I primarily know star Riki Takeuchi from the three wonderfully weird “Dead or Alive” films he made with Takashi Miike. While knowing that what I would find most likely wouldn’t be able to hold a candle to the offbeat yakuza trilogy, I nonetheless felt compelled to seek out more of Takeuchi’s films, to get a measure of the action hero outside of the Miike zone in which he had made what are probably the best films of his career.
I ended up finding Kôsuke Suzuki’s “Blood” from 1998, made one year before the first “Dead or Alive.” Now, at this point it’s worth noting that Riki Takeuchi was not the only reason why I sought out this film. Its IMDb page also listed among its cast Shô Aikawa, Takeuchi’s incredibly hip co-star in the “Dead or Alive” films. However, this listing turned out to be highly misleading, as Aikawa was nowhere to be seen in “Blood,” with no sign of his name in the actual credits. This was quite disappointing, especially since, cool-wise, Aikawa outshines Takeuchi by a slim margin in my books, and I would have loved to see another movie with the two of them together.
However, the film I ended up seeing still had plenty of Takeuchi in all of his glowering, pompadoured glory doing what he does best. He plays Takuya, a hit man who is betrayed by his crime lord boss Ri. He manages to escape and find temporary sanctuary at a hospital, where he is treated by the young doctor Kamiyama (Noboru Takachi). It turns out that Kamiyama and Takuya were best friends as boys, driven apart by an incident in which Takuya’s girlfriend, Yuki, was raped. They killed her tormentor, and Takuya took the blame for it, going to prison while Kamiyama became a doctor and married Yuki. Now, Kamiyama chooses to help his old friend, which places him in the crossfire between Takuya and Ri.
“Blood” is pretty much the film I was expecting it to be (or at least, what I was expecting after resigning myself to the fact that I was in for a Shô Aikawa-less ninety minutes): a straight-forward, by-the-numbers action film of the sort that “Dead or Alive” would later turn on its head, then inside-out for good measure. Takeuchi doesn’t have to do much to justify his presence, but what he does do (look cool, bravely cope with his many injuries, kick ass, etc), he does very well. The action scenes are plentiful and lively enough, and there are even a handful of moments that stand out for their creative utilization of violence. Among them are a little old lady serving as assassin (really!); Ri’s grinning, cackling, psychopathic henchman; a particularly cruel death by plastic bag and neck-snapping and a fair bit of nasty knife work. Also adding some color to the mix are the detective who is hell-bent on bringing Ri and Takuya to justice and the creative equipment Takuya has custom-made for the big showdown that is no doubt lifted from “Taxi Driver.”
If nothing else, “Blood” clearly demonstrates the star appeal of Riki Takeuchi, who carries the film on his burly back with plenty of gruff charisma to spare. However, by managing to be entertaining without being too remarkable, it also proves just how much room Miike had to play with Takeuchi’s image and bend the rules of the average action movie in his films. That’s probably the clearest difference between the two visions: while “Blood” stays safely within the box, “Dead or Alive,” thriving on imagination, blows it up in a dazzling fireworks display. One that includes Shô Aikawa.