Throughout the 1990s, in his capacity as writer-director-editor-star -- and that's not all the hyphenates for an artist who has also dabbled in painting, magazine columns, regular TV-panel appearances and music recordings -- Takeshi Kitano specialized in yakuza films that juxtapose the serene with the ultraviolent.
For example, in perhaps his best-known film, 1997's Fireworks (HANA-BI), Kitano plays a cop who can tenderly attend to his leukemia-stricken wife in one scene and jam a pair of chopsticks into a gangster's eye the next. The effect is jarring, to say the least, but it serves as a forceful reminder that death can come abruptly, without announcing itself, especially for men in this line of work.
Kitano fans have waited a decade since his last gangster film, the peculiar 2000 Japanese-American hybrid Brother, and the lull has been uniquely frustrating at times, as Kitano drifted into self-conscious Felliniesque experiments that walked his ego through a hall of mirrors.
The good news about Outrage, his grisly return to the genre, is that Kitano doesn't have to shake the rust off -- his impeccable compositions and clean, minimalist sound design are still calibrated for maximum impact. Even as dozens of bodies pile up, each act of violence feels as bracing as the sound of a gunshot ripping through the night air.
The question of why Kitano has retreated to the yakuza film, however, turns out to be a little more ambiguous. Much like 13 Assassins, the deliriously entertaining samurai riff released by Kitano's countryman Takashi Miike earlier this year, Outrage considers old-school values of honor and loyalty with a cockeyed irreverence. Just as Miike's samurai are frequently more venal and opportunistic than tradition dictates, Kitano's gangsters are bound by such tissue-thin allegiances that the very notion of trust becomes a running joke. Trouble is, that one joke -- and the many stylish deaths that support it -- are nearly all Outrage has to offer.
The mayhem in Outrage is rooted in the absurd pettiness of powerful men: Though territory between its various clans appears neatly divided, "The Chairman" (Soichiro Kitamura), the big boss of the film's ruling family, is upset to learn that his right-hand man, Ikemoto (Jun Kunimura), and his clan have established a friendly relationship with the rival Murase (Renji Ishibashi). Ikemoto, passing the buck along, enlists Otomo (Kitano) and his men to stir up a little trouble with Murase's clan just to appease the Chairman. There's no strategic value in poking the hornet's nest, but the thankless task falls to Otomo nonetheless.
It should come as no surprise that the move against Murase triggers retaliation, which demands retaliation for the retaliation and so on, ad infinitum, until the entire school of human piranha has thinned to a few lucky fish. Kitano the actor, with his iconic deadpan smirks, witnesses the action with a bemusement that likely reflects the feelings of Kitano the filmmaker, who makes the pointlessness of the bloodbath the film's chief thematic thrust.
Yet after a while the comic nihilism starts to look more like plain old nihilism, as Kitano channels his creative energy into envisioning the myriad ways gangsters might slaughter one another. Some of those sequences are remarkable -- placing an oblivious headphone-sporting customer in the middle of a noodle-shop showdown is a droll masterstroke -- but they grow more tedious as the cycle of violence endlessly repeats itself.
The longer Outrage goes on, the more distance it gets from its core themes about the moral chaos of gangsterism. It becomes a film about cool killings, which may satisfy the bloodlust of some Kitano fans but hardly amounts to a return to form. Copyright 2011 National Public Radio. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.