Cine Outsider header
front page    disc reviews    film reviews    articles    interviews  
After the rain
A region 2 DVD review of RAINY DOG / GOKUDÔ KUROSHAKAI by Slarek
 

For those familiar with the work of prolific Japanese director Miike Takashi, Rainy Dog may well come as something of a surprise. This will be especially true for those who have been exposed to the censor-baiting excesses of the first of his self-proclaimed Kuroshakai (Black Society) trilogy, Sinjuku Triad Society. Although this second part of this trilogy and also featuring a central character trying to forge an identity in a land that is not his own, Rainy Dog proves to be one of Miike's most understated and atmospheric works. And while the very subject matter almost demands a level of violence, it is handled in a matter-of-fact way that befits the story and situation, and has none of the gleefully gratuitous nastiness of its predecessor.

Yuuji is an ex-yakuza now living in exile in the Taiwanese capital of Taipei, where he ekes out a living performing hits for a local crime boss. A coldly efficient killer, he has only one superstition – he believes it is bad luck to go out in the rain and will even postpone a hit at the first sign of a cloudburst. One day a woman from his past unexpectedly appears and presents him with a mute young boy – Ah Chen – who she claims is his son, then abruptly departs. Initially frustrated, Yuuji carries on his normal day-to-day life and all but ignores the boy, who silently follows him around town and even sleeps outside in the alley when Yuuji is visiting prostitute Lily, a woman who, like he, has a dislike for rainy days. His life is further complicated when the brother of one of his victims comes looking for revenge, and he could certainly do without the unexpectedly appearance of an old rival from Japan, for whom Yuuji's death represents his only way back to his homeland.

Miike is not a director exactly known for his mood pieces, but it is this aspect in particular that proves Rainy Dog's greatest asset. The scenes in Taipei back streets and market areas, often shot with a hand-held camera in unhurried takes, really capture the atmosphere of a particularly unglamorous corner of this metropolitan city. Yuuji's constant melancholy is also nicely reflected in the frequently pouring rain, which drags alleyways and rooms into semi-darkness and repeatedly imprisons Yuuji while others outside are making moves against him. This sense of isolation is at least in part self-imposed, his superstition about rainfall no doubt enhanced by his casual drug habit and his failure to connect with a city that bears only a surface resemblance to the Tokyo of his past. This isn't his home, these aren't his people, this isn't even his language, and by retaining this sense of disconnection, it no doubt makes them easier to kill.

The arrival of his son initially fails to change this, and Yuuji's early refusal to even acknowledge his presence is partially due to a to a refusal to let down his guard. One of the very few times he talks to the boy is to tell him "You're not a dog!" which is, of course, exactly how he behaves, following his father no matter what the circumstances, sleeping outside in the rain and making friends with a genuine street canine, who kicks against expectations by refusing to accompany him when he leaves. Ah Chen becomes Yuuji's conscience, a constant and haunting reminder of a life he has lost, there every time he looks out of the window, every time he turns round in the street. It is the eventual recognition of this that prompts the first change in Yuuji – in an attempt to do two good deeds and take care of both Lily and his son, he runs foul of circumstance and finds himself part of a makeshift family. For the first time he discovers a part of him that genuinely cares for the welfare of someone other than himself.

This is all very deftly handled by Miike, who seems happy for his audience to discover all of this without obvious signposting. The film's weakness are less to do with breadth than depth, as Miike touches on a whole host of thematic issues but rarely explores them in any real detail, and with the characters and storyline a tad under-developed, there is a sense that another half-hour spent expanding on some areas would really have been welcome. The scene in which Yuuji, Lily and Ah Chen march along a beach and stop their escape to cheerfully dig up an old scooter, for example, has all the hallmarks of scene from a Kitano Takeshi film – the beach setting, the odd-ball family unit consisting of killer, hooker and mute young boy. But though very different film, Kitano's own (would-be) gangster/young boy tale Kikujiro crammed more character detail into fifteen minutes than Rainy Dog has in its entire running time, as did Luc Besson's US-based Leon and Pierre Salvadori's 1993 Cible émouvante [Wild Target], both of which dealt with similar subject matter and characters.

