Yakuza movies were once as easy to understand as white-hat-versus-black-hat Hollywood Westerns. A gang that upholds the traditional jingi code of yakuza “chivalry” is being out-fought, out-knifed and outgunned by ruthless, greedy rival hoods. Then a stoic lone outlaw, typically played by Ken Takakura, arrives to save the day with a swift Japanese sword.
In 1973, director Kinji Fukasaku exposed the fiction of gangster virtue in “Jingi Naki Tatakai (Battles Without Honor and Humanity),” the first of a five-part series based on a real postwar gang power struggle in Kure and Hiroshima and full of scheming, double-crossing and violent falls from grace. The characters break every commandment but the first one of gang life: Do unto others before others do unto you.
“Beat” Takeshi Kitano’s 2010 gang film “Outrage” was a self-indulgent and bloated “Jingi Naki Tatakai” redux that more than equaled the older film in its body count, if not its originality or contemporary relevance.
His followup, “Outrage Beyond,” which screened in competition at Venice, is more of the same, if with a stronger, more satisfying story arc. Yes, snarling tough guys are still plotting to kill snarling tough guys, but with a Machiavellian detective in the background pulling — and occasionally tangling — the strings. Think a smart if convoluted reworking of the 1961 Akira Kurosawa classic “Yojimbo,” minus Toshiro Mifune’s unshaven charm and lethal swordsmanship.
Once again characters and plot turns multiply in confusing profusion in the first hour, but boiled down the story is familiar enough: Ethics-free, power-mad gangsters begin to believe they are invincible — until those they have disrespected and betrayed decide to prove otherwise.
Kato (Tomokazu Miura), the ruthless, fleshy-faced boss of Tokyo’s powerful Sanno group, and Ishihara (Ryo Kase), his razor-sharp, trigger-tempered second-in-command, are plotting to expand the organization’s influence into the legit business and political worlds, while pushing the underperforming old guard to the margins.
The smarmy, conniving Kataoka (Fumiyo Kohinata), a cop on an antigang task force, decides to cut the Sannos down to size, first by encouraging disgruntled Sanno gangsters to go to their Kansai (western Japan) rivals, the Hanabishi-kai, led by the puckish, elderly Chairman Fuse (Shigeru Koyama) and his two lieutenants: the shrewd Nishino (Toshiyuki Nishida) and explosive Nakata (Sansei Shiomi).
Kataoka also approaches Otomo (Kitano), a grizzled con who was kicked out of the Sannos five years earlier, and Kimura (Hideo Nakano), a gang boss turned batting-center manager whose face was brutally slashed by Otomo — and who knifed Otomo almost fatally in prison as payback. Cynically, Kataoka proposes that these two join forces against their common enemies, Kato and Ishihara, but the idea starts to make a kind of sense — and not only to the two principals.
Similar to Kitano’s earlier hard-boiled films, such as his 1997 Venice Golden Lion winner “Hana-bi (Fireworks),” “Outrage Beyond” mixes nihilism with macho romanticism and even comedy — though his idea of a joke may be your idea of abuse, verbal or physical.
The film is definitely repetitive: scene after scene of yakuza shouting and growling at each other in the sort Japanese you will never learn at a language school. But it also builds dramatically, with the pointedness and power missing in its lumpy predecessor. Also, the shot-making is mostly conventional, though signature Kitano touches are still in evidence, including hyper-short shoot-‘em-up scenes, with bodies falling like rag dolls even before the sound of gunfire dies away.
Finally, unlike younger directors who make gang movies the way they make music videos, pounding from moment to moment, Kitano understands pacing and structure, character and mood. While avoiding the sentimentalism of the old gang actioners, he also gives us heroes to root for and villains to hate — though women hardly exist and absolutely no one is clean.
The most sympathetic of this sorry lot is Nakano’s Kimura, he of the close-cropped head and grotesque scars, who cares about others and can smile and laugh like a normal human being instead of a killing machine. But he also has a burning desire for vengeance, the fuel of nearly every yakuza movie plot engine.
The actors seem to be thoroughly enjoying themselves, playing their bad-ass characters to the hilt, mostly without falling into wretched excess. It’s as though Kitano gave them a license to be cool, instead of the far more usual (in Japanese films at least) nice: especially Miura, Nishida and Kase, who from their past roles could form a three-man Decency League but who here prove their excellence as unregenerate nasties.
Now that the yakuza genre in its classic forms has almost vanished from the theaters (if not the DVD shelves), it was refreshing for this hard-core fan to see a film that understands its disreputable pleasures — and knows how to provide them. Striding out of the screening room, I felt cooler myself, almost as though I’d spent 112 minutes with Ken-chan instead of Kitano.