Ever since their childhood, Kunihiko (Masayo Kato) and Yoichi (Naoto Takenaka) have been friends. As a lieutenant in the Higuchi gang, Kunihiko and his men have secured the gang’s turf always supported by Yoichi, who has become a lieutenant within the ranks of the Yakuza. However, the peace between the former rivaling families is at stake when a seemingly harmless incident sees a thug breaking havoc to a bar controlled by a gang associated with Yoichi and his men. When the other group retaliates in a way disproportionate to the former event, war between the Yakuza is about to begin, with Kunihiko and his crew eager to shoot their way through the ranks of their enemies.
Ultimately, Yoichi, even though he realizes the hidden agenda of his superiors, tries to prevent war between the fractions while also calming down his friend. As he becomes an obstacle for the capos of the organization, a man in their way to gain more power and money, Yoichi and in the end also Kunihiko end up as targets for the other families.
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In a year which is perhaps one of the most important in Takashi Miike’s body of work, you need to highlight the significance of a film such as “Agitator”. While on the surface Shigenori Takechi’s script refers to the popular and also stereotypical themes of the gangster film genre, its sheer length may signify the way Miike perhaps wanted to create his magnum opus within this specific genre. Authors like Chris Campion (in the booklet to the DVD edition of the film) pointed out the similarity between “Agitator” and works like “The Godfather” and “Once Upon a Time in America” for their portrayal of crime hierarchies as well as the male friendships within these clans, syndicates or crime families
Incidentally, as Campion highlights, Miike even expressed his wish to remake “Agitator” when it was finished, a plan he eventually put into effect since his works “Violent Fire” (2002) and “The Man in White” feature similar themes and ideas like “Agitator”.
Whatever your reading and view is on “Agitator”, there is no denying the sheer extravagance of the project. Although Miike’s films have been notorious to feature a large variety of characters and sometimes over-complicated plotlines, in many ways “Agitator” is a peak in that regard as it presents a number of character and narratives which is quite hard to follow. In fact, the diverse relationships, agendas, forms of betrayal and backstabbing shown in the film presents quite a challenge to the viewer while also emphasizing the kind of chaos at the heart of the thematic approach of the film. It says quite a lot about an organization that, at least on the surface, follows rigid rules and traditions while it is also prone to descend into chaos, war and violence given the slightest of missteps. While this may have been the approach of its writer and director, this does not take away the fact “Agitator” often feels bloated and unnecessarily complicated, taking away a lot of the plot’s dramatic tension and suspense.
As with many of the director’s projects at the core we have the image of male friendship, in this case the relationship of Kunihiko and Yoichi. Considered as outsiders to the Yakuza-hierarchy since they are both from the countryside and from a poor family, there is a strong bond between the two of them reflected in the performances by actors Kato and Takanaka. Koji Endo’s music, the frequent use of tango-tunes, evoke a feeling of nostalgia as well as sadness, a growing realization how these images cannot withstand the savagery and greed at the heart of the Yakuza. When indeed life is “like a meteor; it should flare up and done with”, as Kunihiko states at one point, every moment is just borrowed time, every act of kindness and friendship will cease to exist or go down in the gunfire which is sure to come eventually.
“Agitator” is a gangster film about friendship, about greed and the kind of chaos at the heart of the Yakuza. While its dimensions, the number of characters and sub-plots, take away some of the tension and drama, you have to respect the vision behind the film, even though it may not be something you have not seen before.