On one level, Takashi Miike’s 2002 film “Deadly Outlaw: Rekka” would appear to plough a fairly straightforward furrow in standard Japanese Yakuza flick territory. The plot is certainly simple enough, and can be dispensed in a few lines:
After the godfather of Yakuza syndicate Sanada is brutally murdered by two hitmen working for a rival gang faction (led by the aging, wheelchair-bound Mr Otaki), the dead Oyabun’s adopted son, Arata Kunisada (Miike regular, Riki Takeuchi), rejects diplomatic calls for a truce from the next prospective leader, Mr Kugihara, and resolves to go on a blood-letting crusade of vengeance that could lead to all-out war between the two Yakuza groups.
However, Kugihara and the second in command of the Otaki faction, Mr Nakajyo, are in cahoots with the leader of a third Yakuza family, led by Mr Bando (a high profile cameo by Sonny Chiba), who were originally assigned to mediate between the two warring groups. In reality, all three are in on a secret plot to depose old Mr Otaki so that Kugihara and Nakajyo can take over the reins of their respective factions, each one then secretly owing their allegiance to the Bando family. The unsuspecting Kunisada is handed the ‘revenge’ hit on Otaki, unaware that he is merely a pawn facilitating the plans of the plotters, who then set loose the hitmen who originally killed Mr Sanada in the first place, to do the same to Kunisada and his small group of friends.
After he catches wind of this, Kunisada is understandably not best pleased with the situation, and sets out with his best friend Shimitarni (Kenichi Endo), to take down everybody left standing -- using some rather extravagant means along the way …
The thing to remember here, despite the above bog standard Japanese gangster plot outline, is that this is a film by maverick film-making talent Takashi Miike – and so there is no possibility that things are going to go down in the standard way of the usual Yakuza flick.
Miike, of course, is a veteran of the genre, despite being better known among horror orientated fans for the offbeat thriller “Audition” – but that doesn’t mean that you’ll ever know just what to expect from this wayward genius. The standard is set in the opening few minutes of the film, which makes use of a blitz-montage of jumpy editing techniques and slow motion, edgily jumping forwards to flash up frames from later in the film’s narrative while also intercutting between the murder of Yakuza godfather Sanada and depicting the deranged Kunisada escaping from a detention centre – all this choreographed to some thumping prog metal from pioneer Japanese rockers Flower Travellin’ Band.
It’s a delirious and outrageously abstruse start to proceedings, that signals to the audience not to take too seriously the film’s Japanese language title: “Jitsuroku Ando Noboru Kyodo-den: Rekka”, which, in translation, claims the film to be a representation of the true life exploits of Yakuza-turned-actor Noboru Ando.
What has this to do with the actual plot, or any of the characters we see in the film? Very little of course. But to unpack its significance we need to know that one of the producers of the film was Akira Ando – the son of Noboru -- and the production also included former real life Yakuza, Tsuneo Seto (producer), and Shigenori Takechi (the film’s writer). Many of the early Yakuza films had backing from these crime syndicates and functioned as a mythologizing advert for their way of life – portraying it as honourable and chivalrous as well as exciting and dangerous. In an interview on this disc, Miiki claims to have taken a rather free and easy approach to Takechi’s script, using it as a springboard for his own ideas rather than following every aspect of it faithfully. In fact, the Japanese language title and Miiki’s approach to the material all come across as a semi jokey tribute to the origins of the Yakuza movie. Goodness knows what the young Ando thought about the finished product, which, presumably, was originally financed with the intentions of producing a film somewhat in the vein of those old-style Yakuza-backed flicks of yore, paying tribute to the fictionalized ‘true life’ exploits (although they never were, really) of Ando’s father, this minor star of Japanese cinema.
What we end up with instead is a typically mercurial Takashi Miiki product, that veers wildly from the documentary mimicking style of a true life drama, deploying street level guerrilla filmmaking tactics to snatch footage on Japanese streets without authorisation while using shaky hand-held cameras -- or else attempting to catch the simplicity of real life with Ozu-like static shots that observe whole scenes of apparent mundanity from a distance like a fly on the wall – to the experimental New Wave artifice evident in the apparently random use of sudden jump cuts within scenes, abrupt transitions between scenes, and the use of extreme slow motion to create eerily lyrical, scrutinising interludes, in which the isolation of an occasional fleeting, almost trivial occurrence, seems to transform it into a momentous, glacial moment caught for eternity.
