Film of the Week: Beyond Outrage
Actor, director, screenwriter, memoirist, artist, TV host… Takeshi Kitano has so far outdone even the most versatile of multi-hyphenates that you can well understand him experiencing a sort of identity meltdown. Kitano spent several years as a writer-director pondering the question of what it all meant, this business of Being Takeshi Kitano—and dismantling the hardboiled screen persona attached to his actor name “Beat” Takeshi.
The perplexing, intermittently fascinating, entirely self-reflexive Takeshis’ (05) confronted Beat Takeshi with his doppelgänger in the form of an everyman loser, with Kitano pinning his sympathies to the latter figure. His follow-ups—the genre-spoofing Glory to the Filmmaker! (07) and the art-themed Achilles and the Tortoise (08)—seemed further admissions of a loss of inspiration and faith in artistic activity, without the redeeming energy you hope for in such 8 ½–style crisis statements. The sourly solipsistic trilogy seemed to have killed off hard man Beat Takeshi in a reckless act of brand sabotage—but Kitano’s golem-like double wouldn’t die, or commercial considerations wouldn’t let him. Outrage (10) was Kitano’s lucrative return to the genre material of his early films as director—Violent Cop (89), Boiling Point (90)—which he’d already begun to stylize and subvert with his international breakthrough, Sonatine (93).
In fact, Kitano already seemed painfully bored with yakuza stories in his U.S.-set Brother (00), a joyless vendetta drama that wasn’t so much mechanical as downright robotic. In Outrage, by comparison, he seemed to be gritting his teeth and getting back to such material with as little ironic distance as possible. This was the yakuza drama in the tradition of Kinji Fukasaku’s Battles Without Honor or Humanity (73)—severe panoramas of burly men in suits raging at each other. Except that the suits in Outrage aren’t as stylish as the sharkskin numbers in Fukasaku’s film, but the expensively discreet ensembles normally worn by company directors. Outrage shows the yakuza drama’s descent into the valueless, mercenary universe of corporate affairs, and Kitano’s visible distaste for this milieu left the film feeling all the more monotonously relentless in its chronicling of gangland vengeance.
I’m not sure if there’s a specifically Japanese equivalent to the Western concept of “mojo”—but if so, in Beyond Outrage, Kitano has found his again. Beyond Outrage (the English release title; the opening credits actually read Outrage Beyond) is no less cynical or machine-like than its precursor, but it’s a lot tighter. It’s so pared down, so utterly businesslike that it takes on the inexorable logic of a scientific demonstration: it sets out its milieu, its players, the nature of the interacting forces, and then lets the mechanism run until all the factors are satisfactorily used up. It feels less like a drama than like a theorem working itself out.
The film’s restraint—ironic, given the title—begins with the fact that the killing doesn’t start until 26 minutes in, and doesn’t erupt into continuous action till almost an hour later, barring the odd individual act of thuggery. Beat Takeshi himself doesn’t show up for the first 25 minutes, and saves his big iconic moment for the final scene—the first time we see him stride purposefully towards the camera with his trademark bandy-legged lope.
What prevails throughout Beyond Outrage is a rigorous, downbeat classicism. This is crime thriller as boardroom drama: for the most part, a series of scenes in which men negotiate, engage in verbal confrontation, or spout complex exposition in more or less impersonal formal settings (clan HQs, offices, police stations). We start five years after Outrage: having disposed of his former superior Sekuichi, Kato (the formidably bouffanted Tomokazu Miura) is now head of the Sanno crime clan, with the treacherous Ishihara (Ryo Kase, nicely snakelike) promoted to underboss. Because the Sanno clan is now effectively a political body acting with near impunity, the police are determined to bring it down—with the unctuously grinning, duplicitous Detective Kataoka (Fumiyo Kohinata, deliciously creepy) running the operation. Hand in glove with the Sanno supremos, even while aiming to screw them over, Kataoka busies himself brokering allegiances between ostensible enemies—although in this milieu, it’s your allies that you really need to be wary of. Central to Kataoka’s strategy is to organize the release from prison of much-feared mobster and universal nemesis Otomo (Beat Takeshi).
