Agitator (2001)

First published by Movie Gazette

Review: Internal and external strife, honour, ambition, loyalty, treachery, revenge, love and death. Where films like Troy (2004) paid mere lipservice to these themes, Miike Takashi’s Agitator (aka Araburu tamashii-tachi, aka The Outlaw Souls) treats them with the depth and intelligence that they deserve, spinning a modern epic from the convoluted, often ruthless, manoeuvrings of the Japanese yakuza.

Miike is best known for his shock tactics and anarchic exuberance, but apart from one early scene in which the man himself makes a suitably outrageous cameo (playing, appropriately enough, an agent provocateur, and finding an unpleasant use for a microphone not seen since his previous Visitor Q), Agitator is a relatively restrained affair, with most of its violence taking place off-camera. Replacing the director’s usual fireworks are a narrative complexity and subtlety reminiscent of the classic yakuza films of the 1970s – a connection taken even further in Miike’s second collaboration with screenwriter Takechi Shigenori, Graveyard of Honour (2002), which is a remake of Fukasaku Kinji’s 1975 film of the same name.

Like Ichi the Killer (but without that film’s surreal flourishes, graphic gore or general perversity), Agitator depicts the unravelling of a crime family after its leader has been killed. In a bid to consolidate his position in the vast Tenseikai syndicate, Kaito (Matsukata Hiroki) plans to absorb the rival Yokomizo and Shirane families by replacing their implacably opposed leaders with puppets who will be willing to merge the families and bring them into his control. Yet when Kaito sends assassins to murder the elderly Yokomizo (Mickey Curtis), he does not reckon on Higuchi (Takenaka Naoto), an unruly gangleader who will never ally himself to his godfather’s killers – nor on Kenzaki (Kato Masayo), a young, maverick squadleader whose willingness to take extreme action is outweighed only by his absolute loyalty to Higuchi, and whose remaining followers will readily give up their own lives in his service.

Agitator begins with a girl remembering the day she first met Kenzaki, when he was purchasing a small kaleidoscope – “No-one ever sees the same scene twice”, she says in voice-over. The girl, it turns out, is, like the few other female characters in the film, a tangential, almost invisible element in the narrative, but the kaleidoscope which links her to Kenzaki becomes a central metaphor for the way in which the film is organised, with a dizzying array of characters who appear fleetingly and then disappear again, only to reemerge later in new groupings and circumstances. This disjointed, episodic structure reveals the byzantine politics of the yakuza in various cross-sections, taking in the loftiest crimelords and the lowliest recruits – and ultimately bringing them into explosive collision with one another. Amidst all the Machiavellian duplicity and shifting allegiances, the only constant is Kenzaki’s loyal bond to Higuchi – yet even this is subjected to the film’s kaleidoscopic vision. For we are shown glimpses of the relationship from multiple angles as now professional, now filial, now homoerotic – we see its childhood beginnings (viewed in nostalgic flashback, as in Miike’s Dead or Alive 2) and its endurance even beyond the grave – and it is reflected in and refracted by the many other male-male relationships depicted within the film, whether between yakuza and their leaders, or between actual fathers and sons.

Agitator is a densely layered, multi-faceted portrait of honour amongst thieves, and ranks as one of Miike’s most mature, and most complex, films to date.

Summary: A kaleidoscopic yakuza epic which moves as inexorably towards its climax as an out-of-control juggernaut.

Anton Bitel