I've probably mentioned this before, many times, but my introduction to Takashi Miike came in a bit of a triple punch to the gut. I can't remember the exact order, even if I have previously named a title as my definitive first ever Miike, but it was a dizzying mix of the horror of Audition, the insane nastiness of Ichi The Killer (as butchered by the BBFC as it was/is), and the blistering opening salvo of Dead Or Alive. I then followed that up with the likes of Visitor Q, The Happiness Of The Katakuris, and managed to see clips of Gozu.
Those are all representative of Miike movies at the turn of the 21st century, but only in the way they show his wild and varied approach to subject matters. What they don't really show is the heart and maturity that can be seen in a film like this one, the second of the very loose trilogy (basically only connected by the titles and leads), and how he can do a hell of a lot with fairly limited resources.
The plot of Dead Or Alive 2: Birds is quite simple, really. Two hitmen (played by Riki Takeuchi and Sho Aikawa) cross paths, realise that they were friends as children, and head back to visit the orphanage on an island community that helped to raise them. They then decide to use their deadly skills to help get money for the orphanage, a decision that doesn't sit too well with the gangsters who had previously been profiting from the specified kills.
Although there are still little fantastical flourishes here and there, this is a much more grounded film than the hyper-stylized Dead Or Alive. The first film was about morality, shaded and complex as it can be. It was about good versus evil, taken to an enjoyably ridiculous conclusion, but it also spent a lot of time wallowing in the criminal underworld. It made viewers feel unpleasant, in need of a shower. This film, while it certainly looks at good versus evil, explores the grey middle ground even further. Bad deeds can be done for many reasons, but are they still essentially bad deeds if the outcome ends up being so good? Is redemption available to those who can't fully change their nature? Can reconnecting to your more innocent youth reconnect you to your more innocent soul? All, or none, of these things might go through your head while watching this surprisingly emotional look at two jaded men potentially saved by the memories of when they were just two young boys.
The performances from all involved are very good, with Takeuchi and Aikawa giving their best turns in the trilogy. But, even more so than the lead performances, the overall atmosphere of this film is something to be displayed as exhibit A when anyone tries to dismiss Miike as nothing more than a dealer in violence and shocks. You can almost feel the sunshine and smell the surrounding countryside during the many scenes that show the leads in their youth, remembered in that sun-hazed nostalgia that affects so many of us when we strive to remember long lost years that were wasted in playtime before we knew anything of adult responsibilities or stresses.
It still falls short of being perfect, in different ways from the first film, but this remains a beautiful and resonant work that still needs to be seen by a LOT more people.
Buy the trilogy here.