A sense of familiarity also dogs aspects of the film. Yuuji is a somewhat typical Hong-Kong style assassin, his studied moodiness, long white coat and dark glasses making him stand out spectacularly in any crowd, though Taipei does seem to lack a working police force – just minutes after carrying out a killing, Yuuji sits in the same clothes in full public view eating a meal with his old rival. Assassins only ever seem to feature as main characters in films in order to find redemption, and hit-men with odd quirks have appeared in any number of thrillers, from Joe Don Baker's Molly and his fondness for herbal tea in Don Siegel's Charley Varrick (1973) to the aforementioned Leon and his pot plant obsession. Later on Miike chucks caution to the wind and throws a series of gun-battle clichés at the screen in quick succession, including the old "treasured object in the pocket stopping the bullet" gag, which has been piss-taken in everything from Under Fire (1983) to The Simpsons (though the incredulity of the character it happens to here just about sells it). And I'm sorry, but almost from the moment I was told that Yuuji's son was mute, I just knew that that he was going to rediscover his voice at a crucial point of emotional bonding later in the film. Even the nicely laid-back guitar score has more than a hint of Paris, Texas era Ry Cooder about it.

But if all this stops a good movie from becoming a great one, it doesn't seriously take away from the fact that Rainy Dog is a good movie, an atmospheric and involving piece with dark edge and strong replay value, precisely because its principal pleasures do not lie in the area of narrative surprise. For newcomers to Miike's work this is as good as way in as any, and possibly one of the least traumatic. It also benefits from being seen as part of the trilogy rather than a stand-alone piece.

It should be noted that this was actually filmed in Taipei in the Mandarin language, with occasional shifts to Japanese for certain lines. As subtitles are supplied for all dialogue (and are removable), an ear for shifts in the language is useful, as some of these moments are quite telling in character terms.

sound and vision

Released as a region 2 disk on the UK by Tartan in the days before the DTS re-awakening, the transfer on show here does the film no real favours. Although the grim, dour look was no doubt partially intentional, there is still a rather grubby lack of sharpness and an almost complete lack of detail in some darker areas, rendering small parts of the action almost invisible. Though largely watchable, a remastered print would greatly benefit the film's UK DVD incarnation. Framing is 1.78:1 and the picture is anamorphically enhanced.

One point of note – when Yuuji's rough-sleeping rival awakens early in the film and takes a piss from the rooftops, his genitals are censored by a seemingly hand-drawn scribble, though this seems likely to have been done at source, given the issues with Japanese censorship and genitalia of any kind.

Sound is Dolby 2.0, and though serviceable a 5.1 or DTS mix would again have really worked for the film, given its use of rain and street noise for atmosphere.

extra features

Miike Takashi interview (9:56) was shot on 4:3 DV video and looks in sparkling shape, making you feel even more miffed about the quality of the picture on the main feature. Miike muses briefly on a number of aspects related to the film's tone, characters and story. Interesting but not that revealing. The interview is conducted in Japanese with English subtitles.

There are textual filmographies for director Miike and actors Tomorowo Taguchi and Sho Aikawa. Titles and dates only are given.

Tom Mes Film Notes is a seven page intro to the film by Tom Mes, author of Agitator: The Cinema of Takashi Miike. As a confirmed Miike fan, he regards the film as "absolutely superb." You may well agree. It should be pointed out that if you buy the region 1 ArtsMagic DVD then you'll get a full commentary by Mr. Mes.

Miike Takashi Trailer Reel has trailers for six of of Miike's other works, including the other two films in the Black Society trilogy, Sinkjuku Triad Society and Ley Lines. Aspect ratios, print condition and even anamorphic status varies here.

summary

Strong on mood, atmosphere and thematic subtext, but weaker on story, character and actually exploring that thematic subtext, Rainy Dog is still a solid piece of work from a prolific director, one whose sizeable and often uncritical cult following is making even-handed critical judgment of his works increasingly hard to track down. DVD-wise this release comes up short, and though the region 1 Artsmagic disc also apparently has its picture issues, it looks like the one to go for, as you also get the Tom Mes commentary track.

Rainy Dog
Gokudô kuroshakai

Japan 1997
95 mins
director
Takashi Miike
starring
Sho Aikawa
Lianmei Chen
Ming-jun Gao
Jianqin He
Tomorowo Taguchi

DVD details
region 2
video
1.78:1 anamorphic
sound
Dolby 2.0 stereo
languages
Mandarin and Japanese
subtitles
English
extras
Interview with director
Filmographies
Trailers
Biographies
Film notes
distributor
Tartan
release date
Out now
review posted
2 February 2005

related reviews
The Happiness of the Katakuris
One Missed Call
Three... Extremes

See all of Slarek's reviews