Tuesday, October 23, 2012

Tokyo Driftin'

The online film journal I run with a few great guys, Projectorhead just grew a blog of its own. You can visit the subsidiary branch of the magazine here: projectorhead.in/blog. I will, over time, syndicate a few of my posts there, here. The first is on a recent great film I saw at the Mumbai Film Festival (I originally made the 1600 kilometers long journey to watch a restored print of Once Upon a Time in America, but as it turned out, the house was declared full. It was full, but of empty seats, but that's a story for another day). Here,

Outrage Beyond (2012) / Takeshi Kitano

2010’s Outrage features as one of its final sequences a neck-snappin’ execution, the method of which lends itself graciously to Kitano’s perfectly perpendicular, two-dimensional, side-scrolling video game manner of composing and then staging a shot – as the character drives his car further towards the right end of the frame-proscenium, a chain tied to a singular metal contraption present in the left half of the screen snaps tightly, thereby resulting in inarguably agonizing murder. The right half of the image is high-strung by the left. While this is, in the overall scheme, merely another act of violence in a long series of such acts that have preceded it (and will, needless to say, follow it), it is perhaps the only one which includes within itself the room to accommodate sympathy – in the scene that precedes the execution, the murdered character is shown to make love to his girlfriend (who will die as collateral damage in a bullet siege aimed at her lover) and as such, is deemed to be the only functional human being in a melee of programmed and practiced upholders of abstractions like clan loyalty, honour and personal prestige. His eventual death in the car therefore renders the vehicle an entirely human object, the container of a now subdued human heart. Outrage Beyond begins with the image of a similar vehicle being retrieved from within the ocean (the ocean and its shore are often points of culmination in a Kitano film; it is interesting that this film begins with it) – the image of this piece of soggy, dripping metal strung up by an invisible crane in the middle of the screen is a purely industrial one. It calls into mind a very similar image from Louis Malle’s 1973 documentary, Human, Too Human, a film about modern vehicle manufacturing industry and the coldness of the whole arrangement. In Outrage Beyond, the title of the film supers in large red serif font over this image of the car – it is the perfect manner in which to begin a sequel, with the notion that time (in-movie time and real-world time between the first film and the sequel) has rendered cinders of old memories frigid and the human car at the end of the first installment meaningless material at the beginning of the second.

I presume that very few film directors in the world can afford the luxury to end the film the manner in which Takeshi Kitano ends his latest. Kitano uses the entire duration of the film (as well as that of the preceding installment) to set up a large situation of warring gangs trying to gain control over Tokyo, but instead of a large payoff at the end (‘101 Ways To Murder’), Kitano’s Otomo pumps a bullet or two into Kataoka (the policeman and a big jerk, the real villain of the piece) and then, as the recently dead slumps to the ground, looks over his body in a low-angle that is as much the point-of-the-view of the murdered, as it is of the audience members whose collective complacent expectations of the film Kitano’s just taken a piss over. With this final scene, Kitano brings to culmination not merely a power conflict or a narrative problem, but also a certain tradition in the gangster-rivalry film. Instead of bothering with the usuals: dude egos, ambitions of vulgar power, hierarchical conspiracies, loyalty to clans and a world-ending final montage of individual deaths, Otomo eliminates the very engine that drives the giant genre-mechanism – the character who schemes to setup one gang against the other and enjoy the show as they destroy each other. In essence, Outrage Beyond exists first and foremost as a latter day meditation on the common tropes of the gangster film, their inevitable redundancy (someone gets to the top, other wants his position, so on and so forth) and eventually, through this final sequence, their defeat.

Such contemplative audacity is resident not only in this aforementioned scene, but throughout the film; because if Outrage Beyond is anything, it is not a yakuza film, but a post-yakuza film. A sustained atmosphere of a world coming to a somber end seems to permeate through the film, in that, the sedate gliding track-ins that open almost each scene, the tired medium frontal close-ups that its characters populate, the absence of any real soundtrack and character conversations that contain more meaningless mumbling than wisecracks seem to suggest that if the first film was the party, the second’s just the hangover. In that, it employs its duration to not ‘up the stakes’ in the manner of a blockbuster Hollywood sequel or create a cutesy wrap-up of the casual barbarism and haemo-shower-variety show resident in the first film, but instead, take the gangster film and volunteer that really, because the gangster film is inevitably driven by a hunger for power, no conclusion is possible because as long as there is a hierarchy, there will be those who are actually powerful and those who wish they were instead. Therefore, the only real end is to murder the agent (in this case, the policeman) that induces entropy into a stable system and through this, preserve the status quo. So even as there are many shootouts close to the end, Kitano’s big point remains to make them seem like a stuck record, playing itself endlessly into an infinite loop of absolute pointlessness. These shootouts are so many that eventually, Kitano manages to leak the human possibility out of them (as Michael Mann tells us, even gangster takedowns involve human death) because as they keep going on, you don’t even know who’s dying and who’s killin’ – I suspect Kitano even got the same extras to play roles on either side in successive sequences.

As such, Kitano cleverly reduces the gangster universe inside his film – specifically the yakuza universe to an anachronistic setting, a fascist setup run inside a world that really has moved on from such adherence to empty symbols. It is notable that unlike the first installment, the sequel doesn’t feature a single real interaction between the habitants of the gangster universe with those of the world outside – there are no wives, girlfriends, children or mothers – it is as if these gang members live in a giant bubble of delusion by themselves. They seem to possess an enormous amount of power (which is why, the problems), but its application seems to effect no one but those in their peer group. Kitano concerns himself with constructing therefore a universe which projects its energy externally (by becoming a social concern or public enemies) but internally; it wouldn’t be a surprise if the final twist is that they exist on an island far from the coast of Japan. Kitano’s piece-by-piece takedown of the yakuza world, of which he has now been a cinematic ambassador for over two decades now, is very interesting – he reduces it to a universe obsessed with hollow symbols and their pursuit; his character Otomo is the enfant terrible who no one likes because well, he could care less. He talks down to ‘seniors’ in the organization, refuses to take orders and has no interest in setting up his own crime-family. In this, Outrage Beyond is closest not to other gangster films, including a few made by Kitano himself, but to the twin jidaegeki dramas of Masaki Kobayashi – Hara-Kiri and Samurai Rebellion, where characters (or as in the case of Outrage Beyond, a single character) enters a state of rebellion against a system built entirely on the sustenance of illogical symbols, the sort of which Kitano reduces the yakuza existence to – seasonal gifts, tattoos (a character, while emphasizing the undeserved reputation of a peer laments, ‘He doesn’t even have the correct tattoos’), chopped pinky fingers, suited attire (the henchmen wear black suits, the bosses can choose their sartor and such.

Kitano then takes to evaluating his own ‘violent guy’ persona – if Outrage Beyond is a great film, it is because he is interested not in creating another manifestation of his gangster persona, but an old-man’s ‘looking back at it’ introspection of it. When the policeman character informs him in prison of an impending parole and encourages him to join the yakuza setup again (again, to induce chaos into a stable setup and to get them fighting again), Kitano replies, ‘I am too old for this shit.’ And it’s clever, because as he pulls off his private Gran Torino with it, it seems to be a message similar to the one inherent in Seijun Suzuki’s Tokyo Drifter, where the director uses his lead character to mouth a message of dissent to the studio that asks him to keep making the same type of film; explaining his predicament to another character, the drifter exclaims: ‘I keep trying to move on, but they keep asking me to come back.’ With Outrage Beyond, Kitano conducts some Tokyo Driftin’ of his own.