ScreenAnarchy Gets Literary: Agitator Review

Founder and Editor; Toronto, Canada (@AnarchistTodd)
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Now what could possibly drag us out to review a book rather than a film here in the pages of ScreenAnarchy? Well, a book about film, of course. Tom Mes' Agitator has just hit its third edition, reissued in a slightly expanded format with coverage of an additional film (Shangri La), a wealth of new photos, improved print quality - particularly noticable in said photos - and updated DVD information. All told this edition comes in twenty four pages longer than the original.

Agitator is, without a doubt, the definitive work on the career of Japanese cult auteur Takashi Miike. Just how influential this book has been is easily seen through a quick comparison of the aforementioned DVD availability sections between the first and third editions. The number of additional titles made available in the brief time between editions numbers comfortably into the double digits, with purchasing agents sticking closely to Mes' list of recommendations. Coincidence? Not a chance.

One of the first critics in the world to take Miike seriously, or indeed as anything other than a low budget gore hound, Mes has put himself in an excellent position to take us through Miike's entire life and working history from his origins in V-cinema through to his output of 2002. Thanks to a healthy amount of time spent interviewing the man himself plus being granted access to Miike's own collection of his early, out of print, straight to video work, Mes misses nothing.

Here's what you get: Mes starts with the story of Miike's life, from his childhood and family life - very instructive when it comes to understanding his later working style - through to his time in film school and eventually becoming a working director. From there we get a brief summary of all of his early straight to video work on a title by title basis before we arrive at his first films intended for theatrical projection. From that point on we get detailed breakdowns of all of Miike's films from Shinjuku Triad Society through to Deadly Outlaw: Rekka. Multiple stills from every film in this section are included as well as detailed plot synopses and a breakdown of the themes and techniques used to create each. Once through the films we get a run down of Miike's non-directorial work - he acts occassionally and also writes for magazines - as well as Miike's own (frequently hilarious) production diary from Ichi the Killer and an extended one on one interview with the man himself.

Though certainly a fan of Miike's work Mes approaches his subject with all seriousness. There is no fan-boy gushing here, nor is Mes setting out to create an apologetic for Miikes work. In fact, Mes can be downright brutal in dismissing Miike's misfires and spares nothing when it comes to criticizing Miike's weaker films, particularly those that come later in his career when he really should have known better. What Mes does do here - and does very convincingly - is establish a thematic framework, he breaks down a basic system and progression of ideas that drive Miike's work thus giving readers a framework for interpretation. While it's not surprising that Miike has his pet themes - all directors do, after all - what is remarkable is just how prevalent and dominant they are, how he keeps returning to the same ground and same concerns again and again despite that fact that he has only once received a writing credit on his films. We most often associate the auteur theory with people who write, as well as direct, their own films but Mes makes it very clear that Miike fits into that mold very neatly despite functioning largely as a director-for-hire for virtually his entire career.

While arguably less a necessity now than on first publication when it was literally the only source of information on many of these titles, titles that can now be rented at your local Blockbuster, Agitator is essential reading for anyone seriously interested in Miike's work, just as Mes' Iron Man is required reading for Shinya Tsukamoto fans. He provides a steady, focused analysis of the man's work, pushing others to look beneath the surface while both unearthing otherwise lost gems and burying the titles that deserve to stay out of site.

And don't fret, fans who already have this ... Miike's newer work has not been forgotten. Agitator 2 is in the works, picking up where this leaves off.

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ArghApril 25, 2006 3:55 AM

My wife ordered this book for me almost 6 months ago.

It is on backorder like ya read about.

Where can you get this thing?

Def a fan ...

mrmarzoApril 25, 2006 4:59 AM

bought mine at WALMART.

SirandApril 25, 2006 5:39 AM

I'm alone on this, but I found Agitator to be a plodding read. Mes' essays were just dull and gave the book a technical feel. Iron Man was HUGE improvement.

hewhohasissuesApril 25, 2006 6:25 AM

I agree with Sirand, though highly informative the book lacked passion.

crazybeeApril 25, 2006 6:32 AM

Agree with the previous two...I couldn't even get through it all.

DaturaApril 25, 2006 6:59 AM

Of course a new edition comes out right after I bought it.

Todd BrownApril 25, 2006 8:58 AM

This one's definitely a lot more clinical than Iron Man but Mes had a HUGE amount of material to cover in limited space and when you're following a set format to illustrate a point that limits your options somewhat, particularly when Miike's work is so repetitive on certain themes. You can only say the same thing so many times so many different ways. Basically I think of Agitator as more of a reference work than Iron Man.

krivocheinApril 25, 2006 9:03 AM

I, for once, really liked it (as I like most of Mes' writings) and agree with Todd that the research for prevalent themes in Miike's work is quite striking, turning it into a really great read. However, I understand those who were put down by it - I thought the essay on Audition, for example, wasn't as deep as it could've been (and ends quite abruptly). I'm very intrigued to read Iron Man, which I still have to find.

Sam LoomesApril 26, 2006 6:10 PM

I happen to own both Iron Man and Agitator and I think both are excellent books. I suppose that Agitator is more of, as people have been saying, a plodding read, but the sheer wealth of information, required due to the substantial work of the director, makes it an awesome resource!

Everypone should buy both of these Mes books, and maybe the Midnight Eye Guide to New Japanese Cinema also :)

McclaneApril 28, 2006 12:18 AM

Dear Tom Mes and Fab Press,

Please consider releasing the new, added material in the third printing ("twenty-four pages longer," as mentioned above) online for the fans who bought the previous editions and made this third edition possible. Or at least make sure the material appears in AGITATOR 2.

AGITATOR is one of my favorite recent print releases and it would be a shame to miss any additions to it's wealth of knowledge. Thanks...