Please note: this article contains descriptions of sexual assault.
Takashi Miike is one of the most prolific working directors around. He has made more than one film a year since 1991, and the release of Blade of the Immortal marks his 100th. This isn’t surprising since Miike began his career in the midst of the Japanese V-cinema boom, when cheap and fast films made for video were at their most popular. He worked in the direct-to-video market for several years before his big break came with Shinjuku Triad Society in 1995. This was his first film made originally for theatrical release, his first major studio film for Daiei and the first entry of his Black Society trilogy.
A gangster film, Shinjuku Triad Society already displays some of Miike’s distinctive quirks that would reappear in his later films, namely exaggerated gore (an elderly madam has her eye pulled out), and a preoccupation with perversity. Miike depicts Shinjuku as a gothic playground of murky morals. Before any credits appear, a voice-over opens the film by framing it as “a love story that’s both sickening and sweet”. The central conflict lies between a half-Chinese, half-Japanese detective named Kiriya and Wang, a gay Taiwanese man who is head of the Dragon’s Claw triad. Their relationship is complicated by Kiriya’s estranged brother Yoshihito, who is working as Wang’s lawyer.
What unites Kiriya and Wang is a sense of alienation from Japanese society. Kiriya, due to his being mixed-race, and Wang due to his place as a gay immigrant. Nonetheless, both men ruthlessly use their otherness to carve out a place for themselves. For Kiriya, his knowledge of Mandarin makes him useful to the police force when interrogating Chinese suspects. Meanwhile, Wang uses his connections in Taiwan to build his criminal empire: harvesting organs from Taiwanese children to sell to wealthy Japanese families.
One of the most remarkable features of Shinjuku Triad Society is the way it portrays queerness. It’s hardly original in using queer identities as a shorthand for social alienation. For instance, in Takeshi Kitano’s own directorial debut Violent Cop, a merciless killer is revealed to be gay. In Kitano’s film this aspect of the character’s life is briefly shown and ultimately incidental, whereas Miike saturates his film with a queer energy that is both overt and implied. Wang’s boyfriend Zhou is a young prostitute and the film depicts him giving blowjobs multiple times without the squeamishness that’s sadly to be expected of straight film-makers. The very first image of the film has Zhou lying naked on a bed with decorative butterflies hanging over him. However, what’s really interesting about queerness in Shinjuku Triad Society is less explicit. Throughout the film, Yoshihito is heavily implied, though never confirmed, to be gay. This adds a new level of meaning to Kiriya’s efforts to keep his brother away from Wang. Kiriya goes as far as to beat Yoshihito unconscious and dump him on a bullet train to their parents. However, Kiriya’s motivations may go even deeper than that of a homophobe struggling to save his sibling from a life of gay criminality.
Despite being positioned as the protagonist; the film makes it clear that Kiriya is no hero. He accepts bribes from the Yamane gang, and in the opening scene he beats up a suspect named Ritsuko after she mockingly propositions him. Later, he anally rapes Ritsuko, and this isn’t even the first time in the film he’s responsible for sexual violence. Unable to get a Chinese suspect to talk, Kiriya has a colleague rape the man in a graphic scene where the camera’s eye lingers on the act. Such a problematic portrayal of sexual violence has long been an issue with Miike’s filmography. Easily the worst part of Shinjuku Triad Society is how Ritsuko helps her rapist when he is at his most vulnerable. The only explanation she gives is that “it was the first time I came without being high.” It’s gross that the only woman in the film is so severely short-changed by the script.
While the sexism at play is undeniable, the portrayal of sexual violence does at least serves a purpose beyond shock. The prevalence of rape in Shinjuku Triad Society underscores the way characters interact with each other. Everyone is after power and they try to gain it through the application of sex and violence. Even the consensual sex scenes in the film are notable for their mercenary motives. For instance, Zhou gives the Yamane gang member Ishizaka a blowjob in exchange for a priceless knife. Angered by Zhou’s infidelity, Wang cripples his boyfriend and destroys the Yamane gang.
Despite being a ruthless criminal, Wang’s death at the end of the film offers forth a genuine moment of humanity in a story starved of it. After “rescuing” Yoshihito, Kiriya tracks down Wang’s hideout where he is holed up with Zhou and a transgender prostitute. Kicking the door in with the prostitute as a human shield, Kiriya immediately shoots the gangster. Here, Miike’s penchant for exaggeration truly comes to life, as Wang refuses to die. In a prolonged struggle that mirrors the earlier fight between Kiriya and Yoshihito, cop and criminal struggle in a deadly embrace, with Kiriya pinned against a wall. After eventually being stabbed in the neck with a broken bottle, a dying Wang crawls toward Zhou who has been cowering in the corner. In his final moments, a blood-drenched Wang reaches his arm out to his lover in an oddly tender moment that speaks to the genuine, imperfect affection between the two men. Both actors take their time to solidify this moment and the camera rests patiently on this gruesome image that nonetheless possesses a unique beauty. Zhou and Wang are both murderers, but the film refuses to see them as anything less than human. When Wang finally dies, the camera cuts to a reverse shot of Kiriya. The prostitute he threatened earlier can be seen lying in the background, but it is clear from the composition of the shot that Kiriya is a lonely man compared to his vanquished adversary. Wang may be gone but he had something that Kirya is unable to know.