The western idiom that “there is no honor among thieves”* crosses cultures to infiltrate this English-subtitled Japanese film about modern-day “yakuza.” Although they’re supposed to live by a code of honor, the professional gangsters in this movie turn out to be as dishonorable as any run of the mill mobster.
Director Takeshi Kitano (aka Beat Takeshi) has been involved in Japanese cinema forever. At 64, he shows no signs of slowing down. Besides hosting TV and radio shows in Japan, Kitano has also published books, created video games, and even came up with the name for popular enka singer Hikawa Kiyoshi. And, of course, Kitano makes lots of movies — as a writer, director and actor. For a college dropout and former engineering major, he’s done pretty well since launching his career as a comedian.
With “Outrage,” Takeshi’s message seems to be one of regret and yearning for the old ways. It opens with a meeting of the Sanno-kai family, a massive yakuza network in the Kanto region of Japan. Eating, drinking and partaking of the past at The Chairman’s palatial digs, the head bosses are wary but oblivious to the bloody drama about to unfold. Graciously bowing with polite deference, each one is acutely aware of his sensitive station in the hierarchy. By contrast, the sweet-faced apprentices serving them, in their spanking white sweatsuits, are startling in their naivete.
When the meeting ends, The Chairman implies to one of the bosses, Ikemoto, that he’s become too friendly with rival gang leader and drug dealer Murase whom Ikemoto met in prison. Shaken, Ikemoto takes the advice of another boss, Kato, who suggests he demonstrate his loyalty by pulling away from Murase. Ikemoto then enlists a lower-ranking boss Otomo (Takeshi) to create a situation designed to separate the two bosses with honor and without either losing face. Unfortunately, the incident Otomo masterminds spirals out of control and one misunderstanding leads to another until piles of vendettas are stacked sky-high.
Once the violence begins, there’s no end to director Takeshi’s blood-drenched scenes. Grown men’s baby fingers are lopped off in gestures of apology that are never quite accepted by those who’ve been insulted. One scene has a boss sitting quietly in a dentist’s chair until he’s surprised by rivals shoving pointy dental instruments into his mouth. Another has a man sliced across his face with a box cutter while another features a man forced to bite his own tongue off. Yet, another scene flaunts a man who’s decapitated a car. Even low-ranking rivals are tortured creatively — one with a chopstick thrust into his ear. And, of course, there are less imaginative deaths caused by beatings, shootings and a hand grenade.
All the while, the yakuza are busy exchanging threats with dirty cops on the payroll and taking over turf belonging to the Ghanian Embassy so they can turn it into a casino. Alas, the clownish bug-eyed ambassador from Ghana is a role neither well thought-out nor well acted and it comes complete with a stereotypical insult to dark-skinned people in an off-handed joke.
Rolling the “r’s” in their speech as an act of aggression, the yakuza menace anyone standing in their way — including those they’ve sworn brotherly allegiance to. As the film begins, the screen is filled with men in black — dressed in impeccable black suits aside stylish black cars. But what lies beneath their sleek fashions, shiny rides and scads of money is emptiness shaped by the knowledge that the brotherhood they believe in is no brotherhood after all. By the film’s end, as The Chairman hosts a barbeque at his beach estate, it becomes tragically clear that old-school yakuza honor no longer exists.
Watch for the baby-faced Kase Ryo (Ishihara) who grew up in Bellevue until he was seven-years old. As the lone English-speaking yakuza, he adds some much needed comic relief including his hip and deliberately American pronunciation of the word yakuza.
“Outrage” opened Dec. 16 at the Landmark Varsity Theater.
*Two versions of this idiom exists—”there is no honor among thieves” and “there is honor among thieves.”