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Non-Review Review: Outrage (Autoreiji)

We’re currently blogging as part of the “For the Love of Film Noir” blogathon (hosted by Ferdy on Films and The Self-Styled Siren) to raise money to help restore the 1950’s film noir The Sound of Fury (aka Try and Get Me). It’s a good cause which’ll help preserve our rich cinematic heritage for the ages, and you can donate by clicking here. Over the course of the event, running from 14th through 21st February, I’m taking a look at the more modern films that have been inspired or shaped by noir. Today’s theme is “foreign noir” – a look at some of the neo-noir films from outside America.

This film was seen as part of the Jameson Dublin International Film Festival.

Outrage (also known as Autoreiji) is the latest film from actor/director/writer Kitano “Beat” Takeshi. He’s known to Western film fans perhaps best for his role in Battle Royale, but that significantly undersells his talent and his prolific career. He’s probably better known to wider audiences for his role as “Count Takeshi” on the gameshow Takeshi’s Castle (which became all the rage over here a few years ago). Outrage is essentially a Japanese crime thriller, and it follows the typical structure that one might expect from a conventional crime film – all the classic themes are there, from pride to arrogance to honour to betrayal – but what makes the film especially interesting is the way that it deals with the inherent paradox of the Japanese Yakuza.

Somebody's going to be dying their hair...

Western crime sagas traditionally explore the theme of family. The bond is one of blood. Even if they aren’t directly related, American mob movies generally focus on the strains that loyalty can cause, and the wounds of betrayal. That’s the bitter irony of organised crime to Western audiences, the fact that you are swearing loyalty a bunch of essentially untrustworthy individuals – that you are embracing killers and violent men as if they were relatives (and, in some cases, they actually are). This is the classical Western idea of a gangster film, populated with surrogate fathers and sons, and brothers.

There’s certainly an element of that at play in this dark and violent tale. The Yakuzi is structured somewhat similarly to how we perceive the mafia and their “families”. The organisations here are called “families” after all, and characters refer to each other as “sworn father” and “blood brother”. However, these aren’t ties that are built up and developed over the course of the film, they’re revealed as empty words. In fact, the first thing that a Yakuza member does on being inducted into the gang is to sever all familial ties (and their finger). The first half-hour of the film reveals exactly how mobster Ikemoto treats his “brother” – and it’s not with familial loyalty or respect. It isn’t the family relationship which drives this film.

The road to hell...

It’s the inherent paradox of mobsters within an honour-based system. Although Yakuza claim to honour each other (and pay their apologies through the ritual of Yubitsume, the ritual chopping of one’s fingers), the movie illustrates just how hypocritical this is. Ikemoto manipulates his old friend Kimura. He stages an incident which forces his friend to make repeated attempts at appeasement, while spurring him on to start a gang war (so he can be wiped out). The film features the wonderfully twisted scene where, Kimura (who has been attacked with a dentist drill) is forced to make an apology to the man who ordered the hit – this culture has nothing to do with honour, it’s just about raw power.

The mob is led by “Mr. Chairman” a gang boss who manipulates those underneath him in order to control them. Rather than allowing any of his underlings consider toppling him, Mr. Chairman instead plays them off each other, while repeatedly playing the role of a neutral and concerned third party. If they’re focused on letting their frustration out on each other, they won’t come for him. All the while, he maintains the facade of an honourable gentleman, arguing that his lieutenant selling drugs is “making us look bad” – as opposed to the large-scale executions. He snubs those he doesn’t deem worthy, to the point where Kimura complains that “he won’t even see me.”

Ya'kuza me o' somethin'?

The logical contradiction, however, is between the honour and loyalty demanded of Japanese (and Yakuza) culture, and the types of violent men who work in the underground. All of these men are hardened killers and ready to flip with the slightest provocation. A bit of banter over dinner (jokingly referring to a colleague as “dumb ass”) can be construed as a threat, and lead to violence. However, the more honourable old gangsters are finding themselves fast replaced by their more violent younger colleagues. These are spoilt brats who throw tantrums when a police officer dares to challenge their right to litter outside a police station, or who rise from a polite bow prepared to crack another gangster’s head open with a wine bottle.

In contrast to these younger and more vicious gangsters, those sticking to the original rites and traditions are written off as “old-fashioned”. We are introduced to Ikemoto’s ageing lieutenant, Otomo, a man familiar with the old ways. He’s still extremely violent and causes his fair share of carnage – but there’s never a sense that he’s ever out of control like his younger colleagues. “We always get the dirty work,” he explains at one point, but Otomo at least does his own killing. He doesn’t manipulate others by talking with “two or three” tongues.

