Yakuza Power Struggle
Saturday, December 31, 2011
A new Takashi Kitano film is always something to take note of. His latest is "Outrage" (opened December 30 at Landmark's Ken Cinema), and what better way to ring in the new year than with a yakuza gang war.
Takashi Kitano (a.k.a. Beat Takashi, which is his acting moniker) started as a comedian and TV host/star in Japan. So when he started making brutal, stylish yakuza films it would be like Robin Williams suddenly directing and starring in "Reservoir Dogs." Kitano has delivered some true classics -- "Sonatine" and "Fireworks" -- but has become more erratic in recent years. But even his bad films have enough merits to make them worth seeking out.
In "Outrage," he returns to familiar yakuza ground to deliver a gangster film for modern times. These mobsters are like slick politicians jockeying for power and territory, and with the lethal muscle to make their coups brutally effective. Otomo (Beat Takashi) is a old school yakuza in a modern world of ruthless power struggles. He is blindly loyal, suspecting but never really considering the duplicity of those above him. A man known as "Mr. Chairman" is the head of the ruling Sanno-kai crime organization that controls the Greater Tokyo area. His displeasure with one of his underbosses sets off a violent chain of events that pits several yakuza clans in a bloody battle for power and money.
In "Outrage," Kitano treats the Japanese yakuza as if they were just any other corporation -- only in this case the business at hand involves drugs, extortion, and murder. But like any corporation, it has its executives concerned with maintaining their brand identity and their share of the marketplace. It is also a business with its own traditions and customs, some of which are changing with the times... but not all. There's still a place in this modern gangster world to cut off your finger as a means of apologizing for a wrong.
Kitano has always been good at depicting violence. He knows how to make it painfully brutal so it has a real impact. This is not the kind of Hollywood sanitized violence that you can casually watch. The violence here is abrupt, harsh, and makes you grimace in pain. At one point, Otomo is told to rough up an underboss, and his idea of roughing him up is to catch him while he's in the dentist chair and to drill up his teeth, jaw, and face. Then the poor man has to live with that disfiguration in all the scenes that follow. But what makes Kitano's violence unique is the deadpan way he delivers it. It is simply a fact of life for these gangsters. It is never sensationalized nor is it glossed over to be easier to watch. These gangsters have made a choice to lead a violent life and they accept the consequences of that decision. And Kitano's is true to that way of life.
Kitano delivers this tale of complex plotting and manipulation as if it were a kind of yakuza Shakespeare tragedy about a king trying to keep his crown and expand his territory. It is an epic tale in its own way yet also very simple and direct. But there are no heroes here.
As Otomo, Beat Takashi is riveting to watch. He's a compact, intense, sparkplug of man. A crooked cop calls him Champ in reference to his boxing days, and he has the demeanor and stance of a fighter. And while he may appear slow or with his guard down, he has rapid fire reflexes when needed. He doesn't do much so we watch him carefully for any little twitch of his eye to see if it telegraphs any information. His Otomo gets pushed to a breaking point but is so entrenched in the traditional expectations of what he is supposed to do that he finds it impossible to think outside the box to see a way out of the violence. Or sometimes to even see where the potential threat is coming from.
"Outrage" (rated R for brutal violence throughout, language and brief sexuality, and in Japanese with English subtitles) is a return to the Kitano of old. It doesn't top his best work but it is a solid and well crafted yakuza film. It gives us a portrait of the yakuza world as if it were just any ruthless corporation weathering yet another upheaval in the power structure.
Companion viewing: "Sonatine," "Fireworks," "Violent Cop"
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