The most consistent strand in a jaw-achingly byzantine plot is the simmering dissent in the Sanno ranks. Everyone is deeply suspicious of Kato and even more of Ishihara, seen as a jumped-up pretender who doesn’t even, it’s whispered with disgust, have proper tattoos. Much of the film’s nicely downplayed comedy comes from the flouting of etiquette. Kato is disliked by the Hanabishi clan of Osaka because they consider him stingy and his gifts “cheap salaryman stuff”; his own executives complain that he doesn’t serve food at meetings. More importantly, the Sanno old guard resents its vulnerability under Ishihara. As power bases shift, Beyond Outrage illustrates a timeless truth that applies as much to legit politics and business as to crime and war: a commander, however highly placed, is never immune from humiliation by someone more powerful, perhaps a former subordinate who’s maneuvered up the ladder.
It’s never clear in Beyond Outrage what the actual rewards of crime are. The yakuza bigwigs wear nice enough suits, have sleek limos with armed chauffeurs, and are visibly shielded by the trappings of wealth—but only the most functional trappings. The only person who recognizably enjoys a life of luxury is an outside player, a Korean fixer who sends a lavishly tattooed moll to Otomo’s room (which offer Otomo politely declines). Otherwise, the only payoff of crime is power in an almost abstract form—and even that is so precarious that it seems no payoff at all.
The plot is really a set of operations in which the conflict of forces works itself out in a coolly impersonal way. Pretty much everyone is riding for a fall—most conspicuously, the self-satisfied manipulator Kataoka, whose sidekick Shigeta (Yutaka Matsushige) regards him with an incredulous distaste that’s one of the film’s more relishable touches. As for Otomo, he’s a loose cannon, his motivation seemingly the pure will to restore equilibrium, to reset the game to zero, as brutally as it takes. He’s a calmly punitive juggernaut, who only occasionally lets his feelings become apparent in the pained asymmetrical smirk that’s become Beat Takeshi’s onscreen trademark. You might say Otomo’s ultimate goal is simply the moment of visual apotheosis that comes in the very final shot, in which Otomo, gun in hand, brings the film to an abrupt but hugely satisfying close. It’s here that the stone-killer persona seemingly terminated by Takeshis’ has come fully, uncrushably back to life.
After the repetitive excess of Outrage, this sequel is most satisfying for its strategy and detachment. The overkill of Outrage’s grisly dentist’s drill sequence is replayed, but in a minor key; Otomo uses a hand drill, but the victim is hooded and we barely see what’s done. An office shooting is depicted through the sound of gunshots, with the camera gazing up at a blank window (an echo of a striking moment in Sonatine). In perhaps the film’s most wryly detached sequence, Ishihara audibly beats up two minions offscreen, while the camera pulls in slowly on Kato watching ruefully behind his desk. Only once does Kitano blow it with overstatement; a cold bit of brutality involving an automatic baseball tossing machine is done with macabre detachment, till needless close-ups spoil the effect.
I can’t imagine finding this film deeply pleasurable—enjoying it on more than a detached level—but it’s very satisfying in its streamlined economy and single-minded purpose. Norihiro Isoda’s design is steely and sober, Katsumi Yanagijima’s widescreen photography contrives to be both austere and darkly glossy, and Keiichi Suzuki’s score has an unsettling spareness. As for where this film leaves Takeshi Kitano the director, he has said he is open to making a third Outrage film, if the producers feel the numbers are right (indeed, the film has been even more successful in Japan than its predecessor), which in turn would enable him to make a more personal project. Apparently, that could be a musical inspired by Pina Bausch. Depending how you felt about the experimental Takeshis’ trilogy, that’s either intriguing or very ominous.