Everything you wanted to know, and more, about the extremely charismatic star of Dead or Alive
By Patrick Macias
from PULP 5.07
Here's how it begins. You go into the local Japanese video store on the hunt for yakuza. Usually this means Toei movies from the sixties and seventies, fare that's hardly rare, since any self-respecting Japanese video hut offers at least a couple of the Jingi naki tatakai (Fight without Honor) or Abashiri bangaichi (Abashiri Prison) titles, if only out of respect.
But when you finally find the "Yakuza" or "Action" section, you discover that the reassuring movies of old are rapidly being put out to pasture to make more room for tons of uppity cheap-ass straight-to-video potboilers. All of which seem to star this one guy.
This sneering mug of mad, arrogant youth clad in a sour lime-green suit, so full of it he's actually wearing a bright yellow tie to compliment his sickly colored ensemble. There he is on the video box, sprawled out across the back of a limo, howling into a cell phone, or seated in front of a table covered in contraband yen notes, his face a cock-eyed sneer, legs spread "look-at-my-crotch" wide.
This is Riki Takeuchi, undisputed God-Emperor of Japanese v-cinema (straight-to-video movies). Born Chikara Takeuchi ("Riki" means powersounds cooler, huh?) on January 4, 1964 in the Oita Prefecture, he was a humble bank teller in Osaka before speeding away to a new life in Tokyo on a 400 cc motorcycle. There, Riki was discovered by a talent scout while working at an izakaiya bar, did some modeling work, and made his feature debut in director Yoshihiko Oshima's Kare no Auto-Bi, Kanojo no Shima (His Motorbike, Her Island) in 1986.
In addition to acting, Riki also designs men's clothing, runs a line of "Riki Takeuchi" boutiques, and puts on cabaret shows for adoring lady fans. He lists among his hobbies "scuba diving and watching films," but it hardly seems possible that he could have a spare moment on hand.
After all, Riki has appeared in nearly 150 film productions within a mere 15 year time span. I repeat: 150 film productions within a mere 15 year time span. Riki is an industry within the Japanese film industry. And at a time when the bloodless whelps of countless TV dramas have become the new media models for Japanese masculinity, scowling, howling Riki is a throwback to the hot-blooded yakuza heroes of yore.
In his meaty cheeks are touches of gangster movie monarchs Hiroaki Matsukata and Tomisaburo Wakayama. His face is blessed with the bulldog, rubber-faced defiance of Bunta Sugawara (himself a former male model, just like Riki!). And his body language, even when clad in yet another frightening pastel power suit, radiates a calm until-he-comes-out-of-the-bag-at-you that's comparable to yakuza deity and demi-god Takakura Ken.
So instead of replacing the old guard, as you might have initially feared, Riki is merely carrying on the torch with millennial-style multimedia gusto.
With his workload and yakuza gestalt appearance, Riki has to be more than human, and perhaps no one since Street Fighter-era Sonny Chiba looks as much like a manga character escaped from pen-and-ink prison.
Many of Riki's movies, too, seem less like films and more like neverending volumes of tankoban graphic novels. At last count, his Jingi v-cinema series was up to number 27. Meanwhile, the Minami no teiou (King of Minami) series, based on a serial in Weekly Manga Goraku, is up to (choke!) 32 installments.
And then there are the copious one-shots. Here's a box where a cross-eyed Riki is holding a gun up to his own head, the copy promising with Marvel Comics-like certainty, "Riki Dies!" Here's one where Riki is almost unrecognizabley covered in blood and screaming. Another is simply called, cheerfully, Blood.
Go into other sections of the video store and you might find Pachinko Game Drifter, where grinning good guy Riki is holding up his oversized khaki pants with one hand and a giant green onion stalk in the other. Or perhaps he's playing a working class antihero in Neketsu! Nidaime shotengai (Hot blood! 2nd Generation Shopping Center Owner). Or he's a girls' school bus driver who leaves his wife and kid behind to fraternize with hookers and no-luck pugilists in Hardboiled.
