Monday, May 19, 2014

Takeshi Kitano's OUTRAGE (2010)

Takeshi Kitano is the former game-show host and comedian -- some Americans may still know him best as "Vic Romano" from Most Extreme Elimination Challenge, the freely dubbed U.S. version of the 1980s Takeshi's Castle program -- who literally became the heir to Kinji Fukasaku when the great director fell ill and was unable to finish the film Violent Cop. Already changing his image to star in the picture, Kitano (who performs as "Beat Takeshi") took over the direction and rewrote much of the script, and a star was reborn. By the end of the century Kitano was recognized as Fukasaku's heir as Japan's top director of crime films, but he also gained an arthouse following that had eluded the prior master until the end of his career, thanks to the personal aesthetic touches Kitano added to his pictures, most notably in 1997's Hana-bi ("Fireworks"). He broadened his scope in the new millennium with mixed results. His Zatoichi remake disappointed me -- he dared claim that the blind swordsman wasn't really blind! -- and subsequent films received less attention in the U.S. For a new decade Kitano returned to familiar turf with what seemed a less artistically ambitious yakuza picture, but Outrage (the Japanese title is a transliteration of the English word) is perhaps his closest work in tone to Fukasaku's heritage of yakuza cynicism. It's the sort of picture that more effectively conveys that "crime does not play" than any amount of bourgeois moralizing.

Outrage follows the now-classic yakuza formula of a more-or-less honorable man -- honorable at least according to the supposed yakuza code -- serving an unworthy boss. Beat Takeshi plays "Champ" Otomo -- with his potato face you can believe he took his lumps in the ring -- an underboss to the weasely Ikemoto (Jun Kunimura), the head of his crime family. Ikemoto is in trouble with "Mr. Chairman" (Soichiro Kitamura) because he's consorting with a boss from a rival syndicate whom Ikemoto had befriended in prison. To satisfy Mr. Chairman without violating his sworn brotherhood with Murase (Renji Ishibashi) orders Otomo to pick a fight with Murase's men, particularly Kimura (Hideo Nakano). While Ikemoto may have meant to put on a show of antagonism, things quickly spiral out of his control and the Murase family is destroyed.

Outrages: above, misuse of dental tools; below, the wrong tool for yakuza self-discipline.

Ikemoto is still skating on thin ice as enemies within the Sanno syndicate seek to exploit his weakness (of character, that is) while underlings like Ishihara (Ryo Kase) exploit opportunities created by the fall of Murase. Otomo is little more than a pawn for both the yakuza and Detective Kataoka (Fumiyo Kohinata), an arch-manipulator who seems to enjoy egging yakuza into killing each other, as long as someone survives to keep paying him off. As Ikemoto lives large off his minion's labors, racking up a hefty tab at the African consulate his men have turned into a casino, you can tell he's not long for this world, and while Otomo is finally just as eager as anyone to be rid of this jerk, you can also tell that he's being set up to follow not far behind his loser of a boss.

If the title means anything to Kitano, it may refer to the anger the audience is meant to feel on Otomo's behalf as everyone plays him for a goon and a sucker. The man's a brutal thug but you can't help feeling that he's doing the hard work everyone else benefits from, and you feel more certain as the film goes on that "Champ" is going to get the short end of everything. The movie's ultimate outrage is its refusal to gratify any hopes that Otomo might turn things around. You wait for him to turn the tables on all those manipulating or betraying him, but Kitano forces you to see how implausible your hopes are. Finally his best option is to turn himself in to the cops, on Kataoka's advice that "it's better to take a TKO than get knocked out." Otomo doesn't seem to have what it takes to rise to power and hold it in 21st century Japan, and as it turns out not even prison is a safe harbor for him.

Kitano was reportedly more interested in filming the violent set pieces than in any other aspect of the picture, but Outrage has the same laconic style of his early crime and cop pictures. While the violence is often spectacular, albeit on a small scale -- Otomo's attack on Murase's mouth with a dental drill is a jolting highlight -- the acting really carries the film. From Beat Takeshi's own punchy lead to Kunimura's cravenness, Kase's sinister smoothness and Kohinata's Machiavellian smugness, the director has assembled a forceful ensemble to tell his story. Outrage effectively re-establishes Kitano's mastery of the yakuza genre -- but unfortunately Kitano wasn't done. Later this week, we'll look at his sequel, a film that self-indulgently trashes most of Outrage's grim virtues. The sequel inevitably diminishes the memory of the original once you've seen it, but for now let's leave Outrage to stand alone as a superior crime film.

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