First rising to fame in the '70s as half of a stand-up comedy duo called the Two Beats (he continues to use his comedy stage name, “Beat” Takeshi, as his acting credit), Takeshi Kitano stepped in for director Kinji Fukasaku to direct his first film in 1989, the Dirty Harry-like ‘Violent Cop’.
Kitano turned out one blood-splattered, darkly amusing movie after another in the ’90s (his work first hit North America under the banner of Quentin Tarantino’s Rolling Thunder Pictures), with gems like the gangster thrillers ‘Sonatine’ and 'Boiling Point', and the Golden Lion winning ‘Hana-Bi’. Kitano moved away from crime films in 2000 after disastrously taking the yakuza to Los Angeles in the misfiring ‘Brother’; he instead revived the classic samurai character ‘Zatoichi’ and turned out a series of meditative dramas and comedies.
Kitano eventually returned to the crime genre in 2010 with a trilogy of yakuza films, of which ‘Outrage Coda’ is the last. Once again, it follows an old-school gangster, Otomo (Kitano), as he is caught up in elaborate double and triple-crosses in the criminal underworld. After having his clan destroyed and ending up in prison in ‘Outrage’, then being released and seeking revenge in ‘Outrage Beyond’, the latest film finds Otomo in exile on the Korean island of Jeju, where he works for local crime boss, Chang (Tokio Kaneda). When a holidaying Hanabishi gangster named Hanada (Pierre Taki) triggers a violent altercation at one of Chang’s brothels, Otomo is tasked with seeking compensation.
Returning to Osaka, Otomo and his sidekick (Nao Omori) set in motion a revenge plot against the Hanabishi clan, the financially-minded syndicate that ousted his own Sanno-kai gang. In response, the grand Yakuza leader of the Hanabishi-kai, Nomura (Ren Ohsugi), sets his underboss Nishino (Toshiyuki Nishida) and his deputy Nakata (Sansei Shiomi) to work in order to deal with Otomo.
While the films are firmly rooted in yakuza tropes - shootings, beatings, extortion, turf wars, gory executions, finger chopping, no substantial female characters, and lots of talking – they are also packed with dark laughs. An ongoing theme in Kitano’s crime films is the way they poke fun at the overly corporate nature of the yakuza organisations. Even more humour comes from the world-weary performances of Kitano, Toshiyuki Nishida, and Sansei Shiomi, wise and hardened men burdened with the puppyish incompetence of their more youthful protégés.
It’s important to note that Kitano reveals little about the characters' pasts in the ‘Outrage’ trilogy, and no one seems to have any ambition other than increasing his power within the syndicate. Without any flashbacks and devoid of non-essential backstory, ‘Outrage Coda’ is nearly impenetrable as a stand-alone film and really needs to be viewed following the previous two chapters.
The first film, ‘Outrage’ (2010), had a falling-dominoes plot, with each act of aggression and reprisal leading to scene after scene of increasingly severe violence (Kitano claimed to have planned out the death scenes of ‘Outrage’ before writing anything else). It’s like that 'Itchy & Scratchy' episode in 'The Simpsons' when the characters start hitting each other with hammers and then baseball bats and before bringing out guns and then even bigger guns, until their weapons are as big as the planet, which they blow up. I honestly expected a nuclear explosion to wipe out Japan at the end of ‘Outrage’.
Kitano's sequel, ‘Outrage Beyond’ (2012), lost most of the graphic violence (although there was still a power-drill execution, a yakuza chewing off his own finger, and a slow death via baseball pitching machine) and the relentless momentum of the earlier film but gained deeper characterisation, with a slow build-up of secret alliances and triple-crosses.
It’s like that 'Itchy & Scratchy' episode in 'The Simpsons' when the characters start hitting each other with hammers and then baseball bats and before bringing out guns and then even bigger guns, until their weapons are as big as the planet, which they blow up.
‘Outrage Coda’ is slower still, with Otomo not even arriving in Japan until the halfway point, but it’s the most visually expansive and striking film in the series.
What all three films have in common is the addictive, immediately recognisable style of Kitano, composer Keiichi Suzuki, and cinematographer Katsumi Yanagijima. Kitano favours minimal dialogue, clean compositions, linear camera movements that approach near-stasis, and often uses long takes where little appears to be happening, or editing that cuts immediately to the aftermath of an event.
Coupled with his visual sensibility of low angles, off-screen space, and longish takes, Kitano’s signature acting technique is to underplay. The usual subtle cinematic cues that something bad is going to happen (a change in camera angle, a cut) are deliberately left out. The violence in ‘Outrage’ occurred unflinchingly onscreen, whereas, in ’Outrage Beyond’, these extreme moments either came at the end of a long take or occur just out of frame. In ‘Outrage Coda’, the violence is largely off-screen or from a distance (with the exception of two spectacular moments). It doesn’t even have any finger-chopping.
The toning down of the violence, the emphasis on the infinite loop of the yakuza conflict (the betrayals are never-ending) and Otomo’s reluctance to return to action implies a sense of weariness on Kitano’s part towards the genre that popularised him as filmmaker. At the film’s Venice premiere, Kitano noted: “There are various kinds of humanity within these violent groups. Violence contrasts with some of the issues I dealt with in the past, but in this film there are people who are trying to take care of other people. The actions of the characters are influenced by what surrounds them, but I have to admit that I'm a little tired of devoting myself to violence, so I put many elements in the new film.”
Several times, ‘Outrage Coda’ harks back to the director’s original yakuza classic, ‘Sonatine’, notably when Otomo fires his gun into the river in a moment of frustration (followed seconds later by a close up of a fish with a bullet hole in its head floating in the water), a gonzo machine gun massacre in a ballroom and a very conclusive finale.
Is Kitano tired of making these films? All signs point to “yes”. Is Kitano also a master craftsman who made a gangster trilogy that isn’t just insanely watchable, but slowly forces its audience to consider the exhausting nature of violent masculinity? Definitely.
If you’re a fan of crime movies or “Beat” Takeshi’s oeuvre, ‘Outrage Coda’ and the previous two chapters in the trilogy come very highly-recommended.