Thursday, January 5, 2012

A yakuza-palooza of a movie

A Japanese mob movie that doesn't skimp on violence.

With his new movie, Outrage, Takeshi Kitano not only has put his toe back in yakuza waters, he has taken a full-body plunge. (Kitano's last yakuza film was 2000's Brother.) The opening of the movie involves a slow pan of limos. Drivers and assorted flunkies wait for their bosses to leave a big mob meeting. It's a master stroke from Kitano, who also appears in the movie and who may most familiar to American audiences for The Blind Swordsman: Zatoichi. It's an off-beat but telling way to introduce us to this strange and increasingly violent world. Like feudal lords the bosses are surrounded by retainers who cool their heels away from the main action. It takes time to sort through the confusing gaggle of feuding mob bosses -- both petty and important. What's not confusing is Kitano's use of graphic violence, including a scene involving a mobster and a dentist's drill that forced me to avert my eyes. As an actor, Kitano is known as Beat Takeshi. Here, he plays Otomo, a mob guy who takes on the kind of assignments others won't do and executes them without much fuss or complaint. Otomo is ordered to work against one boss, but eventually learns that in a world of rampant betrayal, trust can prove fatal. The ending is more downbeat than you might expect, and not everyone will be able to tolerate the movie's excruciatingly depicted violence. But Kitano's fans won't want to miss the director's re-entry into the world of the yakuza, where giving someone the finger means something entirely different than it does in most American contexts. Outrage is a yakuza movie that sometimes smirks in the same way as Otomo, who seems to know he's stuck in a world populated by the most ruthless of vipers.*

*Connecting the dots: In the current issue of The New Yorker (Jan. 9, 2012), Peter Hessler profiles Jake Adelstein, an American who has been writing about the yakuza for years. At one point, Hessler quotes an ex-yakuza as telling him that a yakuza must think of himself as being on stage. "If you're bad at playing the role of a yakuza, then you're a bad yakuza." I couldn't resist applying this quote to Outrage, in which some of the yakuza performances erupt in exaggerated fury. That, of course, raises an interesting question about Japanese gangsters and other major role players. At what point does the act become real? Being a yakuza may require acting skills, but when the performance turns violent, does it become something else? When Hamlet ends, the stage is littered with corpses, but after the curtain falls, the actors get up and go about their business. The same can't be said for the most unfortunate of yakuza victims. Oh well, I can feel myself starting to go in circles here, but I wanted to add this note as an aid to understanding and perhaps appreciating some of the performance styles in Outrage.

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