When we first meet the characters of Takeshi Kitano’s Outrage -- the filmmaker’s first yakuza outing since 2000’s Brother -- they almost all adhere to the same dress code. In sharp suits they look like businessmen, and in time, we’ll realize that these men do indeed mean business.
They’re members of the Japanese mob, each in different clans, with each clan having different plans in terms of what should and does constitute their turf. The chairman (Soichiro Kitamura) rules things regardless, but when some unseemly alliances and dealings arise, he deploys his enforcers to send a message. The problem is, when every yakuza leader believes that he ought to be top dog, everyone tries to send their own message in return, to bloody results.
If it seems like I’m being vague about plot specifics, that’s twofold: the characters are all equally driven by the same stubborn motives and are thus difficult to distinguish (that is, before they bear the brunt of evident physical abuse), and I think that is entirely actor/writer/director Kitano’s point. While his Otomo carries out orders on-screen with a look of weary dedication, Kitano's camera seems to find these self-destructive antics to be a dryly funny indication of what must inevitably happen when aggressive men attempt to honor some flimsy sense of a code.
Each man is a petty one, backed by a dwindling number of lackeys and endlessly prompted to perpetuate a cycle of violence, from which the camera does not flinch. An amusing ritual is made of fingers being lopped off for the sake of keeping the peace, an innocuous visit to the dentist ends in rather grisly fashion, and one oblivious noodle shop patron fails to acknowledge the grisly kitchen interrogation that’s occurring mere feet away. No matter who’s sticking it to whom, and for whatever reason, it’s never the be-all, end-all of assaults because there’s always some other entitled crook in a suit somewhere else, concealing his own thirst for power beneath a thin veneer of professionalism.
For a good stretch, the cool remove of Kitano’s direction carries the scope of god’s-eye bemusement -- look at these bastards, see how they run -- but upon entering its second hour, the cadence of shouting and shooting threatens to go completely cold. Imagine if The Godfather were reduced down to Sonny getting ambushed and the climactic christening montage, or any of Scorsese’s gangster-minded works for that matter. It’s retaliation without foundation, all fun and games until everyone gets hurt. While the eruptions of violence do continue to sting, they hurt out of a formal sense of viscera, not out of any sympathy, empathy, or identity with the victims.
In that regard, maybe Kitano the director is more like Otomo the character than one might initially think: professional on the outside but regrettably single-minded within.
Outrage is currently in limited release and also available on demand.