Definitely not for the faint of heart. Takeshi Kitano’s latest yakuza film is on one level a long string of violent beatings, maimings, and murder. The story is very simple, although the large cast of characters and twisting betrayals makes it seem complicated. It starts at a gathering of powerful yakuza bosses. The godfather, as it were, takes one of his lieutenants aside and warns him that he doesn’t like the lieutenant, Ikemoto, making deals with another lower level boss, Murase. Ikemoto then tells one of his lieutenants, Otomo (played by Kitano himself), to make life a little difficult for Murase, so that big daddy doesn’t think they’re being too friendly. “Making life a little difficult” ends up setting off a string of reprisals that escalate up the ranks, as one gangster after another sees a chance to gain more power and favor with the big boss.
The story felt curiously flat to me on the surface. It’s just one violent crime leading to another. One of the interesting aspects is that Kitano’s Otomo, who is the closest thing to a viewpoint character and thus creates a certain expectation of being better than the rest, actually seems to be a fairly stupid man. Kitano plays him with his usual blank-faced stoicism, but the results of his actions tell us what we need to know. All of the yakuza, in fact, are depicted as vicious, impulsive thugs who are unable to think about the consequences of their actions, even in terms of self-preservation. In a genre sense, it’s an anti-yakuza story, in that we don’t get a story of a smart guy who eventually falls afoul of the moral that crime doesn’t pay. Instead, these are stupid people who fail from the get-go, even when they think they’re getting ahead of the game.
As such, it’s not all that fun to watch. I’ve never seen Kinji Fukasaku’s Battles without Honor and Humanity (1973), or the other yakuza films he did in the series called The Yakuza Papers, but this film reminded me of what I’ve read about Fukasaku’s films. It’s a debunking of the glamorous myth of the yakuza. There is no code of honor. There are stupid, violent men committing horrifying crimes. It certainly convinced me that I didn’t want to be a yakuza, so I guess it served a purpose, but I kind of knew that I didn’t want to be a yakuza going in.
That said, I don’t know that I completely understand what Kitano is up to. This is apparently the first film in a trilogy. There’s a historical aspect to it in which it’s implied that Otomo is an old school yakuza who can’t make the transition to modern methods. There’s a younger yakuza, Ishihara, who we’re told at the very end is creating new methods of stealing, including something involving the stock market. This is reminiscent of The Godfather (1972), but it isn’t really the focus of this film. Maybe that’s where the trilogy is headed, however.
The thing that kept me completely engaged with this film even as I was wincing at the bloody violence was its sheer visual beauty. Kitano’s ability to compose artistic shots is tremendous. The serene, steely beauty of the background creates a powerful contrast to the violent foreground — a slate and sable and jade context for crimson splashes of blood. That too may be a commentary that I don’t quite understand yet. Perhaps the wonders of the world cannot be tarnished by the vicious idiocy of human thugs.