The Mole Song: Final (土竜の唄 FINAL, Takashi Miike, 2021)

“He’s horny and looks like a fool but you can count on him” according to top mob boss Todoroki and it’s as good a description as any of the hero of Takashi Miike’s adaptation of the manga by Noboru Takahashi, The Mole Song: Undercover Agent Reiji. Billed as the conclusion of the trilogy each of which is scripted by Kankuro Kudo, The Mole Song: FINAL (土竜の唄 FINAL, Mogura no uta Final) arrives almost 10 years since the series’ first instalment and five years after the second as Reiji (Toma Ikuta) proceeds towards his ultimate target and staves off the next evolution of organised crime.

To rewind a little, as film frequently does in flashbacks to the earlier movies, Reiji was a useless street cop facing a host of complaints not least for being a bit of a creep upskirting the local ladies until offered the opportunity to go undercover in the yakuza in order to break a drug smuggling ring run by ageing boss Todoroki (Koichi Iwaki). No longer technically a law enforcement officer because undercover operations are apparently illegal in Japan, Reiji has begun to find himself torn between his ultimate mission and the codes of gangsterdom not least in his relationship with sympathetic, old school yakuza Papillon (Shinichi Tsutsumi) so named for his love of butterflies many of which adorn his brightly coloured suits. 

Reiji’s inner conflict may ironically mirror the giri/ninjo push and pull central to the yakuza drama as he begins to realise that in completing his mission of taking down Todoroki he will end up betraying Papillon who once saved his life at the cost of his legs. Papillon meanwhile is presented as the idealised figure of the traditional yakuza in his fierce opposition to the drugs trade in the conviction that all they do is make people’s lives miserable and destroy families. He alone maintains the traditional ideas of brotherhood that underpin the underworld society in which a boss is also a father and betrayal is a spiritual if also in a sense literal act of suicide. His opposite number, meanwhile, Todoroki’s son Leo (Ryohei Suzuki), is the evolution of the post-Bubble yakuza, highly corporatised and essentially amoral. Papillon compares him to a mutant butterfly fed on coca lives that will eventually kill all of those with which it is confined while Leo himself claims that he intends to redefine the concept of the yakuza for the new generation. 

Caught between policeman and gangster, Reiji’s identity confusion is mediated through his relationships with Papillon on the one hand and pure-hearted love interest Junna (Riisa Naka) on the other. Each of them at one point tells Reiji that he is dead to them, thereby exiling him to the other side temporarily or otherwise. His yakuza traits which include the perversity which plagued him before endanger his otherwise innocent love for Junna in his inability to control his impulses, upsetting her by revealing a possible fling with a local woman while working on the drug deal in Italy, while his inclination towards police work that informs his sense of “justice” places him at odds with Papillon even though they are in many ways pursuing the same goal in keeping Japan free of dangerous drugs and the crime at surrounds them while purifying the contemporary yakuza of the pollution they have caused and restoring it to the pure ideal of another kind of “justice” advocated by Papillon which Todoroki has in a sense betrayed. 

As the film makes clear, the traditional yakuza is in any case on its way out with successive law enforcement initiatives that perhaps unfairly in some senses prevent them from living their lives. Todoroki’s guys defend their choices to the more idealistic Papillon under the rationale that they can’t open bank accounts, rent apartments, or even make sure their kids have lunch to take to school, so they have to dirty their hands with these less honourable kinds of work. Leo is simply a turbo charged version of their determination to survive. As eccentric cat-like gangster Nekozawa (Takashi Okamura), making a shock reappearance, explains it isn’t as if they can go straight either because who’s going to hire a former yakuza for a regular job? 

There may be in a sense a sympathy for those caught out by their choices with no real way back, a more liberal view of “justice” leaning either towards that by their own code or a simple rejection of the amoral selfishness of those who think nothing of ruining the lives of others for their own gain. With plenty of call backs to earlier instalments, Reiji once again opening the film buck naked with in this case a vase for modesty, Miike maintains the same slapstick sense of humour frequently employing zany animation and even a puppet show to express Reiji’s sometimes simplistic way of thinking. The film even unexpectedly shifts into tokusatsu in its closing sequence, bearing out the similarity in the titular “mole song” to the classic Mothra refrain, while placing Reiji and Papillon back into their respective roles having perhaps exchanged something between them in continuing to pursue their shared goal of a drug-free society. 


