Kitano fumbles gangster formula

by Mark Schilling

Takeshi Kitano went to the Cannes Film Festival this year hoping to snag the big prize that had so far eluded him: the Palme d’Or. He left with little more than a stack of negative reviews from the international media for his competition entry, “Outrage.” One panel of critics, for the trade magazine “Screen International,” gave it the lowest average rating of any competition film: 0.9.

What happened? Kitano was feted throughout the 1990s, both at home and abroad, for combining extreme violence with zero cool in his films about cops and gangsters, including his 1993 international breakthrough “Sonatine.”

His signature stylistics, from the pawky black humor to the dispassionate recording of tortures and murders, became influential among his fellow directors in Japan, while inspiring critical rhapsodies here and abroad not heard since the heydays of Yasujiro Ozu and Akira Kurosawa.

In the past decade, however, Kitano has ventured away from the underworld themes that made him famous to self-indulgent examinations of his own personal/artistic navel, culminating in the embarrassingly limp “Achilles to Kame” (“Achilles and the Tortoise,” 2008).

Director Takeshi Kitano
Run Time 109 minutes
Language Japanese

“Outrage,” an epic about rivalries, betrayals and revenge among contemporary Tokyo gangsters, was heralded as a return to form. The characteristic Kitano violence is certainly present, though the shocks are tamer than some reviewers would have you believe, but the directorial personality that animated the best of his films — fashionably minimalistic, but creatively uninhibited; understanding of his antiheroes but clear-eyed about their fates — has mostly vanished.

It’s not that anyone could have made “Outrage,” but I wonder why Kitano and his producers thought it could be a major festival winner, as opposed to a hit with his foreign fan base.

The Cannes jury typically honors defiantly uncommercial originality (or, if you will, head-scratching artiness), but Kitano’s story of all-out gang war has become hackneyed through countless iterations, peaking four decades ago with the “Godfather” duology and Kinji Fukasaku’s “Jingi Naki Tatakai” (“Battles without Honor or Humanity”) films.

Kitano adds absolutely nothing new to this theme, save his standard black humor, which is at times indistinguishable from schoolyard sadism. He has assembled an outstanding cast to play his hoods and cops, but none of the characters deepen or change.

Instead they only display their tough-guy facades in one verbal or physical confrontation after another, ad infinitum. There is a numbing sameness of narrative inflection and tone. You can walk out for a popcorn break, come back 20 minutes later and feel you’re still watching the same scene.

Kitano plays Otomo, the hard-pressed captain of a crew belonging to the Ikemoto gang. When the chairman (Soichiro Kitamura) — the boss of all Tokyo bosses — learns that Ikemoto (Jun Kunimura) has become too chummy with Murase (Renji Ishibashi), the boss of a rival gang, he orders a push back — and the canny, craven Ikemoto in turn orders Otomo to handle the rough stuff.

Instead of immediately using muscle, however, Otomo and his boys bait a trap that the greedy Murase gangsters fall for. But Otomo’s crew takes things a few beatings, severed fingers and a slashed face too far. The enraged Murase hoods vow revenge.

From here things become very complicated indeed as stratagem follows stratagem, betrayal follows betrayal, leaving a trail of dead and injured. In the process, the traditional yakuza credo of loyalty and obligation is exposed as a hollow sham. All that really matters in the film’s gangster world is money in the safe and power to rule over one’s fellow thugs. Those who trust anything but a fist, a gun and their own wits are shown to be fools, usually dead ones.

The cynicism on display in “Outrage” is extreme, but it is also by now a genre staple. The classic yakuza film, whose heroes are paragons of gangster virtue, has become vanishingly rare. Kitano, once the outsider thumbing his nose at cinematic convention, has made a film that is a lot like many others, despite a few good jokes and cleverly executed action sequences.

The smell of creative exhaustion evidently carried all the way to the critics and the Cannes competition jury, which left “Outrage” empty-handed. Kitano’s career will continue, but his long reign as an international festival darling may be over.