Well it’s here, the long awaited return to the yakuza genre from esteemed Japanese auteur Takeshi “Beat” Kitano. Like many before him, his career became overwhelmed by the huge success and lasting impact his crime thrillers made upon their audiences. He may be a renaissance man of sorts, an established manzai comedian happy to appear on his own game show of sorts, seeing members of the public fall face-first into pools of muddy water and be pelted with balls whilst crossing rickety bridges, but his ability to morph from one genre or form of entertainment to another has yet to prove as significant a draw for many as his adept direction of the more violent elements of society.
Outrage marks his return to a genre he has eschewed in favour of other projects post 2000’s Brother. He’s since taken us further into his non-crime canon of work with Dolls, a truly inimitable jidaigeki infused with musical numbers in Zatoichi, and highlighted a surrealist side of musings on the nature of self and identity with Takeshis. Fans though still crave more of the bread-and-butter work that established him as one of the pre-eminent directors the Asian film industry had to offer, and the talent that brought with it such high praise as being seen as a successor to the late great Akira Kurosawa. Proficient in everything, from comedy to drama, script-writing, directing and editing to artwork, the peaks of his career still remain visible for all to see, like the permanently snow capped tip of Mount Fuji, his pantheon of crime cinema nestles above the clouds of the rest of his, admittedly fine, work by some margin. So his return to the world of suited criminals in modern day Tokyoin Outrage is understandably welcomed by all and sundry, but his path here has not been straightforward.
Foreign audiences were blissfully unaware that the lead actor they were watching in 1989’s Violent Cop was, in his native Japan, more akin in career terms to Les Dennis than Robert De Niro. As with anything in the director’s life, fate seemed to have orchestrated events to bring him to that point. With the original script outlining a traditional cop thriller, likened to a Japanese Die Hard, and the director Kinji Fukasaku having been taken ill, Kitano stepped in, significantly changed the script himself and slapped his own name upon the director’s chair. It was a chain of events that has since been likened to the passing of the baton from the man who gave the genre so much, with such classic as Battles Without Honor and Humanity in his repertoire having established the art form of modern yakuza cinema. The result was a revelation. Brutal in its characterisation, unflinching in its violence and tinged with a level of nihilism that few have managed to emulate. It made him, but it also set out much of the template of what would be considered his greatest successes in the following years.
Kitano branched out, as any budding director would do, with different, lighter tales. However, though accomplished and appreciated, they failed to gain universal acclaim, both fans and critics were united in highlighting where his talent lay. Bob Dylan can probably play the spoons but most would want a guitar in his hand, Takeshi Kitano can make comedies but after he unleashed the surprisingly existential Sonatine on audiences, the markers were staked for the True North of his career – bloodshed and criminality. It could be thoughtful, beautifully shot and brimming with a tug of war between the forces of nature that guide us all, but ultimately it was still crime cinema. You can argue that The Godfather is about a patriarchal dynasty, Miller’s Crossing is about love and that Heat is about careerism, but the delivery method of all such films remains the same – criminality. It is the easiest window, along with war, through which directors can introduce themes of life and death.
So Kitano has wavered back and forth in terms of theme, the arguable highlight of his career, Hana-Bi (a story that gained greater significance because of his own near brush with mortality after a scooter accident that still shows signs on his visage with a, now trademark, twitch down the left hand side of his face) now approaching fifteen years old, and in the interim period only the Americanised Brother and his inimitable attempt at a Jidaigeki and the story of the blind sword fighting masseuse Zatoichi have come close to sating his fanbase’s desire for another contemplative spiritual slice of the yakuza pie from their favourite chef of all things uber violent – Outrage.
The film differs from the director’s early work, and sets itself apart from being a mere successor in the Kitano lineage of yakuza yarns from the outset. All the hallmarks are there, corpulent gangsters living in tailored suits, swanning about with disregard for the exterior world and its norm and values, so enshrined are they within their own microcosm. But it soon strikes you how little you have seen of Kitano himself. Put in the context of his earlier work, where long shots of his character walking, standing or merely “being” in any pose would punctuate everything from the quietest moment to the most shocking violence, and the lack of Beat’s presence becomes somewhat pronounced. It slightly shifts expectations, from holding thoughts of a classic Kitano crime film, to being merely a crime film directed (and admittedly edited and written by) the man himself. No bad thing, but like a Scorsese film without De Niro, it does leave room for the niggling feeling that something is perhaps missing.
