In the early ’90s, Japan’s Takeshi “Beat” Kitano was on a roll, with a superb string of nuanced crime movies that stood in stark contrast to the good-vs.-evil bullet operas that were coming out of Hong Kong at the time. Kitano’s darkly funny cynicism (who else could have made Violent Cop?) made him stand out by miles, but it soon became his weakness, as became evident in the lean period after the success of Zatoichi in 2013. The experimental, semi-autobiographical trilogy that followed — Takeshis’, Glory to the Filmmaker and Achilles and the Tortoise — seemed to offer little more than self-sabotage, the work of a frustrated artist trying to take a blowtorch to his populist image without much thought for the future.
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The collateral damage was his international reputation, which took a hit to the extent that his next trilogy, the Outrage series, generally was received as the half-hearted work of a bored auteur. The first film premiered in Competition (to middling reviews) in Cannes in 2010, the second (Beyond Outrage, 2012) debuted in Competition in Venice, and the third (Outrage Coda) was relegated to an Out of Competition slot at the same festival five years later. This haphazard scheduling hardly was helpful, so it’s no wonder the three films were never really presented or regarded with any consistency.
Which is a shame, as, taken together, the three films might arguably be Kitano’s hidden masterpiece, a yakuza epic in the vein of Kinji Fukasaku’s incredible Battles Without Honor and Humanity (1973-74). In retrospect, the Outrage trilogy might have suffered because it followed Hollywood’s co-option of the Asian crime movie oeuvre, notably with The Departed, Martin Scorsese’s lackluster Oscar-winning remake of Hong Kong hit Infernal Affairs. Because then, being Takeshi Kitano, Kitano went the other way, like Fukasaku seeing the yakuza movie as a kind of working-man’s blues, a bleak, brutal lament reflecting the diminishing returns of Japan’s gangland life in the real world as it fragmented and imploded.
Kitano’s new movie Kubi promises to do the same for samurai movie, and the bad news is that, though it really, really tries, it just doesn’t pull it off. The action is some of his best, the humor some of his very darkest, and there’s a committed attempt to skewer the most ridiculously romanticized notions that surround the classic samurai period. Kitano even takes great delight in outing them as hyper-masculine closet cases (“Infatuations between samurai certainly are complicated,” notes one character with glorious understatement). But where a surfeit of characters in a yakuza movie adds to the rich tapestry of underworld life, in a period movie things can get too complicated, with the result that loyalties get confusing, and so many people die that it’s hard to recall who did who, and why, when the credits roll.
The inspiration is the real-life “Honnō-ji Incident” of June 1582, which saw the attempted assassination of rapacious daimyo Oda Nobunaga (Ryo Kase), Japan’s would-be one-nation ruler. Nobunaga commands his men, including his trusted ally Akechi Mitsuhide (Hidetoshi Nishijima), to hunt down the traitor, not knowing that feudal Japan is a viper’s nest when it comes to internecine intrigue. The chaos that ensues is fitfully enjoyable, but — it seems incredible to say this — Takeshi Miike, once Kitano’s cheapo V-cinema rival, has covered this territory before and done it much more satisfyingly.
The fact that the film begins with a single headless body and ends with a row of severed heads is pretty blunt a metaphor for this: There’s a fatal sense of disconnect here. But it’s not enough grounds to write off Kitano just yet — his dark energy needs an outlet, and, as frail as he might seem here, there’s no reason to think that he doesn’t have at least one more killer film — if not another trilogy — inside him.
Festival: Cannes Film Festival (Cannes Premiere)
Director-screenwriter: Takeshi Kitano
Cast: Hidetoshi Nishijima, Ryo Kase, Takeshi Beat, Shido Nakamura, Yuichi Kimura, Kenichi Endo, Asano Tadanobu , Nao Omori
Running time: 2 hr 11 min
Sales agent: Kadokawa Corporation
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