When you make up to 27 films a year, there's bound to be some variety. But would it come as a shock to hear that the actual quality of Riki's movies varies wildly? It's not uncommon for him to disappear from a narrative for huge chunks (presumably so he can walk over to a nearby set to do another picture), or for the film simply to unfold in impoverished, uninspired fashion. Most of these things went straight to video for a reason. The Riki fan puts up with it, to support him and, simply, to see him. The whole dynamic is not unlike a Elvis movie, only with pistol whippings and beat downs rather than musical numbers.
But every now and then, ol' Riki hits the bullseye. Aside from that magisterial ode to all-killer, no-filler sleaze that is Hardboiled (still tragically, available as an import only), anything directed by Takashi Miike is a safe bet. Tokyo Shock's Fudoh: The New Generation would be a great film by any standard, but with Riki (sporting one of the screen's most spectacular-ever mullets) lurking on the threshold, it becomes the v-cinema movie of your sick-ass, muck-encrusted dreams.
And then you've got Miike's Dead or Alive, wherein Riki actually acts, pulls his glowing immortal soul out of his chest, and goes mano a mano for the first time with his top v-cinema rival Show Aikawa (118 films and counting).
Having taken over Japan in less than two decades, Riki is now invading US video stores as well, in the guise of dubbed/subtitled films of no fixed quality.
Asia Pulp Cinema's Blowback: Love & Death is actually 1990's Blowback 2, a three-way shotgun wedding between Sam Peckinpah, spaghetti Westerns (Riki pulls a Gatling gun out of a coffin ala Django), and mind-numbing post-Missing in Action, shot-in-the-Philippines pyrotechnics. If you measure entertainment solely on spent bullet casings, it might be your thing. As for me, let's just say that Riki seems more at home when wandering around Kanto and Kansai than the outskirts of Manila. Most surreal scene: Riki (looking quite young and hungry) finds an English newspaper whose headline screams "JAPANESE SHOOT DEAD BODY. Internal Fight of Gangster. Japanese Young Guy Escapes".
Asia Pulp Cinema has also released Tokyo Mafia: Yakuza Wars, a stunningly average Riki outing from 1995. It starts out, as do many v-cinema titles, like one of the greatest movies you've ever seen, only to quickly run out of ambition (read: money). The opening sequence features yakuza and Chinese gangsters chopping each others' blocks off smack in the middle of crowded Kabuki-cho. But from here, the thrill is gone, despite the fun premise of Riki riding to the top of the underworld on the back of the illegal whale meat racket. More than anything else, the film (with its yakuza versus Chinese mafia backdrop) gives you an idea of what Dead or Alive would have been in the hands of anyone but Miike. Pick up the baffling "dubbed in meatball English" version ("fucking yuh-kuh-zah!") for that old-school Tattooed Hitman feel.
Tokyo Shock strikes next with 1999's Wild Criminal, which is no great shakes, but is perhaps the best of the rest of em thus far released Stateside. The "Riki is missing" plot means Our Man doesn't occupy the same central position that he does on the box, but the film can boast of having actual characters (a pair of abused yakuza women, one of them Miho Nomoto from Hardboiled, looking for some payback) and feels convincingly nasty in the key areas of misogyny and sadism.
But that's not all. Riki also makes trouble in Shundo Ohkawa's 1999 film Nobody available on VHS from Vanguard Films, and The Yakuza Way is already out on UK DVD and will be coming to the US shortly in a lime-green box adorned with a big Riki head that all but says "I'm less of a brand-name of quality and more of a self-replicating virus."
And if my calculations are correct, Riki has already whipped out a few more since you started reading this article. So enjoy your neighborhood video stores with their back catalog variety and their plentiful new releases.
Pretty soon, they will, and we will, all belong to Riki Takeuchi.
Watch out for Patrick Macias' TokyoScope: The Japanese Cult Film Companion, forthcoming in November.