Takeshi Kitano and Kippei Shiima have the upper hand in "Outrage"

Google the words ‘Beat Takeshi Clint Eastwood’, and you’ll get well over 5 millions hits: film fans know that actor-director ‘Beat’ Takeshi Kitano has been giving Clint a run for his stone-faced money since the late 1980s. But the similarities go well beyond the pair’s leathery, inanimate fizzogs: while neither Kitano nor Eastwood are great actors, each possess undeniable physical presence and are, arguably, more skilled behind the camera than in front of it.

Eastwood’s fame, of course, sprang from the trilogy of iconic westerns he made in Spain with Italian director Sergio Leone, while Kitano’s stems from gangster movies of more recent vintage such as Sonatine (1993) and Fireworks (Hana-bi, 1997). While it’s been many years since Clint wore a pair of chaps, however, Takeshi is still milking the yakuza genre cow with considerable success.

In his latest film, Outrage (Autoreiji, opening this Friday, December 9th at Landmark’s Shattuck Cinemas), Kitano stays in character both behind and in front of the camera. This time he directs himself as Otomo, a mid-level yakuza enforcer assigned the unenviable task of settling a feud between warring Kobe crime families — a tall order indeed, and as you might expect one that doesn’t quite go according to plan.

Though ostensibly under the command of omnipotent bigwig Mr. Chairman, each of the clans has carved out their own turf — an arrangement thrown into disarray with the theoretical ‘retirement’ of clan leader Murase (Renji Iribashi). When a foot soldier loyal to ambitious and somewhat sadistic Ikemoto clan sub-chief Mizuno (the deliciously evil Kippei Shiina) is ensnared in a million-yen Murase clan honey trap, things quickly go south, and what seems a minor disagreement soon turns into a major gang war.

In common with the gangster films of Martin Scorsese and Seijun Suzuki, Outrage features a dizzying array of peripheral characters whose position in the clan pecking order isn’t always entirely clear. It’s hard to keep track of who’s working for whom and for what purpose and easy to get lost in the film’s dense plot machinations. A flowchart would probably come in handy, but suffice to say that pacts constantly teeter on the edge of dissolution, “gentlemen’s agreements” don’t seem to mean a great deal, and backstabbing and revenge are the order of the day.

Sub-plots also abound: due to prison loyalty, Ikemoto has been working closely with Murase and skimming money from the drug trade, which is in turn being threatened by Iranian dealers; meanwhile, a corrupt African diplomat (Kenta Elizabeth III) gets blackmailed into running the clan gambling operations, and a crooked cop tries to turn Otomo into an informant.

Kitano’s penchant for ultra-violence is on display throughout Outrage, which (in addition to the standard gun duels, fistfights, and pinkie severings expected in a yakuza film) features some excruciating dental work, the highly unusual application of a pair of chop sticks, and an unforgettable scene involving a tongue which cannot adequately be described in words. Let’s just say if you’ve ever bitten your tongue you’ll feel the character’s pain.

You’re unlikely to see a better gangster movie this year: complex, engaging, and blessed with a remarkable cast of ugly mugs and hard men — including Ryo Kase (previously seen in Eastwood’s Letters from Iwo Jima!) as slim, English-speaking thug Ishihara — Outrage will hold your attention to the final fade. As a cop tells Otomo towards film’s end, “the days are over for old-style yakuza”, but there’s life in the yakuza genre yet.

Berkeleyside’s film writer John Seal writes a weekly movie recommendation column at Box Office Prophets, as well as a column in The Phantom of the Movies’ Videoscope, an old-fashioned paper magazine, published quarterly.  

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Freelancer John Seal is Berkeleyside’s film critic. A movie connoisseur with a penchant for natty hats who lives in Oakland, John writes a weekly film recommendation column at Box Office Prophets, as...