The latest Asian movie releases and reissues. Takeshi Kitano returns to the yakuza genre with the blood-splattered gangster thriller Outrage, out next week on Blu-ray and DVD from StudioCanal
The yakuza has been a mainstay of Japanese cinema for decades. For a long time, Kinji Fukasaku was considered the godfather of the modern yakuza movie, the blistering, brilliant series of gangster thrillers that he made during the 1970s setting new standards in on-screen brutality and gritty urban realism. But while yakuza films have remained a constant, the quality has dipped over the last couple of decades, as domestic audiences found favour with other genres and most Japanese gangster movies ended up going straight to DVD. One major exception to this is ‘Beat’ Takeshi Kitano, who has not only won international success with his tough, stylish crime movies, but has also developed his own idiosyncratic approach to the genre every bit as distinctive as Fukasaku’s.
Outrage marks Kitano’s first gangster movie since 2000’s disappointing Japanese-American crossover Brother, and follows a series of resolutely uncommercial arthouse projects. Kitano himself admitted that the film exists purely to entertain and for him to flex his muscles in a genre he knows well. The basic plot centres around the conflict between two yakuza clans – the Ikemoto and Murase families – that begins with a small misunderstanding and quickly escalates into a bloody war that threatens to destroy both groups. Kitano plays Otomo, a tough, taciturn lieutenant who finds himself increasingly frustrated at being treated as a pawn in the power-wrangling of his seniors, while as a director he serves up any number of gleefully gory scenes of gangster mayhem.
If that plot synopsis sounds vague, it’s because there really isn’t that much of a plot. Sure, loads of stuff happens – the film is pretty much non-stop scheming, double-crosses, confrontations and assassinations – but it’s more an observational series of events than anything tightly constructed in a traditional sense.There are a lot of characters, a lot of names, and to be honest it’s pretty easy to get lost in all the plotting and betrayals. In lesser hands such an approach could come across as a formless mess, but Kitano is an old hand at this and for the most part it works.
It’s well paced and as ever, there are some truly eye-watering scenes of violence – including much ceremonial finger-chopping and a visit to the dentist that’s hard to forget. A sense of death permeates the whole film – it’s not a matter of who will die, just when. Kitano is equally fascinated in the mundanity of yakuza life, of the moments when they’re not killing their rivals; he loves silence and frequently allows scenes to run longer than they perhaps should, to catch the expressions and reactions that many filmmakers might have left on the cutting room floor. As portrayed here, there is little glamour in the yakuza business – it is exactly that, a business, run by serious middle-aged men in boring grey suits.
Like Kitano’s masterpiece Sonatine, Outrage is also very funny in places, whether it’s the unfortunate recipient of Otomo’s dental treatment being forced to agree to his early retirement because his mouth is wired shut, or the poor Ghanaian ambassador made to turn his embassy into a hooker-filled gambling den. Outrage is undeniably entertaining stuff, and one can hardly blame Kitano for wanting to making something commercial after the impenetrable likes of Achilles and the Tortoise or Takeshis’. Stacked up against classics such as Sonatine or Hana-bi, it does feel like a lesser work – those were films that took crime genre conventions and did something genuinely exciting with them. Outrage sticks to these conventions but offers little more. But that’s fine – Kitano knows this world inside out and puts it on screen better than anyone.