It’s No Fun Watching People Die
In an interview with Daily Yomiuri Online, Takeshi Kitano – the writer, editor, director, and star of Outrage – stated that he wrote the screenplay first by inventing the ways in which the characters would die, second by building a story around those deaths. He also said that his intention was nothing more or less than to make an entertaining film. I was prepared to struggle with writing about this film, because admittedly, watching it was an exhausting experience for me; I couldn’t keep track of the characters, nor could I make heads or tails of the complicated plot. But I certainly noticed the work Kitano put into the death scenes, all of which are shockingly violent. Now that I know I wasn’t supposed to pay attention to anything else, a lot of the pressure has been taken off of me.
I have yet to go through my growing catalogue of movie reviews, although I’m fairly certain I’ve made cases for violence as entertainment, specifically in relation to comic book adaptations and horror movies. The older I get, the more I find myself adding provisos to what I deem acceptable forms of entertaining violence. When I saw Kick-Ass, for example, I made it a rule that any depictions of young children stabbing, slicing, and shooting people in a comic book setting were offensive. I’ve also made rules against teen slashers and torture Hentaibros; I don’t believe innately sadistic material can be reprieved simply because the visuals go over the top. Now that I’ve seen Outrage, I would contend that the many scenes of violence and death are not, as Kitano implies, entertaining. They are, in fact, disturbingly realistic.
So then why am I recommending it? I may not have been entertained, but I was drawn into the world Kitano was capturing – one in which it’s easy to imagine people getting killed in ugly ways. He immerses us in the Japanese subculture of yakuza, members of organized crime syndicates notorious for their rituals, structure, and strict codes of conduct. This isn’t a character study so much as an examination of hierarchies and traditions, many of which have surely been romanticized by the media. I don’t know if we see them all, but we certainly see a lot of them: The practice of cutting off one’s finger as a form of penance; the intricate full-body tattoos; the designation of one’s turf; the making and breaking of pacts; their referencing one another in familial terms, most notably father and brother.
There’s really no need to go into specifics about the plot, except to say that it involves several yakuza clans vying for the favor of their head families. It’s not necessary to name any of the characters or describe their personalities, since just about all of them are universally developed; they’re criminals caught up in relentless power struggles, and no more. There will be shootings, slashings, betrayal, vengeance, allegiances made over sake, and rival bosses scheming to rise in the ranks. There’s a corrupt cop and an easily coerced ambassador from a small African country, both of whom find themselves implicated in yakuza turf wars. There’s even a drug dealer, a noodle chef, an underground casino, and a bathhouse. The last twenty minutes or so feature almost nothing but people dying nasty deaths.
The violence is indeed explicit. Perhaps it’s even gratuitous. But since when have gangsters had good reasons to kill people? In any criminal organization, in which it’s all about power and survival, there’s no such thing as putting a value on life. This movie works because it unflinchingly transports audiences – most of whom, I believe, are capable of human emotions – into an altogether different world; if you have never killed anyone (and I sincerely hope you haven’t), this movie will give you a pretty good idea of what that process entails. Bullets will tear flesh, blood will ooze from wounds, and the victims will stop breathing. It elicits a reaction of genuine horror. It may not be pleasant, but it is effective.
I personally prefer these kinds of death scenes to the ones found in teen slasher films. It has nothing to do with enjoyment; it has to do with getting a sense of what happens when a real person dies. Slashers tend to downplay this by putting more effort into gore and the elaborate mechanics of the killing – i.e. slicing someone in half with a machete. The teens in these films are not human beings, merely targets in a shooting gallery. Typically, we’re supposed to find this kind of thing funny. The reason why movies like Outrage work is because the humanity of the characters is revealed through their suffering. There’s no great depth to them, and yet we do get the sense that they’re actual people. I took no pleasure in watching any of them die, and that’s the film’s greatest strength.