Then there are the silly jokes and dashes of oddball humour, frequently used to undercut a tense or serious moment, and further emphasising the distance between the real world of Yakuza violence and the fiction of the movie version. For example: a hitman (Yoshiyuki Yamaguchi) kills someone while his victim still has his fingers clutching at his killer’s throat as he dies, and thereafter has to walk around with the severed hands still attached to his neck like a macabre souvenir; the same man later in the film, is having a conversation with his colleague, which starts off in a public baths and moves out into the street. It is only a few minutes into their dialogue that they both realise that one of them has forgotten to get dressed and is standing in the middle of the road completely naked! A police detective sympathetic to the hot-headed hero Kunisada, delivers one whole scene of dialogue as a traditional song, while strumming an unplugged electric guitar, and standing on a stage while his interlocutor sits in the audience; the film ends with an apparition of the murdered Yakuza head, whose death started the whole bloodbath, popping up on screen to proclaim: ‘rock and roll!’
Most of this kind of offbeat humour is incongruous with, but sits easily enough within, the film’s essentially real-world mise-en-scene, until in the final twenty minutes, Miiki pushes the plot into absurdist comic book territory as Kunisada takes up a rocket launcher against his enemies. There’s even a scene that satirises the action movie convention in which the action hero is allowed to get away with being sprayed with machine gun fire without ever getting hit; here it is rehearsed as a surreal cataclysm (which is presumably where the ‘Rekka’ – which means raging fire – of the title comes in) that ascends to ever more ridiculous levels of unbelievability until you’re not actually sure if what you are seeing is even really meant to be happening for real. Occasionally, Miiki even uses the very pretence of the film’s ‘realness’ to draw attention to its actual artificiality by allowing (in fact, arranging for) the camera lens to be splashed with blood in the film’s small cache of non- camp, brutally violent sequences. This device reaches its peak in a scene when he contrives to have the entire lens completely covered in a thick, treacly soup of blood, through which one can only just make out the action!
This wayward, scattergun, brickolage approach to style and content hangs together surprisingly coherently given the sheer range in the mix of elements, but this is largely down to Miiki finding the film’s centre in his appreciation of the Japanese Prog Rock group, Flower Travellin’ Band and their 1971 album “Satori”, tracks from which form the soundtrack to all the film’s scored sections. So central are they to the film’s tone that the band’s producer Yuya Ichida appears as the Yakuza boss murdered at the beginning of the film (and who delivers its quirky coda from the spirit world in the final sequence) and guitarist Joe Yamanaka is the guitar strumming cop, who periodically helps out the embattled antihero with advice and sympathy. Some of the film’s most affecting moments occur during a mid-film interlude, when Kunisada and his pal Shimitani pick up two Korean girls and hit the road to the funeral-paced strains of the band’s best, most evocative prog-metal noodlings. The love story dwindles to nothing soon after, being just one more traditional Yakuza flick element which Miiki chooses to reference then casually discard in favour of weird quirkiness, ultra-violence and surreal humour, leaving Kunisada’s mute love interest waiting in vain at a train station while he goes off to take revenge on his double-crossing bosses.
Arrow Video present the film with a transfer that seems rather speckled, scuffed and a bit faded at times, but seems to capture the essential ‘downbeat’ look of the film quite nicely anyway. The English subtitles are clear and seem to make sense, which is not always a given with translations of Japanese pictures. The disc comes with an appropriate and colourful piece of cover artwork from Rick Melton and a booklet featuring stills and an essay on the film by Tom Mes, author of “Agitator: The Cinema of Takashi Miiki” and some notes on prog rockers Flower Travellin’ Band written by Sam Jones. The disc itself comes with some welcome extras including the film’s trailer and two extensive interviews with Takashi Miiki himself. The first one previously appeared on the Media Blasters release of the film, and runs for eighteen minutes, with Miiki mainly discussing the odd production history of the movie and the unusual financing. The second, “Deadly Outlaw: Miiki” runs for half-an-hour and was recorded at the 2010 Venice Film Festival. It comes with its own sub-menu that allows you to jump straight to whichever of the range of subjects Miiki discusses during the film. The film quality is pretty poor and seems to have been recorded on a camcorder with a steamed-up lens, in a tiny hotel room, but this is actually a pretty revealing interview and features Miiki’s views on a wide variety of film-related topics, and he explains his intentions for certain aspects of the film as he discusses specific scenes, the cast, the producers and, of course, the soundtrack that binds everything together.
The film isn’t one of Takashi Miiki’s masterpieces by any means, but I enjoyed this unpredictable joyride through the director’s bizarre imagination and Riki Takeuchi is in fine fettle as its explosive antihero. Definitely worth a look.