review by KJ Doughton, 21 June 2002
28th Seattle International Film
Takashi Miike has made a living out of jolting filmgoers with the
most unconventional movies of the last few years. In 2000, he
unleashed Audition. Was it a black domestic comedy? A social
commentary on Japanese male chauvinism? A grisly, taboo-breaking
horror film? Its twisted tale of a waif-like ballerina turned
sadistic, leather-enshrouded femme fatale dodged formulas and
juggled genres. The same year Miike let loose with another warped
gem, "Dead or Alive," that seemed to fire all of its cinematic
cannons in the first blood and sex-soaked fifteen minutes.
Ultimately, the unpredictable film ends up as a hilarious action
movie parody, where the chain reaction caused by a cops ‘n yakuza
gun battle literally blows up the planet. In a Takashi Miike movie,
the end of the world is the rule, not the exception.
It comes as an unpleasant surprise,
then, that Miike’s Agitator is such a traditional, routine outing.
Aside from a scene of sodomy-via-karaoke-microphone, we’ve seen this
story of underworld betrayal before. A relatively muzzled gangster
epic, Agitator appears to be angling for mainstream acceptance by
a western audience, in much the same way that Brother did for
fellow Nippon director Takeshi Kitano.
After a yakuza punk torments
patrons in another crime family’s nightclub, he winds up dead at the
hands of such turf-defending rivals. Inevitably, this leads to
retaliation, including the death of Higughi, prominent underground
kingpin and boss of high-strung hothead Kenzaki.
Unable to let his mentor’s killing
go by the wayside, Kenzaki seeks payback. Predictably, this only
leads to more violence, as the bodies stack up on both sides.
Despite this tired framework,
Agitator heaps up some inventive twists and refreshing takes on
the gangster genre. Opening credits brand the screen during a
rip-snorting car chase. A prolonged, bare-fisted beating goes on and
on, until we’re wincing at every meaty explosion of fist against
face. Violence is juxtaposed by the refined sounds of classical
piano and strings, ala A Clockwork Orange, to deliriously
Perhaps the most unexpected turn
comes early, when a yakuza squadron of far-east reservoir dogs is
alerted that "the boss has been shot." We follow the tense group of
thugs as they weave down stairwells and through dark corridors, en
route to their goodfella hideaway. We share their surprise when the
clan finds their leader calmly waiting, in perfect health and with a
stopwatch in hand. "You clocked in at 18:36," he announces in a
disappointed tone. "If this wasn’t just a test, I’d be dead by now."
Call it the crime family equivalent to a fire drill.
It’s clear that Miike is still
capable of squeezing new ideas out of a shopworn formula, but Agitator’s
delights are diluted by endless scenes of mob family gatherings, and
"meetings of the capos," where the audience has to keep up with
confusing logistics. Who belongs to which gang? Which family was
dealt the last act of vengeance? Which gangsters have deflected to
the Yokomizos, and which remain with the Shiranes? Keeping track of
such details is about as headache-inducing as wading through the
bullshit intergalactic politics that neuter George Lucas’ joyless
Star Wars romps, The Phantom Menace and Attack of the Clones.
Will Takashi Miike trade in the
weird darkness he previously inhabited, for the profitable light at
the end of the box office tunnel, ala John Woo? Time will tell. In
the meantime, let’s cherish Agitator as the latest offering from a
director as cool as Cronenberg and as daring as Lynch, who is about
to break big.
Seattle International Film Festival
NR - Not Rated.
This film has not yet