Directors in a profitable rut often feel the urge to try something new, even though the box office tells them to keep making the same old. Sometimes a change of genre can work wonders. After grinding out 48 episodes of the “Tora-san” dramedy series, Yoji Yamada ventured into the feudal past for the first time with 2002′s “Tasogare Seibei (The Twilight Samurai)” and reaped more honors abroad than he had for all the “Tora-san” films combined.
But some directors need to get back into their old groove — and that is manifestly the case with Takashi Miike. This former king of cult long ago transformed himself into a maker of commercial films in a range of genres, including last year’s widely and rightly bashed thriller “Wara no Tate (Shield of Straw).”
But Miike first became known abroad for his gangster films, from the grittily noirish “Gokudo Kuroshakai (Rainy Dog)” in 1997 to the deliriously surreal “Koroshiya 1 (Ichi the Killer)” in 2001. His latest, “Mogura no Uta: Sennyu Sosakan Reiji (The Mole Song: Undercover Agent Reiji),” is a return to the genre after a long absence — and it brings out the uninhibited best in him.
Based on a manga by Noboru Takahashi, “The Mole Song” is in that dubious sub-genre, the yakuza comedy, though the Rome Film Festival selected the film for its competition section, probably more for the Miike name than the film’s unapologetically juvenile sense of humor.
But with the assistance of similarly unhinged scriptwriter Kankuro Kudo, Miike has created flagrantly stylish, manically violent entertainment that accomplishes the goal of so many classic yakuza films: It makes you feel cooler when you walk out of the theater. The many gags aimed at permanently adolescent minds are a side benefit.
“Cool,” however, is not the word I’d use to describe the hero, Reiji Kikukawa (Toma Ikuta), whom we first glimpse tied nearly naked to the front of a speeding car, like a screaming hood ornament. Flash back to his previous incarnation as a lowly patrolman who graduated at the bottom of his police academy class and is now constantly in hot water with his superiors for various ridiculous offenses.
They offer him a last chance to redeem himself (after taking the persuasive step of first firing him): Infiltrate a powerful yakuza gang, the Sukiyakai, with the aim of taking out its boss of bosses, the gray-maned Todoroki (Koichi Iwaki). First, though, Reiji has to join the gang, a process that involves dangerous, painful and absurd tests of manhood. He passes convincingly enough to impress an eccentric under-boss, Hiura, aka “Crazy Papillon,” (Shinichi Tsutsumi), who takes Reiji under the wing of his butterfly-patterned jacket and makes him a blood brother in a ceremony that is not for the squeamish.
Once in, Reiji’s troubles are hardly over. He seals a dicey “partnership agreement” with the golden-haired, glint-eyed Tsukihara (Takayuki Yamada), who is dealing drugs against the gang rules and would ruthlessly eliminate any squealers, especially of the mole species.
Meanwhile, the Hachinosukai, a Kansai-based gang that is the biggest in the country, is mounting an all-out offensive on Sukiyakai turf. Among its leaders is the excitable Nekozawa (Takashi Okamura), he of short stature and jewel-encrusted teeth, while its go-to hit man is the spooky Kurokawa (Yusuke Kamiji), a former biker into big motorcycles and extreme body modification.
Realizing that his career as an undercover cop, as well as his life, may come to an abrupt end, Reiji longs to lose his virginity to Wakagi (Riisa Naka), a curvy fellow cop, but she proves to be no pushover. What’s a poor mole to do?
Manga adaptations populated by living cartoons are often stridently unfunny, but Miike is by now a master at this sort of thing. Instead of simply raising the volume and calling it humor, he turns his gangsters into crazed forces of nature who mean violent and deadly business, even as they make idiots of themselves. It’s comedy with a punch as well as a punch line — and works all the better for it.
Scriptwriter Kudo, who displayed his own skewed take on reality as the director of last year’s “Chugakusei Maruyama (Maruyama, the Middle Schooler),” counters Miike’s tendency to focus more on outrageous gags than story arc. He also re-energizes tired genre formulas, such as the climactic gang-versus-gang showdown, even as he pays homage to them.
Previously cast more for his male-model looks than his talent (see 2011′s “Genji Monogatari: Sennen no Nazo [Tale of Genji — A Thousand Year Enigma]” for a splendidly kimonoed example), Ikuta releases his inner Jim Carrey as Reiji — and the result is funnier than I would have expected. He even made me half believe in his character’s virginity, though the evidence from the neck up is all against it.
The closing scenes hint that a sequel is in the works. It’s hard to imagine how Miike and Kudo can top this, but I say give them another whack. This is one mole that deserves it.
Fun fact: Serialized in “Big Comic Spirits” magazine, Noboru Takahashi’s original manga has sold 4.5 million copies in 37 paperback editions, with the 38th and 39th volumes recently released.