Outrage (2010): Japanese Takeshi (Sonatine, Fireworks) Kitano’s New Film

Cannes Film Fest 2010 (In Competition)–Japanese director Takeshi Kitano once said in an interview in response to a journalist’s observation that all his films appear to respond to criticism of the previous work: “If there are three things about a film that are good, those are the three souvenirs the film left me, and I don’t need anything else. Then in the next film I collect a couple more, and they add up.”

Kitano is typically one of the most interesting and dynamic action directors. His yakuza and gangster films have a poetic and soulful immediacy, especially “Violent Cop,” “Sonatine” and Venice prize-winner “Fireworks.” That is why it is rather unfortunate his new film, “Outrage,” stands as one of the disappointments of the Cannes competition.

Kitano’s films are often couched in a strong and lively critique of Japanese culture, particularly the social conformity and hierarcical social order. That is no doubt explains why he returns repeatedly to stories on the insular, violent and peculiar habits of the Japanese criminal underground.

The new film is certainly lively and well directed. Shot in widescreen, the images have a peculiar power and dreamy allure that evoke the tactile, hash fascination these men hold over each other. The movie’s story pivots on the hallmarks of gangster film of loyalty, honor, betrayal and revenge. In “Outrage,” the title misleads.

Kitano atomizes that milieu, but the new piece never transforms the material or takes it in new or exciting directions. For the first time, the results feel second hand and strangely bloodless. Worst of all, the film is streaked with an alarming, casual sadism involving the multiple deaths, stabbings, severing of people hands, even a garroting, that feels like the work of an action director rather than a film artist.

“Violent Cop” and “Sonatine” pointed to the moment when Kitano broke free of narrative limitations and exploited his background and training as a comedian for serious effect, especially in his deadpan arrangements and cutting, where the violent juxtaposition of images and sound is both surprising and daring.

Kitano stars as Otomo, the muscle and boss of his self-titled unit that make up one of several interlocking groups that comprise the feared (and fearful) Sanno-kai clan that controls the Tokyo underworld. The top mob boss Sekuichi (Soichiro Kitamura), known as “Mr. Chairman,” expresses concern about an outside arrangement between a corollary underworld associate Ikemoto (Jun Kunimura) and an outsider Murase (Renji Ishibashi) who’s not part of the Sanno-kai clan.

In response Otomo is ordered by the chairman’s top lieutenant Kato (Tomokazu Miura), to orchestrate a power move that lessens Murase’s control and underlines the clan’s autonomy and power. Otomo’s plan, involving the debt at a yakuza-owned bar, is almost too ingeniously deployed. It secures the attention of Murase, ensuring his fealty to the clan. It also culminates in a humiliating gesture forcing Murase to acknowledge his own diminishing power.

Murase, naturally, is none too pleased about the implications of his diminished power. Otomo’s power action sets in motion an increasingly violent series of reprisals, gangland attacks and subterfuge involving the back end negotiation and secret agreements about how the different divisions vie for power, money and status. After Otomo violently cuts up the face of his own henchman, Murase demands a violent response, an act that ends with the death of a faithful Otomo operative.

The operation against Murase only points out the tenuous foundation of the criminal enterprise. As the stakes for power and might ratchet up, the violence escalates. The drama and interest suffer by comparison.

Strangely, that’s where “Outrage” begins to falter. In “Sonatine” and “Fireworks,” plot was secondary to the mood, imagery and associations embedded in the action. Indeed, the larger point was confronting the nature and response of violence. As such, Kitano showed a remarkable feeling for what violence is heir to and the personal sense of violation and loss experienced by the various combatants and outside perspectives, like families, wives and children.

In “Outrage,” the violence is nasty and abhorrent. Even worse, too often Kitano seems to derive a squeamish satisfaction in the process. Twice he renders characters in tight close up to emphasize the cruelty and facial disfigurement suffered by two different men or invites laughter at a restaurant patron oblivious his noodles dish contain a man’s severed digits. (Just as bad, a subplot involving an African diplomat to run a covert gambling operation is marked by a racist invective.)

Kitano’s last yakuza-themed film, “Brothers,” was marred by his unfamiliarity with Los Angeles and his primitive command of English. “Outrage” has moments of raw visual power. Kitano remains a strong and compelling screen presence. The motorcycle accident that has rendered parts of his face immobile and inexpressive has resulted in a leaner, direct performance style.

Kitano does a good job of differentiating the different players and gangsters, teasing out their motivations, fears and anxieties. (Women remain, as ever, a problem for him.) Kitano’s movies always examined yakuza’s warrior code.

His best films took on the received ideas of the gangster movie. His previous movies brilliantly alternated engagement and detachment that confounded our sense of anticipation. “Outrage” too often is content for the repetitive and unfeeling.

By Patrick Z. McGavin