Every Kitano film shares several characteristics: subtle, dark humor; grim, sudden violence; strange, kinetic camera adjustments and his unique acting and editing styles.
Takeshi Kitano’s entire oeuvre is vastly underrated. His status as a master filmmaker is debatable, but his films are distinct, elaborate world-building efforts. His grand cinematic voice is predicated on his not only writing, directing and editing his works but also starring in them (usually under the acting credit of Beat Takeshi, his thespian alter-ego). Every Kitano film shares several characteristics: subtle, dark humor; grim, sudden violence; strange, kinetic camera adjustments and his unique acting and editing styles. While Sonatine and Fireworks have received some acclaim, Outrage has escaped critics’ notice in spite of being one of Kitano’s more violent, ambitious and labyrinthine films. Its underrated-ness stands out even among his underrated-as-a-whole body of work.
On its surface, Outrage tells a quotidian story of a yakuza boss asserting his authority over his underlings. Ikemoto is a cog in the Sanmo-kai family syndicate, but he has also partnered with the Murase family on the side to sell drugs in Ikemoto’s (and therefore Sanmo-kai) territory. The Sanmo-kai chairman cracks down and demands that Ikemoto violently erase the Murase connection, but Ikemoto instead pawns that onerous task off to his own subordinate, Ôtomo (played by “Beat Takeshi”). What ensues is a twisting, deliberately confusing game of shifting allegiances, criminal-careerist maneuvers and general bloodletting. By the time the credits roll, it seems only three of the prominent characters are left standing, with everyone else lost to the machinations of greedy, armed-to-the-teeth gangsters.
What makes Outrage remarkable is that it is not really a yakuza film. There are all the trappings of a Japanese gangster thriller: angry men in suits, angrier men cutting off their pinkies and bountiful gun shots echoing throughout the frames. But Kitano utilizes these to transcend the material and deconstruct the genre that made him famous. This is a metafictional exploration of what it means to create and to consume a yakuza film, an interrogation of the genre as well as the viewer.
The remarkable opening eight minutes represent the thesis statement. Outrage begins with a slow panning shot revealing dozens of well-dressed men and spotless black cars; a yakuza summit. A few scenes later comes a parallel edited sequence of the Sanmo-kai chairman moving through his complex, but with framing and camera movement that makes him appear to be touring around a factory, as if he were on a conveyor belt. Then the camera cuts to a highway, empty save for the cars of the departing gangsters. There are six black sedans, bumper-to-bumper, driving slowly towards the camera. It is another conveyor belt. In both parallel sequences—the chairman and the cars—everything looks orchestrated. The highway shot is sustained, with two more sedans coming into the frame as the others disappear. Whereas the other six sedans drove out of the frame, as these cars approach the edge of the camera’s gaze, the camera outrageously tilts until it is directly above the lead car. Then the action pauses, with the title card appearing across the body of the sedan. After, the camera finishes flipping over, now facing the opposite direction with the two cars driving further away from it but with Tokyo’s skyscrapers clearly visible. That one long shot finally ends as the story sets to truly begin.
Outrage’s dismantling of the yakuza film is thus established. The prologue showcased the requisite gangster symbols: sleek cars, good tailoring, earnestly deferential men and profligate, performed masculinity. But it also showed that the gangsters are losing their social relevance. The highway was empty and the chairman’s headquarters were rote and sterile. This is a way of life that is being left behind by twenty-first century sensibilities. Crime syndicates belong to a different time. Throughout Outrage, there are very few instances of gangsters overlapping with civilians in shared spaces; most of the action features yakuza members facing off with other yakuza, suggesting a divide between the real world of actual Japanese people and the fantasy land occupied by these relics of bygone days. In fact, the trigger for the gang war at the center of the film is one yakuza family trying a scam on someone who happens to belong to a different family—the gangsters are so removed from society that they cannot even find civilian victims to rip off!
Those opening eight minutes also posit that gangsters are unnatural. They do not rise organically from the sociopolitical context of Japan anymore. They are manufactured, as in a factory. Their synthetic natures explains their separation from society. The manufacturer, presumably, is the film industry/maker itself. And Kitano is bored with yakuza films. These arguments are even more pronounced in his follow-up to Outrage, 2012’s Beyond Outrage, which features the return of Ôtomo, who any viewer of Outrage would have presumed dead—resurrecting a supposed-dead hero for a sequel is a classic blockbuster move. In that follow-up, Kitano, as Ôtomo, even claims that he is too old for this shit.
All that is left, then, after the prologue is a voyeuristic desire in the viewer to watch anachronistic gangsters in some contrived narrative. Kitano lays it on thick, too. The violence is over the top: a noodle chef is interrogated by having chopsticks wedged in his ears and his fingers amputated; a central character has his face sliced up and then goes through the film bearing a bandage mask and yakuza members are shown as genuinely-macho and all the more ridiculous for their sincerity. Kitano is toying with the viewer: why are you watching this silly film?
The plot is equally sarcastically-overblown, featuring dozens of double-crosses and conspiracies. An overmatched ambassador of a fictional African country gets involved in criminal cover-up. A crooked cop stirs up rival gangs. In the final minutes, the three winners of the war are revealed, with hyperbolic melodrama while Ôtomo is shivved and declared dead. Sprinkled throughout all this are beautiful canted-angle shots, pitch-black hilarity and Kitano’s signature foreboding coastal vistas, proving that he has not forgotten how to make quality films. In other words, you are watching this silly film because it is a grand time.