Takashi Miike’s "Dead or Alive 2: Birds" is at once a sequel to his 1999 "Dead or Alive: Hanzaisha" and a stand alone film with a narrative completely separate from its predecessor’s. Once again starring opposite each other are the hip Sho Aikawa and Riki Takeuchi, but this time they find themselves on the same side against a multitude of enemies. Aikawa plays Mizuki, a killer for hire who sports dyed yellow hair and a matching shirt. During a job, his target is gunned down before his eyes by Takeuchi’s Shuuichi. When the two meet face to face, they realize that they are in fact childhood friends who once lived together at an orphanage. Together, they go to meet Kôhei, another former companion of theirs, reliving old memories while, in their absence, the crime situation in Tokyo gradually worsens.
Though narratively unrelated to the first "Dead or Alive" film, "Birds" carries over a number of elements. Along with Aikawa and Takeuchi, who are as delightful as ever to watch either apart or together, Miike brings back a hazy look implying a feeling of smoldering summer heat that swamps (and compliments) the often crazy events, a storyline involving the yakuza and the zany, offbeat humor that made the first film so memorable. A number of colorfully eccentric characters populate the seedy underworld setting, including a trio of hit men who communicate entirely via text messages and an avid magician played by Shinya Tsukamoto. However, as he did before, Miike often gives his audience a break by balancing the ultraviolent madness with quiet, thoughtful passages that focus on character development and deep themes.
Despite its appearance as an action-packed crime drama, "Birds" is in fact a film specifically about memory and the past. As they continue their friendship from where it left off, Mizuki, Shuuichi and Kôhei recall their youth together through flashbacks, old rituals and recovered home movie footage. In a way, "Birds" acts as an interesting counterpart to Takeshi Kitano’s "Sonatine" (which I reviewed a few weeks ago), another film in which hardened criminals joyfully rediscover the simple pleasures of childhood. Mizuki and Shuuichi’s own journey of rediscovery reaches its peak in an enthusiastically performed children’s play (in which they are festively costumed as a lion and turtle) before newspapers and radio broadcasts detailing their grisly crimes rudely yank the two killers back to reality, reminding them of who they have become.
"Birds" eventually shifts back into its yakuza film mode, though not without a few pleasantly unexpected twists. Along with adding a philosophically fulfilling aspect to the assassins’ activities, the film also provides much symbolic imagery which explains the film’s subtitle and a prolonged yet fitting ending. Stylish, hard-hitting and gleefully entertaining, "Dead or Alive 2: Birds" is yet another classic Miike treat.