Saturday, March 19, 2011

Takashi Miike Fest 2011 (#4) 2001, with AGITATOR

Takashi Miike has said in interviews (check the one on his Wikipedia page for this reference) that he actually doesn't feel too busy when he's directing and that he was busier as an Assistant Director being that directing is "easy".  Somehow he must be jesting.  With a body of work that makes Fassbinder and Woody Allen look like girly men, he's been cranking them out faster than a mad procreator spreading his cinematic seed to projector-wombs all across the world.  Whether every one is a knockout it really can't be said (with the law of averages, it's like the anti-Kubrick: instead of a whole lot of homeruns, it's scattered about a year here and there).  And in 2001, he had one of his most productive years.

1) The Happiness of the Katakuris, which I reviewed just yesterday in the Miike-Fest, his wild horror-musical that if one could put it best is like Sam Raimi's remake of Singin' in the Rain (or maybe the Sound of Music), with a touch of Jan Svankmajer's crazy stop-motion animation that has a particular affinity for food and bizarre creatures and blood.  100% wonderful.

2) Ichi the Killer, one of his most notorious films, a 'splatter' movie that so much has its title earned that it has a special 2-disc DVD set in a "Splatter-Pack" case with fake blood around the covers!  It's a super-wild movie that has probably given Miike more of his reputation than Audition has: a fucked-up, dark, bleak, violent, Manga-inspired poker-face satire on Yakuza thrillers and superheroes (Batman comparisons are not just possible, they've been much speculated on IMDb message boards, not least of which for one of the antagonist's 'scars' on his face- here used to much more useful and chilling effect arguably than Ledgers- and penchant for sadomasochism and flashy purple clothing).  Not perfect but certainly WINNING in the Charlie Sheen sense.  It's got some Tiger blood.

3) Visitor Q, another notorious effort, released on video, and a contender for the Top-Fucked-Up-Family-Drama, the kind that would make the Family Research Council's heads explode, regroup and then explode again all over their church grounds.  To put it another way it makes Dogtooth look sensible by comparison!  It's also Miike's funniest movie, a gallows-humor masterpiece that stings and whistles with a lactating mother, reality TV, rape, murder, necrophilia and murder again (in that order), and a mystery involving the title character.  Great for a first date :)

4) Family, still unseen by me, appears to be a decent but unremarkable Yakuza thriller according to IMDb, however it does intrigue be somewhat in that it has Miike's only cinematography credit of his career (albeit co-credited with Hikaru Yasuda, who also shot, uh... this?

5 & 6) Zuiketsu genso - Tonkararin yume densetsu + Kikucho-jo monogatari - sakimori-tachi no uta, um... yeah, not seen, and probably never will; one looks like it was commissioned by the Japanese government, the other has three IMDb comments ranging from "Miike shows us his classier side" to "TRASH! And believe me, that is NOT a compliment!!"  Maybe sometimes movies by a director may never be seen by anyone, even themselves...

Which brings me to #7, the movie I saw tonight at a special NYC Miike retrospective screening (and unavailable officially on DVD in the USA), Agitator

It's one thing to go into this movie partially blind - that is to say not knowing what it's about except that it's a Yakuza thriller, clocking in at a somewhat-epic 150 minutes, and that it's by the guy that made Ichi-the-holy-shit-what-was-that-Killer.  You don't know quite what to expect, and, frankly, I think I didn't really either as I had barely heard of it until a recent super-rare screening of the film.  It's another thing to put it into context with Miike in the year 2001 and what he was doing: in a sense this is kind of his 'cool-down' period in-between projects: he started with what looks to be (un-seen by me) a Yakuza thriller with Family, then two super-WTF movies (Ichi and Visitor Q) that divided audiences but made him recognizable worldwide as THE Wildman of cinema of his time, and then after this film his manic and happy-crazy musical Katakuris.

