Agitator (150 minute international version)

4 out of 5

Directed by: Takashi Miike

One yakuza family plots with lieutenants from other families to off their respective bosses, leading – if all goes well – to a pooling of power under that first family… given that the others pledge their allegiance.  Things end up not going well.

Approximately a million and one v-cinema flicks have followed this general outline, with director Takashi Miike offering several variations of his own.  And make no mistake: the template is exactly the same: when one of the bosses is taken out, some young upstart pays no heed to instructions to not retaliate and goes off on a one man war.  That one man in this case is Kunihiko (Masaya Kato) – although he has his own little “squad” of followers behind him – and his direct superior telling him to settle down, although conflicted when giving that instruction, is Yoichi (Naoto Takenaka).  However, as Miike has shown us across his many, many movies, including those that play in this format, is that he often has his own agenda when it comes to yakuza flicks, leading to different approaches for breaking the story, with, I’d say, the success of that based on how well his leads can carry a scene.  Given that Masaya and Naoto are both stunningly effective here, drawing in the viewer almost solely through body language, and that Agitator is one of Miike’s most patiently controlled movies, with a gorgeous-as-usual off kilter score by Kōji Endō, we’re at the better end of the spectrum of Miike’s pre-“Hollywood” output.

While Tom Mes’ writes of an extended 200 minute version of this film in his book of the same name, which would seem to include a lot of extra – and interesting – character building, without having seen that, I think the way Miike edits in the briefest clips of the various yakuzas’ day-to-day activities is fascinating, making us fill in the blanks between scenes of sitting with wives or children, or washing clothes, or exchanging a gift with a girlfriend.  For the bulk of the movie, these bad dudes who spend their business hours making secret takeover plans and shooting guns are shot in stiff, quiet scenes, rarely emotive.  This would / could be boring, but the perspective Miike takes, always something of a queer angle – cutting away from the person talking or intercutting offbeats of the conversation – makes it feel tense; there’s the understanding that huge decisions are happening during these offhand conversations, and when deaths occur, they’re not dolled up as action scenes or overly memorialized – shot taken; business as usual.

Kunihiko’s / Yoichi’s boss is taken out; the other leaders in Yoichi’s family want to bring in another family to mediate, while Yoichi wishes for more direct action.  As a result, he tells Kunihiko – a friend since childhood – to stand down, but doesn’t exactly keep tabs on him, and so Kunihiko pushes the matter to its breaking point.  …Which causes more problems.

All of this is rather masterly shot, edited, and scored, balanced between still shots and handheld intensity, with surprising character juxtapositions – Yoichi giving commanding orders, then waiting until he’s alone in his car to break down into tears, for example – and those cutaways to moments wherein these heavies are just regular folk again.  Unfortunately, there’s a point where all the retribution has sorta / kinda been paid, and that leaves Kunihiko – and the movie – feeling somewhat rootless.  This is towards the end of the film, and certainly metatextually fits with the tales themes, which has characters spouting about how ‘you’re not living if you’re not moving forward’ and the like, but it’s still a huge halt in the tenseness we’ve experienced ’til then.  The only thing left at that point is for Agitator to become something of a typical yakuza movie of revenge and gunplay, which it does, but there’s subversion baked into this which makes the final 15 minutes or so an upswing in brilliance.

This is a dumb generalization, but it’s a good sign when a 2 hour plus movie has you forgetting to check the clock for the bulk of its runtime.  While Agitator somewhat stumbles near its conclusion, it’s an understandable step that needs to be taken in order to get back around to an affecting, and explosive ending.  One of Miike’s best of his “regular” films, with a cheeky early cameo from the director baiting viewers into expecting outlandishness and then delivering a rather straight-forward and emotional flick.