The Mole Song: Final streamed as part of this year’s Nippon Connection.

Original trailer (English subtitles)

Images: Ⓒ2021 FUJI TELEVISION NETWORK/SHOGAKUKAN/JSTORM/TOHO/OLM ⒸNOBORU TAKAHASHI/SHOGAKUKAN

The Great Yokai War: Guardians (妖怪大戦争 ガーディアンズ, Takashi Miike, 2021)

An anxious little boy struggling with his growing responsibility finds himself charged with saving the world in Takashi Miike’s return to the realms of folklore, Great Yokai War: Guardians (妖怪大戦争 ガーディアンズ, Yokai Daisenso Guardians). Not quite a sequel to the 2005 supernatural drama, Guardians once stars a child hero trying to come to terms with his place in the world, but this time takes on another dimension as the pint-sized hero determines to embrace his “humanity” through the very qualities the yokai fear are largely absent among those who “kill and cheat their own kind”. 

Young Kei (Kokoro Terada) has recently lost his father and as the oldest child has gained an additional responsibility especially towards his younger brother, Dai (Rei Inomata). The other children meanwhile think of him as a scaredy-cat, a small gang of them exploring a disused shrine from which they each pick a fortune from a small box, Kei’s being an ominous red sheet otherwise blank. While Kei had hesitated to enter, Dai did as he was told and waited outside but longed to be included, excited rather than frightened by the creepy old buildings. Later that night, Kei is woken up by a scary yokai leaning over him in bed, covering up one eye so he can see him. Running away in fright the boy finds himself in another world, surrounded by dozens more scary yokai who tell him he’s the descendent of a legendary Edo-era yokai hunter and it’s time for him to accept his destiny by helping the yokai avoid disaster. It just so happens that a bunch of sea creatures trapped underneath a fault line have banded together in a huge ball of resentment that is currently barreling towards Tokyo. The yokai are particularly worried that the monster which they’ve named “Yokaiju” (see what they did there?) will break the seal over the city and release a nameless evil. 

The yokai first tried asking for help among themselves at the “Yammit” or Yokai Summit recently held in Beijing at which supernatural monsters from across the world including vampires, mermaids, and even Bigfoot meet, but were roundly rebuffed. Japanese yokai rarely carry weapons, and they’ve already tried asking Yokaiju nicely not to destroy Tokyo, so they need some help. The yokai that that Kei encounters are mostly of the harmless kind like the guy who just stands around holding tofu or the one who creepily washes azuki beans at inappropriate moments, what they want Kei to do is help them wake up General Bujin, the god war, though others fear the cure may be worse than the disease. Some yokai are even of the opinion that letting Yokaiju run riot is no big deal because humans are generally awful anyway and so deserve little sympathy. 

Little Kei, however, is a counter to their argument. They constantly ask him if he really has the courage to carry his mission through, even at one point taking his brother Dai instead, while Kei struggles with himself understandably afraid of his new destiny. Back in the “real” world, he is of course entirely anxious about his responsibilities as a “big brother” now that his father’s no longer around and especially as his mother is a nurse meaning she often has to work late helping other people. He is however determined to keep his promise to look after Dai, mustering all his courage to push through the scary world of monsters to save him from being sacrificed to General Bujin. He also acts with kindness and generosity of spirit, even on being betrayed by a yokai expressing only sympathy that he’s glad the lonely monster turned out to have more friends than he thought, while also making a point of stopping to save even the bad demons who were trying to kill him after they’re trapped by rockfall because “you can’t just leave a suffering person”. 

Kei’s solution is, ultimately, love not war. Faced with the giant resentment monster he chooses to soothe its pain, teaching the yokai a thing or two about themselves as they rediscover their ancient capacity for compassion and forgiveness. It’s the brothers’ love for each other which eventually saves the world, leading even the most cynical of yokai to hope that the spirit of kindness in this generation might be enough to bring about a human revolution. A good old-fashioned family adventure, Guardians’ charmingly grotesque production design and childlike view of the twilight world of spirits and demons carries genuine magic while its wholesome messages of kindness, acceptance, and personal responsibility can’t help but warm the hardest of hearts. 


