Considering the strange and disturbing areas that Takashi Miike has explored over the last few years, the plot basics of the director’s first feature film-proper (after various made-for-video projects) seem almost ordinary by comparison. It’s very much an updating of Kinji Fukasaku’s brand of 70s Yakuza thriller, but if the story and characters are nothing we haven’t seen before, then the gripping pacing and intense violence make it a vivid experience.
Like John Woo’s A Better Tomorrow, Shinjuku Triad Society concerns two brothers on either side of the law. Kiriya is a Chinese-born cop on the mean streets of Tokyo’s Shinjuku district who thinks nothing of breaking a chair over a female suspect’s face to extract a confession, but is also a loving son to his elderly parents who have found it difficult fitting into Japanese society. Kiriya’s younger brother Yoshihito is a lawyer, but he’s chosen to represent psychotic gangster Wang, who runs Shinjuku’s most feared Chinese Triad gang and profits from an organ trafficking operation run from a hospital in Taiwan.
As heroes go, the violent, rule-breaking Kiriya is hardly a strong role model, but Miike succeeds in making him a sympathetic figure. His relationship with Yoshihito is believable, as is his determination to keep his brother’s occupation a secret from his parents and remove him from Wang’s employment. The other characters are less well drawn – Wang is a cartoon psychopath, while the various cops, prostitutes (male and female) and gangsters that populate Shinjuku are all pretty generic. However, the racial tension that exists between the Triad gangs and the native Yakuza is fascinating – the reckless arrogance of the Taiwanese and Chinese gangsters in assuming their role in the Tokyo underworld is shown in stark contrast to the Yakuza’s long-established codes of honour (that said, given that Miike is Japanese, his portrayal of the Triads might not be entirely without bias).
Miike has never been a director to stick to one style of shooting during a film, and here he experiments with different lenses, handheld and static camerawork and conjures up all manner of interesting camera angles. The shock level is high too – there’s gore (an eyeball torn from a woman’s skull, several messy throat slittings) and sexual violence (including a confession extracted via anal rape) – some of which is necessary to the plot, some less so. But it’s never boring, and apart from a haunting section in which Kiriya traces Wang’s operation to Taiwan, moves along at a breathless pace.
Japan’s most controversial director, notorious for his dauntingly prolific output and willingness to push the boundaries of taste. Miike started working as an assistant director in the late 80s, before moving into making straight-to-video thrillers in 1991. He made his feature debut in 1995 with the violent cop thriller Shinjuku Triad Society, and since then has averaged around seven films year.