Review: Outrage, 2011, dir. Takeshi Kitano

For the last decade, Japanese maestro Takeshi Kitano has taken a break from the Yakuza films that have come to strongly identify his entire body of work, turning to projects ranging from Zatoichi to his surreal and allegedly autobiographical trilogy of pictures starting with Takeshis and ending with 2008’s Achilles and the Tortoise. But ten years is too long a stretch of time to go without engaging in some criminal antics, apparently, and maybe that passage of time explains the conception and release of Outrage, Kitano’s first gangster film since 2000’s Brother. The film easily constitutes one of his best entries in the genre to date despite how long it’s been since his last; harsh, brutal, perversely funny, and impeccably edited, Outrage serves as nothing more than a sharp, violent reminder that Kitano not only still has it, but never lost it.

Unlike many of his past Yakuza ventures, which are frequently more straightforward, Outrage layers complexity upon complexity all the way up to the end, where all of the threads tie together and the final drops of blood are finally spilled. At the ground floor, Outrage‘s events are sparked when the leader of the massive Sannokai Yakuza clan orders one of his underbosses, Ikemoto, to discipline and wrangle Murase, Ikemoto’s sworn brother and himself the leader of an unassociated gang. What do you do when your boss tells you to dish it out to a man to whom  you’re honor-bound? Shove all your dirty work onto the lap of a subordinate, in this case Otomo (Kitano himself), one of Ikemoto’s henchmen.

Things get ugly from there, and the results are anything but standard. Outrage plays around with the cinematic tropes of mob loyalty by completely extinguishing them; the central message here appears to be that in the end, everyone is out for himself. Once Ikemoto gets the ball rolling on the punishment of Murase and his gang, things get out of hand with escalating alacrity as numerous characters on different sides of and in different positions on the scale of conflict scheme and wheel and deal and connive to get what they want. After a point, the original plot has taken on so many twists and turns it’s quite possible to lose track of the various plans set in motion since the film’s opening minutes, not to mention who’s involved with each of them; in other words, Outrage quite pointedly demands that you do all of the heavy lifting required to keep up with the story yourself.

But that’s not a bad thing. Kitano’s great at building up to crescendos and pay-offs in his films, and so attentive viewers will be rewarded for navigating the labyrinthine maze of Outrage‘s double-crosses and deceptions. In fact, the sheer volume of treachery on display here may well be as high as it is on purpose; after a while the rapidly increasing instances of back-stabbing almost becomes somewhat comical as Otomo and his own men find themselves strong-arming and killing across the entire cityscape on the ebbing and flowing whims of their superiors. Not to say that Outrage should be approached as a comedy, of course. It’s a vicious and unforgiving film first and foremost, one that reminds us– frequently– just how much its characters exist balanced on the edge of a knife by virtue of their profession. Those who live by the sword tend to die by it, I’m told, and their already short life spans reduce dramatically when greed replaces loyalty as their driving cultural tenet.

But all of this is just Kitano being Kitano. The Japanese director’s talent and proclivities know no categorical bounds– he made Kikujiro before he made Brother, and before that he mad the hilarious Getting Any?— and there’s no denying that he brings a certain flair for barbarism combined with a compellingly inappropriate and thoroughly wry humor to his crime stories. Frankly, Outrage doesn’t break new ground for the filmmaker, but instead builds on the sensibilities of his past oeuvre, particularly his other gangster movies; in a lot of ways the movie feels very much synthesized out of Sonatine‘s and Brother‘s elements of humor, character, nihilism, optimism, camaraderie, and savage violence. If the film doesn’t go to undiscovered places for Kitano, it most certainly develops his habits and fascinations as a filmmaker and perceives them in fresh ways.

Most of all, Outrage underlines Kitano’s deft hand as an artist; merciless and hard though the film may be, it’s never too much. I’d be lying if I described the violence he does capture as anything less than graphic, though as unnervingly detailed as the film can get there’s purpose to each strike and each slash and each poisonous snake trap. And while Kitano’s inclination is to cut long, he never cuts longer than necessary for the aftermath of a shootout to convey its full impact. The result is bloodshed born of a keen aesthetic sense and imbued with surprising grace, a gangster movie which never shies away from the severity of its violence but tempers it with a balletic inclination. I’d like to dub Outrage a return to form for Kitano, but that suggests that he lost his touch in the last decade– which is anything but true. Truthfully, the film is only a return to the genre that helped him earn his international following, and a loud reminder of why he’s such a valuable filmmaker.

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