Calling your comeback yakuza film Outrage, made after a widely panned trilogy of “difficult” (read: terrible) comedies, is pretty ballsy. It’s like handing a pre-written review to the critics of the world: “The only outrage here is what was done to the fans.” Thankfully that lead line need not be written but that’s also not to say that Takeshi Kitano’s Outrage is an unequivocal success. It’s a transitional piece for the prolific director, a film that points toward an interesting future but leaves something to be desired in the present.
Takeshi Kitano, for all his fame as a director of angry, violent films, got his start as a comedian. In Japan he is known more as Beat Takeshi, one half of the comedy duo Two Beats. He has retained his performing name from that period, which he uses when acting and appearing on television. Most Japanese are familiar with this dichotomy. In fact, I never even noticed that he was only Takeshi Kitano when directing, and Beat Takeshi when acting, until a Japanese friend pointed it out to me.
Western fans may also be unaware of the variety of films in Takeshi Kitano’s oeuvre. Although best known for his yakuza films Sonatine (1993) and Hana-bi (1997), there’s also the poignant and largely dialog-free Scene at the Sea (1991), the excellent coming of age film Kid’s Return (1996), the “wacky” sex comedy Getting Any? (1994), and his most recent trilogy, comprised of Takeshis’ (2005), Glory to the Filmmaker! (2007) and Achilles and the Tortoise (2008).
It was this trilogy, which I’ll charitably call self-indulgent (but which I have, in certain passionate moments, declared unwatchable), that die-hard fans began wondering what was up with their beloved Beat. Getting Any?, which was certainly not very funny, was made between the excellent Sonatine and the equally enjoyable Kid’s Return and so forgiven for its trespasses. But this most recent trilogy (a trilogy! Three films of this!) became almost an endurance test for filmgoers. “How much can they take?” you can hear Takeshi asking as he adds yet another unfunny scene to yet another unfunny movie. Organized loosely around what it means to be famous, which is always only interesting to those who are, the trilogy employed such tedious elements as endless double characters (Takeshis’), another double in the case of a doll made to look like Kitano (Glory to the Filmmaker!), and heavy-handed morality (Achilles and the Tortoise). I dutifully watched them all and dutifully wrote off Kitano as someone who had become so removed from his audience that he no longer knew what they could consider enjoyable. Indeed, it sometimes seemed like he was going out of his way to upset them.
Which brings us to Outrage. Given all that Kitano has put his faithful audience through, you wonder if he chose the title for that reason. But that would be a little too meta, a little too like the Kitano that flailed through three obnoxiously personal films. Outrage has no meta elements, no inside jokes, nothing to lead us back to Kitano the man (or Beat the performer). It’s as if he were finally able to exorcise all the misgivings he had about being a public persona and get back to making regular movies.
Outrage is a classic yakuza film, in that it concerns itself with what it means to be loyal, even when (and especially when) that loyalty is being tested by those you know to be corrupt. It’s almost a fan boy’s yakuza film, with all of the hallmarks of the genre accounted for: plenty of pinky chopping, backstabbing, and chimpira (lackeys) standing around in tracksuits. The synth soundtrack even harks back to an earlier age, sounding more like something from a 1980s V-Cinema videocassette than a modern movie with a lot of muscle behind it.
Kitano plays Otomo, the underboss of Ikemoto (a slimy Jun Kunimura) and leader of his own gang. Ikemoto receives an order from the gang chairman of the area to move in on Murase (the always dependable Renji Ishibashi), whom everyone knows is dealing drugs on the side. Ikemoto, who’s been skimming profits from the drug dealing, is at first reluctant to make a move on Murase. They’re sworn brothers, after all, having made an oath of allegiance to each other in prison. But this oath of loyalty becomes to be seen more as an annoyance than a thing of respect and so Ikemoto asks Otomo to make life difficult for Murase. So begins a series of retributions that becomes, if not Shakespearean then at least Jacobean in its bloodiness and completeness.
Outrage really does feel like a break from the past. Kitano has decided to work with an all-new cast. Familiar faces like Ren Ohsugi and Susumu Terajima are nowhere to be seen. Keiichi Suzuki, who also did the music for Zatoichi (2003), did the music for this film but the fact that it’s not Joe Hisaishi, who scored Kitano’s best-known films, behind the piano says a lot. The film was even shot in a different aspect ratio (2.35:1).
The first time I saw Outrage, it was in a small theater in Korea with no Japanese subtitles. Although I have a B.A. in Japanese, what you study in school and what yakuza say are two completely different things, so I decided to focus my attention on Kitano’s visual style. Although his basic compositional style is the same—people arranged like furniture, little to no movement in the shot—gone was the reveal. In Kitano’s classic films, there would only be reaction. Violence would happen off-screen and then we would see the (usually comical) aftermath: someone holding a bloody nose, someone bent over double while others looked on, their faces blank. It’s not surprising that Kitano should have taken to painting; he already loved the tableaux. But in Outrage the majority of the violence happens on-screen. It makes it more visceral but at the same time it feels less like a Kitano film. The fact that the man himself isn’t even the “star” of the film, but one of an ensemble (the strongest of which is Ryo Kase, playing a bilingual financial wiz) distances the film even more from what we would consider a Kitano film.
In the interest of abandoning all of his stylistic tropes and starting over, with a new cast, a new style, etc., Kitano may have backed up too far. Outrage is certainly much more watchable than his past three films (but then again so is pretty much anything), but in the interest of starting over he may have thrown out too much. I don’t expect Kitano to keep making the same movies over and over. But I do expect him to make Kitano films. The only thing remarkable about Outrage is how typical it is. Aside from the A-list cast there’s very little here to distinguish it from the multitude of yakuza films clogging video rental shelves in Japan. It doesn’t say anything that hasn’t been said before, that despite all the lip service paid to things like loyalty and honor the world of the yakuza is a cut-throat one. Thankfully Kitano’s audience is more forgiving than his characters.