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Mole Song: Undercover Agent Reiji, The
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by Jay Seaver

"Hilarious first, a pretty good two-thirds after that."
4 stars

SCREENED AT THE 2014 FANTASIA INTERNATIONAL FILM FESTIVAL: A few weeks ago, someone recommended a comedy to me by saying "it's great - it's 96 minutes long!" And while the complaint with long comedies tends to be that they're bloated or diluted by not-funny material, "The Mole Song" often has the other problem: Takashi Miike's latest bit of absurdity is so high energy that it can very easily wear the audience out by the time only half of its two hours and ten minutes have passed.

It starts out with policeman Reiji Kukukawa (Toma Ikuta) being fired - though passionate about justice, he is not very bright and more trouble than he's worth; it's a wonder that it took five years since he graduated from the Academy with the lowest score ever for this to happen. But, thinks chief Toshio Sakami (Mitsuru Fukikoshi), his hot-headedness and single-minded devotion that overlookks the regular rules might make him a great guy to send undercover! Reiji accepts the job and the bizarre training of Kazuki Akagiri (Kenichi Endo) and quickly becomes close to yakuza Masaya Hiura (Shinichi Tsutsumi). One problem: Hiura doesn't deal in drugs, and that's apparently all undercover cops are allowed to investigate in Japan. Well, maybe two: He didn't tell academy classmate Junna Wakagi (Riisa Naka) where he was going, and she's got enough of a crush on him to come looking.

As is often the case, Miike starts fast, introducing characters with loud splashes before cutting to Reiji on the front of a speeding car, naked save for some carefully placed newspaper, and then doing a lot of jumping back and forth to explain how he got there, make the situation a little more crazy, and get into what happens next. This half hour or forty-five minutes is among the funniest things I've seen at the movies all year - it is frantic, full of jokes that go for broke, and manages to keep upping the ridiculousness until it is ending on a musical number. It's the sort of madness that maybe couldn't be sustained, but I don't think I would have minded if Miike and writer Kankuro Kudo (adapting a manga by Noboru Takahashi) had tried, even if the movie wound up being nothing more than just one more absurdly elaborate field test after another for about, oh, 96 minutes.

Now, it's not like things stop being funny once Reiji actually goes undercover - the movie is still packed with jokes, a good number of them work, and actually being surrounded by yakuza gives the filmmakers time to introduce a series of even more warped characters. It shifts a bit, though, and what had been high-concept slapstick absurdity becomes a sort of yakuza movie spoof the fairly dumb Reiji stumbling and shouting his way through a world with strict rules he only knows the most sensationalistic versions of. It's often funny stuff - a sequence with Reiji screwing up a ritual is especially hilarious - but it's also lacking the kind of back-and-forth energy that the opening had and the jokes seem a little more specific: It's not just a cops-and-crooks comedy, but a spoof of a particular flavor of Japanese yakuza flicks, and a viewer's enjoyment may correlate pretty directly with how many of them he or she has seen.

Even if it's not that many, the audience should still get a kick out of Toma Ikuta's performance, which dips a thick head and a volcanic temper in enough idealistic inexperience to make Reiji a lot of fun to root for even if he is often very much the cause of his own trouble. He does hilarious frustration, and in Miike's crazy world, his high-volume emoting doesn't seem like ham at all. Mitsuru Fukikoshi and Kenichi Endo are great complements to him as the cops meant to be mentors whose glibness just drives Reiji crazier. There's a weird charm to Shinichi Tsutsumi's happy-go-lucky gangster, a butterfly enthusiast who insists yakuza should be funny, and a positive mania to Takashi Okamura as "Nekozawa", who takes the "neko" (cat, in Japanese) in his name seriously. It would be nice if Riisa Naka had a little more to do - she's funny and super-cute, but gets to use the latter more than the former and disappears from the movie for stretches.

Miike lets them play big, because that's the way he rolls with this sort of comedy. In a way, the very fact that a bunch of studios are paying Takashi Miike to make this slick spoof with big action scenes, animated cut-ins, and some decent visual effects is the funniest bit of all, since it wasn't all that long ago that Miike was making yakuza movies that covered their low budget with the sort of bombast that this movie amplifies as a joke. Whatever the budget he's working under, though, he's still a guy who knows how to put a highly entertaining movie together; that hugely entertaining start could have been a complete mess with a less sure hand, and he never lets the movie get out of control, no matter how anarchic the material may be.

He's done enough of these bigger movies by now that it's no longer fair to say that doing the big projects keeps him from the sort of focus that his micro-budget origins required; he's good at every scale. Sometimes, when you make as many movies as he does, one just doesn't turn out as great as it could be, and while this one is still worth seeing for the opening act alone, it could be a great one if it tightened up a bit.

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originally posted: 07/19/14 04:50:59
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OFFICIAL SELECTION: 2014 New York Asian Film Festival For more in the 2014 New York Asian Film Festival series, click here.
OFFICIAL SELECTION: 2014 Fantasia International Film Festival For more in the 2014 Fantasia International Film Festival series, click here.

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