on 12 February 2008
Agitator (2001) is one of director Takashi Miike's grittier entries into the Yakuza sub-genre; having far more in common with films such as Shinjuku Triad Society (1996) and Rainy Dog (1997), as opposed to the more colourful likes of Fudoh: The New Generation (1998) and Ichi the Killer (2001). As with the vast majority of Yakuza crime dramas, the issues dealt with here include honour, loyalty, power and betrayal, with Agitator focusing principally on the two conflicting worlds of the Yakuza; with the sharp-suited crime lords doing business behind the closed doors of opulent boardrooms on one side, and the street level thugs who enjoy the giddy rush of excitement provided to them by their criminal existence on the other. As the film progresses the two worlds collide with violent and catastrophic consequences, as Miike reigns in much of his more elaborate directorial flourishes to give us a film that is, for the most part, sharp, realistic and entirely believable.
At two and a half hours in length the film is a definite crime epic, however, whereas the implication of such a tag might suggest the grand, operatic elegance of Coppola's The Godfather (1972) or the intricate balance of characters and time presented to us by Scorsese's Goodfellas (1991), Agitator is instead a low-key and entirely low-budget production; focusing on a small collection of reoccurring characters shot through with an unglamorous and unpretentious sense of immediacy. If we compare Agitator to other Miike-directed crime films, from the neo-realist character-piece Ley Lines (1999) to the gonzo deconstruction of the Dead or Alive trilogy (1999-2002), the filmmaker has proven himself again and again to be more than capable of injecting even the most hackneyed and seemingly unoriginal of pot-boilers with a lingering sense of flair, style and imagination. In contrast, the low-key look of Agitator, with its drab colour scheme, real-life locations and use of hand-held cinematography may at first appear jarring, especially to anyone more familiar with his other, more surreal or experimental features, such as Gozu (2003), The Happiness of The Katakuris (2001), Visitor Q (2001) and his masterpiece Audition (1999).
This contrast works surprisingly well though, taking a story and a theme that could have become very clichéd and melodramatic and instead, turning it into a very gritty, very human expose into the back-stabbing world of the Japanese Yakuza, and the careful play of power that takes place to create not only harmony, but also supremacy. The basic plot riffs on the various themes discussed above, with honour, loyalty, power and betrayal driving the story, while later we see the prevalent Yakuza themes of revenge and retribution as the film nears its brutal, blood-soaked final. For me, it lacks some of the individuality and sense of imagination found in my favourite Miike films, such as Gozu, Audition, Dead or Alive 2: Birds (2000) and Visitor Q, but at the same time it doesn't feel the need to descend into exaggerated self-parody, like the enjoyable Ichi the Killer or the flawed Dead or Alive: Final (2003). As with Audition and films like The Bird People of China (1998), Rainy Dog and The Great Yokai War (2005) it shows that Miike is a filmmaker more than willing to blend his predilections for excessive violence and gore alongside an interesting story and intelligent characterisation.
Agitator, for me, doesn't quite reach the heights of classic Miike. Too much of the narrative seems vague and the epic running time might be a potential drag for some viewers who come to Miike's work expecting endlessly scenes of jaw-dropping spectacle; but that said, there's certainly enough hear to warrant it as a recommendation for viewers who are already vaguely familiar with the filmmaker and his work. As I mentioned earlier, the low key directorial style suits the subject matter very well, creating a film that is gritty and completely believable, while there are some fine performances throughout (including an amusing cameo from the director himself, definitely playing up to his caricatured image as both a misogynist and a sadist), with the cast including a combination of seasoned professionals, Miike-regulars and newcomers with limited experience. Agitator shows us once again that Miike is a real filmmaking talent able to mix genre films with more personal projects, and able to produce intelligent, engaging and exciting cinema quickly and on a budget.