with his own family issues while hunting a psychotic criminal (Tomorowo Taguchi, Tetsuo the Iron Man) who traffics in immigrant children’s organs.

The character-driven crime stories are raw, honest, and surprisingly introspective…

Rainy Dog (1997), shot in Taiwan, is about an exiled yakuza (Dead or Alive’s Show Aikawa) who finds himself burdened with a mute son he never knew about and a price on his head from the local Chinese gang. Isolated and alone in Taipei, Yujiro reaches out to a prostitute desperate to escape her own situation while on the run for his life. This is a sad tale flipping the Chinese immigrant perspective on its head by having the Japanese protagonist stuck in a foreign land.

Ley Lines (1999) moves from the countryside to the city and back, as three Japanese youths of Chinese descent (including The Raid 2’s Kazuki Kitamura) seek their fortune in Tokyo, only to run afoul of a violent gang boss (Naoto Takenaka, The Happiness of the Katakuris).

These three films are more alike than dissimilar in their themes and perspective. All three paint a haunting portrait of alienation and corruption from the immigrant experience in Japan under Miike’s expertly crafted mise en scene. The character-driven crime stories are raw, honest, and surprisingly introspective in how they deconstruct the immigrant experience in Japanese society. They succeed because Miike fearlessly subverts yakuza genre conventions, introducing strong characters and subtle social commentary.

Made before Takashi Miike would become an internationally renowned director with his twisted Audition, his Black Society Trilogy films show the roots of a great filmmaker. Moving portraits of sympathetic characters caught up in societal forces beyond their control, they act as excellent introductions to Takashi Miike’s work.

Video

Arrow Video released the Black Society Trilogy on two BD-50s. All three films were modestly budgeted affairs, mostly made for Japan’s video market despite token theatrical releases. They are presented in adequate HD transfers, framed at their intended 1.85:1 aspect ratios. Each film is encoded in high-bitrate AVC at 1080P resolution.

These are older, softer transfers with decent grain reproduction but poor detail. It appears that Arrow Video was stuck using the somewhat uneven masters made by Black Society Trilogy’s Japanese producers.

Ley Lines is the most colorful of the lot, introducing a wider color palette and even some light filters for certain scenes. Shinjuku Triad Society and Rainy Dog have more muted presentations, befitting their gritty, neo-noir aesthetic. The film-like transfers lack the razor-sharp definition of newer scans but lack any extraneous processing. The gritty cinematography has minor contrast issues, particularly in the darkest scenes. Shadow delineation is fairly limited, though avoids serious crushing of black levels.

Despite the limited budgets of his early theatrical films, Takashi Miike offers interesting, mature cinematography in each Black Society Trilogy installment. This is a solid Hi-def presentation of three important movies in his career that lack demo appeal.

Audio

All three Black Society movies have their original Japanese or Chinese soundtrack heard in stereo 2.0 PCM quality. None offer elaborate mixes but they all feature intelligible dialogue and clean fidelity. The movies have a mix of spoken Japanese and Chinese language.

Arrow Video includes new English subtitles for all three films that rectify the problems of prior translations. This is important, as early American releases of these films often had poor and confusing subtitles. They cleverly differentiate between Chinese and Japanese dialogue by including the Chinese dialogue in bracketed subtitles. The optional English subtitles display in a white font.

Extras

First pressings include an illustrated collector’s booklet. A reversible sleeve has original and newly commissioned artwork by Chris Malbon. Miike biographer Tom Mes gives rather informative solo commentaries for all three films, covering a wide range of topics pertaining to the Japanese director. For viewers not well versed in Miike’s filmography, it’s an entertaining listen full of important context that may be lost to most Americans.

Show Aikawa: Stray Dog, Lone Wolf (21:42 in HD) ā€“ A new 2016 interview with the actor that appeared in both Rainy Dog and Ley Lines. He recalls working with Miike and anecdotes from the set.

Takashi Miike: Into the Black (45:07 in HD) ā€“ Mixing clips from the Black Society Trilogy with an extended Miike interview from 2016, this documentary covers Miike’s early career in lucid detail. The Japanese director goes over the themes seen in his Black Society Trilogy and what it took to get him there.

Shinjuku Triad Society Trailer

Rainy Dog Trailer

Ley Lines Trailer

Audio commentaries ā€“ Miike biographer Tom Mes gives solo commentaries for each movie in the set.

Full disclosure: This Blu-ray set was provided to us for review as pre-production screeners. This has not influenced DoBluā€™s editorial process. For information on how we handle review material, please visit our about us page to learn more.

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