I'm not sure it's that he got burned-out, per-say (though my wife, who saw the movie too and loathed it more than I, thought this was the case), just that after some bizarre months behind the camera, he needed to try and get back to something a little more realistic.  This isn't to say that all of Agitator is, but it comes close to it the way that crime epics like this aspire to which is (perhaps) Godfather or Goodfellas levels of depth.  This film, which deals with two Yakuza crime families (almost thought it was three though), the Yokimizo and the Shinrae, deals with its lead-up to war with some competence in the storytelling, but not by that much.  For the first hour I knew who people were mostly by some of their physical appearances: one guy with shaggy hair, another with a cool beard, two of them with big tattoos on their backs, and a delivery kid who is suckered in to the Yakuza world through a cruel ceremony of force-fed whiskey and a tattoo by another drunkard.  Fun.

We haven't had that spirit here since 1989

This could be on me for not being able to keep track enough with who was who for not paying attention, but I also think it's on Miike for not really keeping things all that interesting.  The characters in the film are, frankly, mostly generic cut-outs from other Yakuza thrillers: lowly scumbag killers, their bosses lowlier but more thuggish and sometimes fatter and with more wealth and fine robes, and a couple of killers (such as what becomes the main character, or closest to it) who do have souls or have memories of what life was like in youth and before they were fully corrupted.  I wish Miike had played a little more on these conventions like he's done before, or done something else interesting with them.  It's not until halfway through the film, when Kenzaki (Kato) kidnaps one of the rival gangsters and beats him up and then when he goes to make a trade-deal Kenzaki's boss is killed, that the film really picks up some steam story-wise and I got invested in the characters.

Perhaps it's because of the state of realism Miike is after; only once or twice did I feel the film becoming more surreal, such as the flashbacks (which have a kind of brown tint and violin music) and a sex scene that starts off with gun-play in a warehouse surrounded by white light.  It's not that I expected Miike to be crazy this time, and I appreciated (as usual with him) how much patience he'll take with a shot, staying on two characters without cutting (and when he does with minimal coverage) for several minutes.  It makes characters feel closed in on a scene, which fits for the paranoia of times.

But the film just goes on too long for the story that's being told, which is nothing that really screams out for it to be epic.  If the characters were better drawn, or it had more of a hook with its concepts about the dread of being locked into a life as a Yakuza (as a couple of characters say throughout the film, "Hey, you're a Yakuza", as in, suck it up), then I could buy it being two and a half hours long.  Losing twenty minutes, just in the pacing of certain scenes, could have made it tighter and more enjoyable.

This isn't to say that Agitator falls totally flat.  For its faults in pacing and in some shallow characterizations, Miike has some strong direction and use of classical music (sometimes, maybe, comparable to the likes of Sidney Lumet's serious crime thrillers) and does have some fun here, specifically (if nothing else) for two scenes he gives himself as a Crazy-Fuck Yakuza named Shinozaki.  This could be his big wink to the audience that (sadly) many of his intended audiences won't see, but is perfectly outrageous.  He's the crazy bastard who keeps on messing around, taking a woman and using a very large object on a woman in a very inappropriate place.  He's disposed of pretty quickly after he does this, and I have to think this is his own meta-comment, maybe not unlike the way Jean-Luc Godard has at times inserted himself into his movies: when making a movie that should be taken seriously as this, his brand of madness should be curbed.

Miike's attitude on set: Let's just, like, chill and stuff... the sky...
Which is just fine.  But is it interesting?  Only some of the time, and even then mostly due to some of the acting  and a few amazing lines of dialog.  At best, it's an entertaining, bloated crime saga with a dose of generic-itis.  My advice?  See his Graveyard of Honor or Ley Lines instead for the more "straightforward" of the director's films on Yakuzas.  The end of the movie especially - where two characters are about to exact their revenge driving a huge truck through the Yakuza property exclaiming "Let's go out with a BANG!" is an irony, to take what you will.

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