Fantasia International Film Festival 2014 runs July 17 to August 6. Follow all of our coverage here.
Reiji (Tôma Ikuta) is not a good cop. Not only did he score the lowest in the police academy’s history, but the citizens he’s serviced have had nothing but complaints about his lack of work ethic and unprofessional behavior. The latest incident — one that leads him to defend and qualify his own level of perviness as compared to real criminals — ends in his long overdue dismissal from the force. But as that door closes a new window opens, and Reiji jumps right through. In a manner of speaking.
His boss, in collaboration with Japan’s version of the DEA, want him to go undercover in the yakuza, specifically with the Sukiya-kai gang, to discover the source of a deadly new street drug and arrest the man at the top. It won’t be easy, but if there’s one man for the job it most definitely isn’t Reiji. Unfortunately, he’s all they have and the only one seemingly capable of passing their tests.
The Mole Song: Undercover Agent Reiji is a mouthful of a title, but it’s worth opening up and taking it in as the film is easily Takashi Miike‘s most purely entertaining movie in thirteen years. With a sharp script, great performances and just the right amount and kind of cartoonish antics the film manages to be incredibly funny, wildly engaging and a bonkers feast for the eyes that riffs beautifully on the “undercover cop” sub-genre. Of course, being a Miike movie it’s also a bit on the overly long side.
Reiji’s first mission is to get himself into the yakuza clan, and since they’re not actively hiring he has to wrangle their attention by cheating at one of their clubs. It goes about as well as expected with Reiji in immense pain but also in the gangsters’ good graces. His reckless ambition impresses the higher ups and soon he’s climbing his way through the ranks and getting closer to the bad guys, but the life of a “super-elite mole” is no picnic. He had to leave the girl of his dreams, fellow cop Junna (Riisa Naka), behind and uninformed, and even worse? He never had the chance to sleep with her.
Miike is no stranger to comedy — with what feels like hundreds of films on his resume he’s pretty much hit every possible genre — but it’s been a long time since he managed such a fantastic balance of tone and humor. Too frequently his films reach for laughs through culturally limited references, ridiculously broad gags or zoomed in expressions. The Mole Song has no shortage of goofy expressions, but the majority of the humor is accomplished through Kankurô Kudô’s witty and game-for-anything script. The laughs run the gamut from smart to silly — one yakuza leader refers to his manhood as the Pearl Cobra while another ends each sentence with a “meow” — but there’s also humor in the delivery. Reiji’s inner commentary, presented via his wonderfully super dramatic and constantly excited voice-over, is like a running monologue at times.
“I want to live a life so cool I give myself goosebumps,” he says at one point, and he means it. From his wardrobe to his antics he’s constantly trying to stay ahead of the curve with everyone around him. His adrenaline-fueled behavior leads to action and laughs, but he’s allowed to slow down when faced with moments and exchanges with surprising heft. A friendship with an older yakuza and a fumbled attempt at romance with Junna both see him and the film hitting some heartfelt beats.
Like many of Miike’s recent films it’s based on a manga, and that visual influence combined with his own irrepressible eye for batshit insane ocular fun leads to some amazingly playful effects sequences. Flashbacks are told via stop-motion paper cutouts, and while CGI is used fairly liberally it never feels intrusive or obnoxious because Miike uses it as a necessary tool in telling the story a particular way. It’s a comic-book adaptation after all, and he embraces that instead of shying away. Other effects, like a highway face-off at dusk with a giant setting sun at one end and an equally huge moon rising at the other, add to the feel of a graphic novel come to life.
Miike burst onto the international scene around the turn of the century with memorably excellent films like Audition, Visitor Q and Ichi the Killer, but in the decade plus since his output has been decidedly less striking. It’s not a problem of quantity as Miike has directed an incredible 37 films from 2002 up to the present, but only a seemingly small portion of those approach greatness (13 Assassins, Lesson of the Evil).
The Mole Song approaches comedic greatness.
The Upside: Incredibly and consistently funny; a visually engaging delight; the actual rendition of “The Mole Song”; some surprisingly effective heart
The Downside: Feels overlong as it drags a bit between the second and third acts
On the Side: Miike already has three more films in various stages of production since wrapping The Mole Song. Oh, wait, he just finished another one in the time it took you to read this.