Sunday, 3 July 2011

Agitator (2001)


THANK YOU AND FUCK YOU BROTHER

Brothers… they can really get you into trouble sometimes. I’ve got one, and I love him, but he can be a real pain in the ass. However, brothers, it would seem, come in different forms. There are those who are brothers by blood, those who are brothers by bond, and those who are brothers by executive decision. Given this kind of notion, what kind of loyalty is to be expected of you when obeying one means betraying another? What is your responsibility when trying to avenge one puts not just yourself, but the others in danger? Such is the primary concern of Takashi Miike’s 2001 Yakuza flick Agitator, where the hierarchy of a criminal organisation is mingled with the life-long bonds of its members, and the ambitions of those at the top are won or lost by those on the streets.

The leader of the Kaito group wishes to become the leader of the Tenseikai Syndicate, a Yakuza organisation. In order to accomplish this, he arranges for two rival gangs - the Shirane and Yokomizo - to unite under his command and kill the current Tenseikai boss. As the Yakuza executives engage in a series of complex power plays, Kenzaki Kunihiko (Masaya Kato), a soldier of the Higuchi gang, itself part of the Yokomizo family, begins to unravel these plans as the bodies start piling up around him.

Takashi Miike is not exactly known for his slow-paced and thoughtful films. This is a man who more notorious for giving the world Ichi the Killer, Audition and Visitor Q, films filled with sex, violence, sadism and a very dark sense of humour. They’re good, but they’re very hard going and not really for the squeamish. However, every now and then Miike chooses to show off his range, demonstrating his ability to produce some tense, restrained and superb films. Agitator sits within this particular grouping. Though it is punctuated with moments of uncomfortable violence, such as an early scene where a woman is anally raped with a microphone in a karaoke bar (remember, violence and very dark humour), the film is more characterised by a slow-paced, simmering hostility. We spend more time talking about the actions and ambitions of the characters than anything else, which make the occasional moments of bloodshed and brutality stand out even more.

The script by Shigenori Takechi is superbly detailed and intricately plotted. Takechi does a great job of weaving together the multiple character’s varied ambitions and motivations together, giving virtually every scene a very dramatic goal. You’ve got to pay attention to the characters when the speak, because as soon as one person makes a decision, it casts out like the proverbial ripple in a pond, and then others try to short-circuit or outthink these decisions. It’s also important to note that the plot doesn’t twist and turn for the sake of being more dramatic. The characters are drawn well, so their motivations feel genuine. Often films that seek to have this kind of structure throw ridiculous curveballs at the audience under the guise of keeping them on their toes, but feel thin and disingenuous. Agitator does not. In fact, so taken with Takechi’s script was Miike that he remade it twice more in different styles, as 2002’s Violent Fire and 2003’s The Man in White. Also, Takechi spreads his gaze over the Yakuza gang world very wide, taking in the power hungry executives at the top and the lowly first-timers who literally get kidnapped into the organisation. One subplot involves a food delivery boy, barely out of his teens, being grabbed and forcibly boozed into unconsciousness only to wake up in the middle of being given a full back tattoo. After this, he can’t leave. That’s the world we are looking into here.

Cinematographer Kiyoshi Itô’s camerawork is something of a plus and minus. On one hand, the film itself feels muddy and sometimes rather sluggish. Part of this will be down to Miike’s, at the time, insistence on filming on video rather than film or digital, and part of it will be an attempt by Itô to give things a gritty feel, which isn’t always successful. On the other hand, there are moments when the camera comfortably adopts the mentality of its main subject, which adds considerably to the scene. Conversations of quiet tension can play out in long unmoving, unedited single takes; whereas scenes of violent outburst will seem to tremble with anger. I’d still rather have a cleaner sense of colour and grain, but them’s the breaks.

Performance-wise, there isn’t really a bad seed in the bunch. The lead, Masaya Katô, was a former model who became an actor and he fills the role well. He carries the somewhat brooding nature of Kunihiko very well and brings a sense of charisma, too. Even if he does walk around with his shirt or jacket open a lot, you can understand why people follow his lead. Hiroki Matsukata’s rather intense show as Kaito is also noteworthy, because every time he speaks or looks up, you can see how threatening this guy is.

There are occasions where, for the sake of the already very densely packed running time, certain scenes could maybe have been excised. For example, moments between Kunihiko and his girlfriend do little for the overall story arc, though they do add to the depth of character. Also, Kaito’s brief scene with his money-grubbing son is of little value to the plot. It’s great to get a greater sense of the people we’re watching, but at two-and-a-half hours, Agitator is a long film. There’s actually an alternative cut which has an extra 50 minutes of footage. Removing some of the scenes that have less impact on the story could have given Agitator a much cleaner, more streamlined feel. However, to do so would remove the personality from the film, effectively making it a very clever, but much more standard film in the Yakuza sub-genre.

So, what, if anything, does this film have to say about brotherhood, loyalty and the nature of allegiance? Well, it’s complicated it would seem. That’s really what it comes down to. Loyalty can be a very valuable thing. In this world, you have to know who you can trust if you wish to stay alive. As the head of a major Yakuza organisation, Kaito depends on the loyalty of those beneath him to ensure he reaches his goals. Kunihiko is a soldier on the streets, where your ability to trust in the man next to you can make the difference between life and death. However, for Kaito to succeed, he must prove himself as disloyal to his own boss, which is something that seems unthinkable to Kunihiko. Kaito commands loyalty from his subordinates because he has risen through the ranks to become the leader he is, so it has long since become something of lesser importance to him personally. Kunihiko knows nothing beyond his own relationships, so they mean all the more to him. He’s more than happy to be disloyal to someone like Kaito in favour of Higuchi, with whom he has a strong personal bond. This notion of the personal bond as a source of great strength and unending trouble is something that recurs throughout the picture, with characters going to war with each other out of revenge for the death of someone close to them. Really, it’s the low-level thugs like Kunihiko who know the real value of brotherhood. It’s no wonder Kaito can prove himself so easily power hungry and disloyal. He has no personal bonds, even if he tries to have them. People can’t respect someone who has no respect for others.

Agitator is an intriguing and complex film, if something of a slow-burner. There are times where you may get lost amongst the various characters and rival factions, and it’s lengthy running time of two-and-a-half hours could have done with some trimming, but there really is rarely a dull moment in there. Not like Miike’s other more predominantly violent works, it’s thoughtful, tense and one that rewards those that can pay attention to the details.

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