Fair cop...

As these younger characters find themselves “moving up”, succeeding by doing things that their predecessors never would have, we see the reason why the spiral of violence has grown so wildly. The criminal underworld is Darwinian dream, in that those who survive to take over are always more aggressive and vicious than those currently in power – generation after generation, these gangsters grow increasingly violent. It’s an engine designed to produce those more violent creatures, because that’s the only way to truly survive in that sort of environment. The mobsters we meet at the start of the film are hardly what one might deem “civilised”, but their replacements are busy lowering the tone throughout the film.

And this is where the film runs into difficulty. The first and last acts are entertaining stuff. Takeshi is a solid director and great writer – he knows what he’s doing. The film looks and sounds very stylish. In particular Keiichi Suzuki deserves credit for his atmospheric score. It’s synth-heavy, and it creates the impression of a drumbeat – but with a more urban sound underneath. It’s good stuff. However, the audience ultimately knows how most mob films begin and end from countless hours spent in the cinema – and (without spoiling anything) there aren’t too many surprises to be found here. However, it’s what’s in the middle of film, between these two defined points, that counts.

His staff needed a shot in the arm...

The film seems to almost go for a stroll during its second act. It has wonderfully and effectively set the scene, and we can all take good guesses about whether or not things are going to fall apart, so it’s what a film does between those two points which defines it. Unfortunately, the movie gets bogged down in the technical side of running a large criminal organisation. The entire middle section of the film is based around what the gang do once they establish themselves, and it focuses on everything from drug-running routine to effectively taking over a foreign embassy.

A lot of the tools that they use to do so (how they blackmail the ambassador, for example) are the type of thing we’ve seen done many times before – in fact, it comes straight from The Godfather: Part II, among countless other sources. I’m not convinced that we need to follow the business practices of the gangsters so closely. It’s tragedy which drives films like this, and the middle third of the film seems more preoccupied with the technical aspects of running such a large criminal organisation. It does a decent job of illustrating how powerful the mob are (that they control a foreign ambassador), but it just feels like almost a distraction from the arc running through the first and last third of the film.

Convoy!

Part of what Takeshi does so well in the film is establishing atmosphere and mood. There’s genuinely an impression that these gangsters are completely untouchable. Most mobsters on film are at least partially concerned about the possibility of arrest, but these gangsters have the police bought and paid for – they can stand in front of officers smoking and littering in front of police headquarters, and nobody dares to touch them. They carry out their business in a flashy manner (everybody can tell who they are and can be spotted trying to avoid them, throughout the film).

Early in the film, a business man is caught in a “Yakuza bar” scam (where the gang extorts a huge bar tab from a poor patron). It’s a scheme which they run with impunity. It’s a scam that is so common, the business man need only ring the office to explain what he needs the money for – and they have it prepared for him, like insurance. “Unbelievable!” he remarks, in the same sort of way that one of us might if we stumbled into a particularly good sale. It seems like this is the type of stuff which random people must stumble into everyday, and yet they operate completely in the open.

It's the Gang, just hangin' out...

That said, it’s a solidly made film. It is quite violent. In fact, I was surprised at how graphic some sequences were – most are handled with a decent amount of taste, but there is plenty of the red stuff on display. I did wince quite a few times in sitting through the film (especially during the aforementioned “dentist” scene). Despite some issues with the second third of the film, it’s a well-made crime saga which offers an interesting insight at the Japanese mob. I’ll be interested to see how the proposed sequel turns out. If you’re interested in Asian cinema, or even just a decent crime film, this is not a bad choice.

I don’t normally score my reviews, but the Jameson Dublin International Film Festival does give an “audience award” and asks the audience to rate the film out of four. In the interest of full and frank disclosure, my score is: 3.

If you enjoyed this post, please make a donation to the blogathon if you can. All funds go to help restore the classic The Sound of Fury, a very worthwhile cause and a wonderful contribution to make to the arts. Click the image below to donate.

This is my last post of the blogathon, so – if you’ve been enjoying it so far – please go ahead and make a donation. Every little helps, honestly. You can even claim tax back on it, and you’ll be saving a little piece of cinema history.

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4 Responses

  1. Great article, just wanted to say it was a great read and I am sure I’ll enjoy reading more. Thanks, ShamrockGift

  2. Great review, very detailed. I loved this movie, I’ve seen it 5 times already. Takeshi Kitano is amazing. http://aparoo.wordpress.com/2011/07/28/outrage-2010/

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