Rating: 4 stars out of 5
Who’d be a gangster? The job is a real killer on relationships, the hours suck, and the odds of making it to retirement alive and unscathed are decidedly slim.
Sure, it’s high-risk/high-reward. There are women and money to be had and, if you like that sort of thing, plenty of opportunities for gunplay, drugs, gambling and acts of violence, random or otherwise.
And if you get your kicks from intimidation, fear-mongering and gang wars, this is the job for you. They’ll even throw in a tattoo on your back, free of charge.
The above is a flippant way to assess the life and prospects of a gangster. Takeshi Kitano’s way, as seen in several yakuza films for which he is known, including Sonatine (1993), Brother (2000) and now Outrage, is to poke some fun but ultimately take a bleakly philosophical view.
The fable of the Scorpion and the Frog comes to mind. The former persuades the latter to ferry it across a stream, promising not to sting it. Mid-stream, it invariably reneges, stating simply as the pair are doomed to drown: “It is my nature.”
Kitano’s gangsters seem to be surprised to be ‘stung’ by others – stabs/bullets in the back are de rigueur in this industry – seemingly unaware that gangsters will be gangsters. It is foolish to expect honour among thieves.
A welcomed and triumphant return to the genre after ten years, this is a knowing and absorbing film. Kitano has made it fraught with tension, filled with irony and funny from the get-go, even if the laughs tend to be of the nervous variety.
To call life as a yakuza dog-eat-dog is an understatement. Witness the chain of events here: a crime boss at the head of the food chain intimates to another under his patronage that the latter’s friendly association with a rival clan leader troubles him.
The solution: just start a ‘minor’ dispute to appease the head. Written, edited and expertly directed by Kitano, the film goes on to depict how the situation escalates like wildfire, with increasing violence, machination and, yes, anger.
In the light of this, alliances, allegiances and even sworn brotherhoods are predictably cast aside.
Kitano’s own character, Otomo, is something of a middle manager. Within the hierarchy of this particular crime family, his own little gang are at the bottom. He reflects with the lament: “We’re always doing the dirty work!”
A dirty cop with close ties to Otomo’s crime family adds another take on his plight, stating correctly that gangsters are frequently at the whim of their masters. The underlings carry out bloody orders, while the higher-ups often feign ignorance or deflect responsibility.
The film finds dark humour in such crime-world politicking: underlings play the game as ordered, then find that the goalposts have been shifted. Otomo’s incredulous reactions to having to face unsavoury consequences, despite being an able and loyal foot soldier, are priceless.
It also intends to provoke reaction with its portrayal of ultra-violence, frequently playing with the audience’s minds with graphic – a dentist-chair scene beats anything hitherto (even 1976’s Marathon Man) – and implied brutality (pinkie finger severances have an enhanced ‘crunch’ here).
Unsuspecting members of the public who witness the yakuza in action are frequently shown to be frozen in stunned silence. There is also the hilarious sub-plot of brow-beaten foreign diplomat who is coerced into aiding yakuza activities, growing ever more bemused by his predicament.
“Don’t you know you’re dealing with the yakuza?” one gangster mocks, drawing attention to Kitano’s playful questioning: what in this story is realistic – and what is legend?
As the film finds more and more inventive ways for rival gangster to kill one another, apparently in the name of entertainment, it states coldly that just surviving isn’t ‘winning’.
In the real world, to succeed, one may need to step on others to get to the top. In the stylised reality of the yakuza crime world, as told by Kitano, you may need to pump a few slugs into your rivals first.
Some ‘career progression’ plan, this is.
About Shu Chiang
Yong Shu Chiang, otherwise known as SC, is a freelance editor and writer. He reviewed movies for Juice magazine when he was in college, and was the resident film reviewer for Today Newspaper from 2003 to 2005. He has also reviewed movies for Prime Time Morning on Channel NewsAsia.