Japanese director 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 disorienting effect.
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.