Takashi Miike, take a bow
By Chuck Stephens
from PULP 6.08
"Take my word for it," writes midnighteye.com co-honcho Tom Mes, via email from Paris, of Takashi Miike's latest film, Shin jingi no hakaba—a remake of Kinji Fukusaku's nihilistic yakuza classic, Graveyard of Honor—"it's great."
Mes's word is, indeed, one of the few worth taking in these contentious days of rampant and ridiculous Miike backlash—and not just because he's probably the only non-Japanese critic who's actually seen the film to date. (By the time you read this, Mes's review of the film will be online, and Miike's film will probably have finished its run in Tokyo theaters.) In online journals high and low, these last few months have turned into an ongoing battle—a battle without critical honor but stuffed with simpering humanity—over the meaning, or meaninglessness, of Miike. But while one expects off-the-cuff idolatry to go one-on-one with off-the-cuff dismissiveness in on-line forums like Moebius Asian Cinema Discussion (www.mhvf.net/forum/asian/index.shtml), anti-Miike chic has now spread to supposedly reasoned venues like Australia's sensesofcinema.com, where the director's prominence at one-too-many recent international film festivals prompted that website's otherwise thoughtful lead critic Adrian Martin to dub Miike "the most overrated filmmaker on the planet right now."
"Overrated by whom?" one is tempted to ask, since Martin—in the Rotterdam Film Festival round-up where he makes this dubious assertion—never says. Opting instead to follow up this howl into the critical wind with what appears to be an admission that his own Miike-viewing consists entirely of Audition, Ichi the Killer, and The Happiness of the Katakuris, Martin's filmographically-challenged sampling of the director's fifty-some features is scarcely the proper foundation upon which to build a gallows from which to leave Miike hanging. The amusing thing is, outside of those online otaku focus groups like Moebius, I can't recall anyone ever proclaiming Miike's emergence as a cinematic genius—though maybe Mes has, and will again in the book he's currently writing about the director, due to be published in England late this year. (Tom, I've got your back, and I can't wait to get your book.)
Here at the incredibly disappearing PULP, we've long held Miike in the highest regard—but we're only in the comics business, so what do we know? Well, we do know this: when asked, in a recent interview on the French website sanchodoesasia.com, whether his willingness to work in a wide variety of media—35mm, DV, super16—indicted that he was actually an experimental filmmaker at heart, Miike responded:
"No, that does not have a very strong direction. As I often say it, I am as a child to which one offers toys of the different types. Perhaps these toys were thought by adults for children, but the children can always divert them, and even to use them in a way different from that of which the adults thought. And what is amusing for the children, it is also sometimes to combine these toys, and for me that corresponds only to that, with the desire for tasting with all." (Translation courtesy google.com.)
Had Mr. Martin a similar "desire for tasting with all," his dismissal of Miike might have gathered some gravity, and seemed less like a hen tossed in the wind. As for moi, this "desire for tasting with all" has become a familiar component of my Miike-gazing. Indeed, determined to decipher the more delicate mysteries of Agitator—when a videotape of it finally arrived, after months of Daiei Studio delays, in my mailbox last week—I gladly settled in to reassess the film's two-and-a-half hour excursion into Fukusaku-esque underworld excess, and came away feeling not exhausted by the film's length, but short-shrifted by its relative brevity. One hundred and fifty minutes is plenty of movie for most filmmakers, but Miike actually had an even grander design for Agitator than Western film festival audiences know: Agitator's official incarnation isn't merely as a longer-than-average feature—it is a self-contained straight-to-video mini-series that runs some three hours and forty minutes in length.
For those who've long since forgotten my synopsis of Agitator (in the April 2002 issue of PULP), the gist of this yakuza epic involves a complex reorganization of mob sub-families that, along typical genre lines, suffers constant set-backs, double-crosses, and the more-than-occasional outburst of loose cannon fire. Just who the loosest of these cannons—the "agitator" himself—is, in terms of the film's shorter version anyway, remains open to some debate.
The film's ostensible star, Masaya Kato—familiar to many from the feature version of Crying Freeman and as the vicious young L.A. oyabun in Takeshi Kitano's Brother—is the likeliest candidate. After all, it's Kato—as the irrepressible and often open-shirted Shirane-gumi sub-lieutenant, Kunihiko Kenzaki—whose mug is on the film's poster, just above its tagline, "Thank you, and fuck you, brother!" Pulling off an impressive homage to the late Yusaku Matsuda—an actor best known to Western audiences as the unnerving tutor in Yoshimitsu Morita's 1984 The Family Game (and for his supporting turn in Ridley Scott's Black Rain), though far more familiar in Japan as an actor as capable of essaying psychotic hitmen as affably stylish TV detectives—Kato gets to wears some of Agitator's finest vines (nice white suspenders over his shirtless torso, a pair of two-tone bucks beneath his pinstripe slacks) and spout some its best lines.
"Life's nothing but a meteor—it should flare up and then be over" is one of his more prosaic quips, though he's also responsible for the slogan that both kicks the film into high gear and crashes it into the end credits: "Drive like Hell!"
Then again, perhaps it's Kunihiko's immediate superior, another equally irascible thorn in the Shirane-gumi's side played by Naoto Takenaka—here so deeply-tanned and closely-tonsured as to look like a cross between Yul Brynner and a fudgsicle—who's meant as the eponymous shit-stirrer. A compelling screen presence in even the worst of films, Takenaka—who's appeared in everything from Shall We Dance? to Takashi Ishii's proto-Miike crime classic, Gonin—goes for an understated savagery in Agitator, his most reckless moment occurring during golf-putting practice in his office, where he sends balls careening off walls with gale-force impatience. No matter what film he's in or what role he's playing, Takenaka always gives one the sense that he's absolutely convinced he's the center of the show, and here Miike suitably indulges him, lending a sentimental urgence to his death-scene absent from the director's last dozen-or-so outings.
There is, however, far more to Agitator, and to Miike's imaginings generally, than can fit in this final installment of this column, or in the breadth of Adrian Martin's puny professions. Indeed, one might further speculate that it's Miike himself to whom the film's title refers, since Agitator—with all its strangely feminized fetishism of kaleidoscopes and mélange of memory-haunted motifs—not only epitomizes the impossibility of quickly categorizing the director's diverse thematic and stylistic abilities, but it also features Miike in a pivotal minor role. As a hitman hired to set one yakuza enclave against another shortly after the movie begins, Miike parades into a karaoke parlor, hijacks a small gathering of salarymen and bar-girls, and proceeds—following the enunciation of the epithet "Here we have an asshole"—to ram a microphone up a helpless hooker's ass. Ah, the sweet smell of excess.
And it's that very excess—along with the absence of what the ancient ones used so desperately to demand, "a moral to the story"—that critics, cretins, and online punters seem to find most objectionable in Miike's micro-verse. But morals do abound on Planet Miike, even if they arrive in ever darker forms. When, in Visitor Q—Miike's rethink of Morita's Family Game—one character, while fucking the corpse of the woman he's just murdered, discovers a mysterious and mushy substance between her legs, his first, exquisitely Miike-esque assumption is that she's expressing a post-mortem, lubricated sexual desire for him. "Ah, the mysteries of life!", he exclaims...then realizes that what he's actually found is nothing more than copious quantity of death's-release dung.
"Wait," he self-corrects, "that's not the mystery of life! It's shit!" Like the smile that Miike continues to leave on our faces, that's an expression of moral relativity that one can never quite overrate—or ever completely wipe off.
Chuck Stephens writes for Film Comment and Kinema Jumpo.