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Agitator
cast: Mickey Curtis, Yoshiyuki Daichi, Hakuryu, Masatô Ibu, and Renji Ishibashi

director: Miike Takashi

150 minutes (18) 2001
widescreen ratio 2.35:1
Tartan Asia Extreme DVD Region 0 retail
Also available to buy on video

RATING: 7/10
reviewed by Donald Morefield
After their mentor Yoichi is executed by rival crime boss, street punk Kunihiko takes over control of the Kenzaki hit squad, inciting a major gang war between the Higuchi and the Shirane, that disturbs even the mighty Tenseikai syndicate overlord Kaito...
   In this epic yakuza melodrama, there's ambition, betrayal, revenge, obsession and supreme tests of loyalty. The violence is frequently vicious but often stylised to be inoffensive. There's more than enough tragedy to go around in Kunihiko's subversive plot against the gathering of capos that are appalled and frightened by the rebellious youngster. Director Miike Takashi superheats the already-fervent tensions to dramatic boiling point, but then opts to drop ambient temperatures with seriocomic dance music. Some of the interior scenes and night action are so poorly lit that a sense of disappointment is perhaps inevitable when this film is compared to the inspired visual dazzle of Miike's other productions.
   The mesmeric drama of Agitator (aka: Araburu tamashii-tachi) lurches from one confrontation or reprisal to the next, while gruff hoodlums berate each other across boardroom tables, or sitting around health spa' hot-tubs, and a hapless delivery boy gets conscripted, and forcibly tattooed, into the gangland lifestyle. In many ways this film is the Asian equivalent of Hollywood's Goodfellas (1990), with much the same mix of compulsively nasty characters made admirable, or at least tolerable, by some fearsomely impressive performances. With humour that's either wry or scathing or both, and a convoluted plot likely to keep you guessing with its constantly surprising twists, this is always watchable. As with the lore of US mafia's wiseguys and 'made' men, the yakuza has its echelon of untouchables, but to the Kenzaki crew they are like sacred cows ready for slaughter, and so the economic stability of the Japanese criminal syndicate is undermined from within.
   The leitmotif of Agitator is a pocket kaleidoscope, a device that never reveals the same image twice, and Miike creatively explores that thought via the morally repugnant philosophies of ever-shifting affiliations and political scheming in the yakuza organisation's hierarchy and exclusive membership. Apart from the great character studies, perhaps Miike made this film as a critique of 'tiger' corporate structures, portraying the inherent weakness of mega-mergers and globalisation. Only rarely, though, does the film descend to the same level of outrageous cruelty and vicious clowning that made Ichi The Killer so unforgettable.
   The region-free DVD has Dolby digital 2.0 stereo, 5.1 surround, and DTS audio options in Japanese with English subtitles, but the anamorphic transfer is rather murky. Disc extras are limited to trailers, and a four-page booklet with film notes by Chris Campion.
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