Takeshi Kitano’s Outrage, which continues to be pitched and described as his “comeback” film, reveals why the filmmaker hadn’t previously returned to the genre that made his name—its conventions, the setting, the people are all a dead end, a fatalistic, self-destructive cinema. Outrage is a minimal but forceful answer to fans and the desires of the international market who clearly desire for Kitano to kill more that the lives of the yakuza are exercises in the art of nihilistic violence, a film world the director clearly wants to take to the extreme, bury, and move on from.
Kitano simply, efficiently sets to work in Outrage’s first half, charting with great detail the hierarchy of chief, bosses, underbosses, and their minions in a yakuza organization, to then spend the remainder of the film killing nearly each and every one off. The rules are set and then the game is played out, to the bitter, darkly humorous end. It is illustrative and nearly didactic, but it is a clipped, thorough, and resignedly funny illustration; Outrage knows it is out to finish it all off. Though bloody self-destruction is a staple of Japanese yakuza genre (think of how many of Seijun Suzuki films alone end with the hero deciding to sacrifice himself to take down as many of the enemy as possible), Kitano is out to prove a methodical point reached in a more elegant but less conclusive way in Johnnie To’s Election diptych: gangsters, their absurdly rigid code of behavior and rules, and the arbitrary interpretation/re-interpretation of that code can only be fatal and full of empty gestures.
For all its frank, gruesome violence, filmed, like the rest of Outrage, with a mineral-like clarity of mise-en-scène, stripped color scheme, and spare, carefully weighted framing of objects in the shot, the film is above all a study of the workings of a highly special social milieu. With Kitano’s usual appreciation of actors and shades of typage we are presented with a thin but subtly differentiated array of rank, character type, and behavior in the gangster clans, all trapped by the same obligations, cowardice, selfishness, and false allegiances. The result is practically mathematical in its bloody destruction of personal affronts, violent assaults, murderous vendettas, and cyclical pattern of insult, repercussion, insult. And within the lesson is Kitano’s always welcome exactness as a filmmaker, his deadpan humor, the emptiness of the frames, the absurd shock of each violent act. Despite a painful, parodic subplot involving the humiliation of an African ambassador at the hands of the gangsters, the film is an impressively contained and focused exercise in genre and self-critique, and in this sense it is not a return or a comeback, but rather a conclusive synthesis of the filmmaker’s early works and his most recent films that centered around self-parody and auto-biography.