The Great Yokai War: Guardians screens on Aug. 28 and Sept. 1 as part of this year’s Japan Cuts.

Original trailer (no subtitles)

The Mole Song: Undercover Agent Reiji (土竜の唄 潜入捜査官 REIJI, Takashi Miike, 2013)

mole song under cover agent reiji poserYakuza aren’t supposed to be funny, are they? According to one particular lover of Lepidoptera, that’s all they ever need to be. Scripted by Kankuro Kudo and adapted from the manga by Noboru Takahashi, Takashi Miike’s The Mole Song: Undercover Agent Reiji (土竜の唄 潜入捜査官 REIJI, Mogura no Uta: Sennyu Sosakan Reiji) is the classic bad spy comedy in which a hapless beat cop is dragged out of his police box and into the field as a yakuza mole in the (rather ambitious) hope of ridding Japan of drugs. As might be assumed, Reiji’s quest does not quite go to plan but then in another sense it goes better than anyone might have hoped.

Reiji Kikukawa (Toma Ikuta) is, to put it bluntly, not the finest recruit the Japanese police force has ever received. He does, however, have a strong sense of justice even if it doesn’t quite tally with that laid down in law though his methods of application are sometimes questionable. A self-confessed “pervert” (but not a “twisted” one) Reiji is currently in trouble for pulling his gun on a store owner who was extracting sexual favours from high school girls he caught shop lifting (the accused is a city counsellor who has pulled a few strings to ask for Reiji’s badge). Seizing this opportunity, Reiji’s boss (Mitsuru Fukikoshi) has decided that he’s a perfect fit for a spell undercover in a local gang they suspect of colluding with Russian mafia to smuggle large amounts of MDMA into Japan.

Reiji hates drugs, but not as much as his new best buddy “Crazy Papillon” (Shinichi Tsutsumi) who is obsessed with butterflies and insists everything that happens around him be “funny”. Reiji, an idiot, is very funny indeed and so he instantly gets himself a leg up in the yakuza world whilst forming an unexpectedly genuine bond with his new buddy who also really hates drugs and only agreed to join this gang because they promised him they didn’t have anything to with them.

Sliding into his regular manga mode, Miike adopts his Crows Zero aesthetic but re-ups the camp as Reiji gets fired up on justice and takes down rooms full of punks powered only by righteousness and his giant yakuza hairdo. Like most yakuza movies, the emphasis is on the bonds between men and it is indeed the strange connection between Reiji and Papillon which takes centerstage as Miike milks the melodrama for all it’s worth.

Scripted by Kankuro Kudo (who previously worked with the director on the Zebra Man series), Reiji skews towards a slightly different breed of absurdity from Miike’s patented brand but retains the outrageous production design including the big hair, garish outfits, and carefully considered colour scheme. Mixing amusing semi-animated sequences with over the top action and the frequent reoccurrence of the “Mole Song”, Miike is in full-on sugar rush mode, barely pausing before moving on from one ridiculous set piece to the next.

Ridiculous set pieces are however the highlight of the film from Reiji’s early series of initiation tests to his attempts to win the affections of his lady love, Junna (Riisa Naka), and a lengthy sojourn at a mysterious yakuza ceremony which Reiji manages to completely derail through a series of misunderstandings. At 130 minutes however, it’s all wearing a bit thin even with the plot machinations suddenly kicking into gear two thirds of the way through. Nevertheless, there’s enough silly slapstick comedy and impressive design work at play to keep things interesting even if Reiji’s eventual triumph is all but guaranteed.


Screened as part of the Japan Foundation Touring Film Programme 2018.

Screening again:

  • Queen’s Film Theatre – 21 February 2018
  • Phoenix Leicester – 24 February 2018
  • Brewery Arts Centre – 16 March 2018
  • Broadway – 20 March 2018
  • Midlands Arts Centre – 27 March 2018
  • Showroom Cinema – 28 March 2018

Original trailer (English subtitles)