Shinjuku Triad Society (1995) Movie Review

(Movie Review by Bill Paterson) I have to admit I was a Miike virgin prior to watching the DVD debut of “Shinjuku Triad Society.” From all I’d heard and read about the director’s visceral style, I expected to have the dry heaves before the half-hour mark. I should point out that my prior experience with Asian cinema was limited to Pat Morita in the first two “Karate Kid” movies (couldn’t watch the one with the chick) and a partial viewing of “Tampopo” ten years ago.

Well, I’m not sure what this says about me as a human being, but I loved every twisted, hedonistic second of this movie. I’ll go one better: I actually didn’t think it was all that gross. Don’t get me wrong, this baby has its moments — you’ll be treated to some brutal rapes (guys and gals both) and vicious beat-downs. But in the no-holds barred age of cinema we find ourselves in today, it’s hardly over the top.

As a matter of fact, the extremism, dare I say it, “furthers the plot.” I know, I loathe that clich’, too. But I swear, at no point did I feel like I was being served up a gratuitous helping of sex and violence by some wet-behind-the-ears music video director trying to impress his friends. This is the work of a nuance filmmaker who has mastered the elements of atmosphere, pacing and plot. (Yes, I appreciate that this is old news to all you Miike aficionados, but I’m playing catch-up here.)

If you haven’t seen it, “Shinjuku Triad Society” is a visual feast. In scene after scene, the rain-soaked streets give off an eerie glow that builds precisely the right underground aura. The color is so intensely dark and brooding you’d almost think it was a mistake, but clearly it’s a calculated stylistic choice.

A “Lost in Translation” view of Asian culture this isn’t. Nope, it’s the tale of a win-or-die skirmish between an amoral cop driven to do the right thing for the wrong reasons and a brutal, perverted mafia lord. It’s a battle that rages from Shinjuku to Taiwan. Interestingly, the lawman, Tatsuhito Kiriya, and the kingpin, Wang, are both of mixed Japanese and Chinese blood.

Tatsuhito has a whole ton of baggage, not the least of which are some family-related issues — his old man is bedridden and his brother is nuts deep in the intrigue with Wang. He may be a cop, but Tatsuhito ain’t a pillar of society. In his thirst to destroy his nemesis, Tatsuhito exhibits a certain “ethical flexibility.” Basically, he’s dirtier than a late night Cinemax movie.

Wang is not a pleasant man either. While he seems to be operating a hospital out of the goodness of his heart, he actually has a heinous ulterior motive. I won’t give it away, but it involves the exploitation of innocent children. And oh by the way, Wang is as gay as a picnic basket. Mind you, the powerful, evil crime lord is never shown engaging in his gayness, but his flitty little companion is evidence enough.

The tempo is damn near perfect. Miike recognizes the impossibility of trying to maintain a fever pitch and seems to know exactly when to leave us resting momentarily at the top of the Ferris wheel for a little while before making our stomachs drop. It’s a type of controlled insanity employed to great effect.

And bless his heart, there’s a wickedly macabre sense of humor amid the chaos. One of Wang’s thugs mechanically tells an old woman over and over that the amount of her kickback is being raised: “The rate is now 60%. You’re making money from Chinese girls. That’s the way it is.” When she doesn’t get the message, well, he rips her eye out. I don’t know if I should have laughed, but it was played pretty comically.

Originally made in 1995, these early films of Miike make a smooth transition to digital in both audio and video. The DVD also includes some thoughtful commentary by the director that should appeal to hardcore fans.

How has my first exposure to Miike affected a suburban white boy like myself? Well, I definitely intend to complete the “Black Society Trilogy” very soon. I’d also like to check out some of his more recent work. Oh, and I’ll probably move to Japan, open a techno club as a front, and run guns for the mafia.

Takashi Miike (director) / Ichiro Fujita (screenplay)
CAST: Takeshi Caesar, Kyosuke Izutsu, Ren Osugi

Buy Shinjuku Triad Society on DVD