Kitano plays Otomo, a mid level yakuza affiliated with the Ikemoto family. However Ikemoto himself is in a spot of bother, having made a pact of brotherhood with another career criminal in prison, Murase, who is not under the umbrella of their chairman within the Sanno-kai family. Thus he needs to make it clear that he is not too close to his ally, and asks Otomo to muddy the waters a little so he is not seen to be drifting from the chairman and in league with outsiders. It is here that the merest hint of fate and determinism may be assumed to be popping their heads above the parapet, as an encounter between one of Otomo’s men and a counterpart under the control of Murase starts the ball of bloodshed rolling down a very steep slope. Far from it being a contemplative and acceptably fatalistic turn as would be the case with Kitano’s earlier crime masterpieces, here the twist seems decidedly more human. It is not the strings being pulled by an overseer’s hand as he dangles the marionettes beneath him for his own amusement but rather an all too human occurrence that finds its roots in the mundanity – no grand significance can or will be drawn from the collision of two bodies in this film.
This switch to the simple, important but uncerebral manner in which events are to be viewed makes Outrage far closer to the core of what Yakuza cinema is at its roots. The misunderstandings don’t accumulate into a bewitching and devilishly constructed appraisal of self, accountability and ones place within the grand scheme of things as with Sonatine, rather they are simply to be waypoints along the road of a story, catalysts for further violence amongst career criminals. Like Takashi Miike’s Graveyard of Honor, mistakes happen, in a world of egos and confusion blood will be spilled but there is little greater significance to be placed upon such occurrences. So if there is no hint of deep thought behind actions and Kitano isn’t the ever present hub around which the action and each shot revolves, what is Outrage? Well it’s a fairly straightforward yakuza tale – it contains Beat, it has the violence, some twisted humour and a moral of sorts, but the message (surely the payoff for all great Kitano films) is telegraphed and lacks the profundity to set itself apart from the pack, particularly in these days of stellar crime films emanating from the South Korean market.
Perhaps there’s a danger of sounding over critical, but there are signs that this was less an organic production and more laboured than expected. Like a fish to water one expects Kitano to flourish when presented with the opportunity to depict violence, but when blood is shed it is either shied away from (something that goes against Kitano’s supposed intention to shoot violence in a manner that unsettles and doesn’t water it down to palatable levels) or borders in a couple of key scenes on video nasty shock value; akin to the mantra “if in doubt, pour more red stuff in”. We’ve already seen chopsticks used in a gruesome way in Hana-Bi, choosing another facial cavity to ram them in doesn’t scream originality. Fingers being chopped off are the norm, but when the bloodshed goes the other way, into new territory, it merely serves to lessen the impact. Marathon Man showed how to use a dentist’s drill to good effect and temper the sheer terror, once you have a man looking like he’s swallowed a litre of Dolmio, even the most grisly sound effects can’t pull the scene back from feeling like it’s plumbed to the depths of low grade splatter.
Luckily there is enough substance within the main plot, and sufficient acts of old-school, more believable beatings to keep things on track and in the realms of reality, which is where the story finds its wings. Without Kitano as a truly core character (though he is towards the centre of the plot and the basic protagonist if there is one) what unfolds is more akin to an ensemble piece, a story told via the perspective of several viewpoints, each a man with the age old dilemma that underpins organised crime – serve myself or my superiors. Play the game too selfishly and you’ll end up dead, kowtow too much and you’ll end up without two farthings to rub together. What many might have assumed to be another quasi-transcendental crime thriller from Kitano is actually his most conventional genre piece of his career, even more so than Brother.
One aspect that saves it from feeling a let down or a by-the-numbers thriller is the humour injected. We may not get shots of Kitano’s own paintings or anything as remotely tangible to link what we are seeing to the director’s own persona, but the twisted and jet black humour is unmistakably from his veins. This too though comes with a caveat, for all the absurdities that these moments throw up that are perfectly in keeping with the overall story and atmosphere, Beat makes the classic mistake that has blighted so many great Asian films down the years – introducing English. A fairly key embassy side story that interweaves with the main plot could have been trimmed entirely, and I’m sure many would gladly have preferred to see in its place more lingering shots and moments of quietude as is the director’s trademark. However, the grander issue with this deviation is the absolutely terrible acting on display. In terms of foreign language dialogue (as I’m assuming those involved do not count English as a primary language) it ranks up there with ‘Allo ‘Allo in terms of authenticity.
This isn’t therefore a grand example of a return to form. It will please those for whom Japanese men in suits wielding guns with lavish sporadic ultra-violence are considered enough of an indication that it’s a Kitano film. But for those who prefer the auteur’s multi-layered masterpieces that are full of introspection and contemplation, the lack of these facets will only serve to highlight the shallow message of the film. It is a message that is not only seen coming, but has been used before countless times, perhaps not with the same level of humour, but that is little consolation. There are few themes explored to fruition, the premise of an old school gangster is never really established with the character of Otomo, and the live-or-die dilemma of running or facing your fate head on was depicted better by the director himself in Sonatine and even in Brother. It is still thrilling, bloody, genre-tastic yakuza carnage, but without the same level of subtle cinematography, studied pacing and originality we have come to expect of his work, it will likely go down as very much one of Kitano’s “also” works.