With their fixation on gangster barbarism and ironclad codes of honor, Takeshi Kitano’s films are often rife with violence. But the moments that have defined the director usually skew toward the opposite, strangely placid deviations from standard action tropes, pointillist color-steeped idylls that step outside the ongoing narrative. Sonatine, possibly his best movie, is remembered not for its climactic machine-gun massacre, but for its long middle section, with its yakuza soldiers goofing around near their beachfront hideout. Zatoichi, the Blind Swordsman is special not for its blood-soaked retelling of the classic Japanese legend, as much as Kitano’s bizarre decision to turn the whole thing into a gory Stomp-style musical.
It’s a little surprising then how insanely bloody Outrage becomes, a nonstop parade of violence presented in increasingly baroque form. Seemingly spewing out all the nasty set pieces Kitano has saved up over the years, it leaps from blunt-force trauma to car bombings to a brutal attack involving a dentist drill, which will give squeamish viewers a compelling excuse for putting off that next appointment.
Yet this madcap tumble into the kind of merciless bloodletting Kitano has previously avoided presenting eventually starts to make sense. Depicting the fallout from an increasingly thorny misunderstanding between two linked Yakuza crews, it captures this internecine war through a procession of hits and reprisals, a back and forth which becomes weirdly thrilling, then exhausting, unbearable, and finally twistedly brilliant. By providing a dual-sided revenge flick stripped down to its sparest parts, Kitano succeeds in turning the business-minded jitsuroku-eiga genre on its head once again.
So while Outrage seems like the most directly conventional of Kitano’s films, stripped of his usual quirks and tangential excursions, its also his most patently existential rendering, both of the gangster arena or the unchecked capitalism it comes to represent. Once sacred values like honor and brotherhood have no place here, and old practices, like ritual finger amputation as a form of apology, are turned into a running joke. Killing is the answer to everything, a consequence of the systemic greed and arrogance these characters display.
In line with the stripped-down presentation, the dozens of killers involved get names and surface details, but no inner lives or extenuating circumstances. There are two female characters, a wife and a mistress, and by the end both have been quietly and unsummarily executed (along with nearly everyone else), a nod at how little purpose they served in the first place.
Kitano still finds little canvases to display his characteristic love for color, amid rainy cityscapes laced with sickly neon light, seizing on a stream of blood or a yellow box-cutter. Most notably there’s the vivid tableaux of a group of sauna-dwelling yakuza, covered head to toe in vivid tattoos, but these men are also unceremoniously gunned down, further proof of the film as an ongoing act of erasure. By the end, all this furious scrubbing has given us what amounts to Shakespearean tragedy writ large, but importantly no hint as to why any of these characters mattered at all. The operatic score-settling that makes up the third act of so many other gangster flicks, where problems are cleaned up and a bloody consensus is reached, is the prevalent inspiration here. Except this third act starts about 10 minutes in and only ends when we run out of players to eliminate. It’s a brilliant reversal that, while seemingly far less inspired than most of the director’s efforts, leaves us with a film that’s just as iconoclastic.