In a ruthless battle for power, several yakuza clans vie for the favor of their head family in the Japanese underworld. The rival bosses seek to rise through the ranks by scheming and making allegiances sworn over saké. Long-time yakuza Otomo (Takeshi Kitano) has seen his kind go from elaborate body tattoos and severed fingertips to becoming important players on the stock market. Theirs is a never-ending struggle to end up on top, or at least survive, in a corrupt world where there are no heroes but constant betrayal and vengeance...
MELBOURNE INTERNATIONAL FILM FESTIVAL: The fragile notion of 'honour amongst thieves’ is explored in Takeshi Kitano’s latest lean, mean crime melodrama, Outrage. Stark and sullen, the film marks Kitano’s return to the gangster genre that brought him festival-darling status with 1993’s Sonatine and subsequent works Hana-bi (1997) and Brothers (2000). Outrage contains all of the traits that have served him well in the past: it is measured, precise and very violent.
The leading Yakuza crime lords are sensing a shift in the power structure of Tokyo’s most feared 'families’. At the very top is The Chairman (Soichiro Kitamura), a man who continues to inspire fear despite a waning respect amongst his subordinates. Displeased that Ikemoto’s (Jun Kunimura) pledge to old prison-buddy, the drug-runner Murase (Renji Ishibashi) is muddying reputations, The Chairman sees an opportunity to flex his muscle, and so orders that Murase be brought into line. Ikemoto sends his senior lieutenant Á”tomo (Kitano, under his acting pseudonym 'Beat’ Takeshi) to slash, stab and chop at Murase and his men until the message is clear.
Kitano, pulling multi-hyphenate duties on the film as scripter, producer and co-editor, piles subplot onto subplot, and support player onto support player, in the construction of his house-of-cards story. Some are compelling and explore richly, the Eastern gangster tradition that Kitano himself helped establish (the subservient slicing of a finger as a symbol of contrition; the cynicism of faux-loyalty and misplaced faith). But others creak and strain, exposing some of the B-movie clichés inherent to the lesser works of the genre (a snake in the bath tub as a warning; an over-played and unconvincing strand involving a crooked embassy official and a casino racket).
As betrayal begats betrayal and the offing of the ever-dwindling number of henchmen leads inevitably to the very top of the organisation, Kitano finds increasingly unpleasant ways of killing his cast. His dark creativity culminates in the ritualistic wacking of powerbroker Mizuno (Kippei Shiina) the nightmarish staging of which involves a noose, a speeding car and an open passenger-side door. Stanley blades and plastic bags abound, as well as Kitano’s stock-in-trade slow-motion machine gun massacre and point-blank handgun methods.
That Kitano helped invent all the very recognisable elements on show in Outrage is clear. This is a crisp and flavoursome walk on the dark side of Japanese organised crime by a filmmaker who knows the terrain well. But in revisiting the underworld domain in which he feels most comfortable, Kitano fails to substantially push himself as a creative force. Outrage is as good as the many copies that were inspired by his early films but shouldn’t the maestro’s return offer something so much more? Given his last few films have stumbled creatively and financially, the cynicism his characters embody can perhaps be aptly applied to the work itself.
In much the same way Francis Ford Coppola stumbled upon his late-in-the-game return to the Mafioso musings that made his name, it can be argued that Takeshi Kitano has too. Outrage is certainly no misfire like The Godfather Part III (1990), but it is not as important a film as we have every right to expect it to be.