Rock and Roll: Deadly Outlaw Rekka
Takashi Miike began his career with the video Toppuu! Minipato tai (1991) and has 92 directing credits to his name with no signs of slowing down at the age of 53. He is one of the most controversial film directors in the world and the history of cinema. Miike is internationally know for his transgressive films that explore the repressed images of humankind while simultaneously producing children’s films, manga and video game adaptations, and long list of experimental yakuza films. Deadly Oultaw Rekka (2002) is a yakuza film made in the middle of his career and shows how this director revises and pays homage to this popular film genre.
Deadly Outlaw Rekka stars Riki Takeuchi as Kunisada, a Yakuza member with a penchant for theatricality and extreme violence, and Kenichi Endo as his brother and fellow yakuza member. Riki starred in Miike’s outlandish and fantastic Dead or Alive trilogy. He shared the spotlight in those films with Show Aikawa but in Deadly Outlaw Rekka Riki is given the space to shine as a performer without any competition.
The amount of Yakuza films made since their inception in the sixties is astronomical and the genre has two distinct periods (a very crude distinction that of course does not account for the amount of variability within the genre). The first type of yakuza films are know as “Ninkyo Eiga” modeled after Akira Kurosawa’s Drunken Angel (1948) and were made popular by the Toei studio in the sixties. In the seventies there was a shift toward more realistic docudrama treatments of the Yakuza. The gang members were no longer depicted as honorable men that struggle with their lifestyle as gangsters but instead were depicted as ruthless thugs that disregarded traditional values. This shift began with Kinji Fukasaku’s Battles Without Honor and Humanity (1973), a cynical take on yakuza cinema. In the nineties, Yakuza films became less popular and were typically relegated to direct-to-video markets in Japan except for Takashi Kitano’s work.
Deadly Outlaw Rekka cites the “classical” yakuza films pre-Fukasaku while combining these citations with an absurd interludes of violence, sex, and magical realism. The film begins with a present-tense voice-over from a stoic yakuza member in traditional garb:
There is a man who was born with the blood of a wild beast coursing through his veins…so it was said. This man, kindred of the wolves, ignoring danger, self-interest, and vanity. He walks the savage path alone. With his gaze set on the fires of Hell. His fangs tear the seal to destruction. People say..His accursed fate was the cause of it all.
The yakuza sits alone, staring at the ground in a reflective pose until Miike frames him from the front and he slowly looks up and into the camera. This introduction sets up Deadly Outlaw Rekka as a tale about a man hell-bent on destruction, his tale told from a world-weary yakuza member, a bystander to this story. The voice-over connects the proceeding events of Kunisada’s story to the classical yakuza cycle.
This classicism is immediately abandoned with a cut to black and Flower Travellin’ Band blaring on the soundtrack. Miike then cuts to a sequence that cross-cuts between Kunisada being questioned and a hit undertaken on his father (played by the singer from Flower Travellin’ Band). Here Miike introduces a magical realist sequence where Kunisada seemingly channels himself into his father’s body, aggressively choking thin air behind the glass in the cell while his father chokes his assassin, until dawn, until the assassin’s partner arrives to shoot Kunisada’s father in the head, spraying dark blood onto the camera lens.
The opening murder scene kick-starts Kunisada’s revenge quest to destroy those responsible for his father’s death. His younger brother eagerly joins him, going against Kunisada’s request to leave him alone, and they travel around wreaking havoc, going on dates with Korean girls, and avoiding violent attacks from enemy yakuzas. Kunisada’s violent quest is motivated entirely by his desire for revenge, an abstract notion in this contemporary yakuza society that flies in the face of the business dealings of the yazkua leaders.
Kunisada’s revenge escalates to ridiculous heights which involve him and is brother cruising around with a rocket launcher, blowing up enemy headquarters around the city. These sequences severely break with realism that were they in the hands of a less confident and expert filmmaker they would come off as weak attempts at sensationalism but in Miike’s hands they are absurdly campy and enjoyable. I remember showing this film to a fellow cinephile friend and he found these breaks with realism too stark making the film inconsistent. While I can understand where he was coming from I submit that because of the way Miike set up the film and continuously oscillates between realism and magical realism that these extreme breaks ultimately work.
After demolishing several skyscrapers with his rocket launcher, Kunisada and his brother face off against the two assassins that killed his father: Tabata (who still has the choke marks on his neck from Kunisada’s father) and Mr. Su. Takata prances around like a giddy teenager playing cops and robbers while Mr. Su arms himself with an absurd machine gun that appears to be both impractical and yet extremely powerful. Miike even has time to reference John Woo with an image of Mr. Su standing with his gun while white feathers slowly fall all around him in slow motion.
A raging gunfight ensues. Kunisada and his brother are grossly overpowered by Mr. Su’s machine gun. After they run of bullets they arm themselves with a metal pipe and a fire extinguisher and charge Mr. Su as he unleashes bullets. Miike cuts to black and we hear a loud thump which could be either Kunisada clubbing Mr. Su or the pipe falling out of his hands.
Now we are back in the dojo with the old yakuza member from the beginning of the film. Tha yakuza member asks about Kunisada and the other yakuza member that owned the club where Kunisada picked up the Korean members believes the wildman has been killed. The elder yakuza believes this is good. He speaks directly to the camera once again:
Death is part of a man’s training.
Kunisada’s father appears out of nowhere, dead Jedi style, and speaks to the camera: “Rock and Roll!”.
Miike’s yakuza extravaganza comes full circle. Kunisada’s death drive is part and parcel of the classical yakuza genre, the underlying force that motivates the traditional honorable yakuza characters from the earlier period and the thugs from the post-Fukasaku period. The coda then shows Kunisada and is brother lounging about in a restaurant seemingly alive while Mr. Su and Takata are doing the same in another place. These warriors have survived death, one step of many in their journey and are now relaxing after a wild gun fight. Miike transcends the antinomy he set up between honor and contemporary business dealings, contrasting Kunisada’s desire for revenge with the other yakuza leaders’ desire for running their gang like a corporation by having his characters transcend their mortality. Kunisada’s violent antics are out of this world, extravagant, and demolishes all of the corporate structures and symbols (for example, the skyscraper he blows up) as he fights for revenge.
Ben Sachs (currently working as a film critic for the Chicago Reader) has written about this ending in his series of Miike essays (“A Decade with Takashi Miike”) on Mubi Notebook. Sachs writes that the code scene with Kunisada and his brother wearing their bloody clothes while buying coffee exists outside the narrative, shots that are more similar to outtakes. Like several other moments that reference extra-narrative events. Example: the guitar player from Flower Travellin’ Band plays the copy that turns up every so often to talk to Kunisada or inquire about Kunisada’s actions with other characters. In one scene the copy is playing guitar on stage while asking questions, calling attention to the actor’s life as a guitar player. Even the end scene which is shown in the above screenshot references Flowers Travellin’ Band while at the same time commenting on the overall mood of this wacky film. Sachs’ essays on Miike are always incredibly insightful and definitely some of the best online journalism written in English on Miike but I disagree with him on this point. Like the “Rock and Roll” shot that I referred to above, the so-called outtake shots in the coda could in fact be read as another moment of magical realism/non-realism that Miike frequently takes detours into throughout this film. The interpretation of these images are however ultimately open because Miike intentionally left them vague. Miike’s ability to produce such open-ending sequences while combining disparate elements anchored by a simply revenge-yakuza narrative is one of many traits that make him a master storyteller in contemporary world cinema.
Rock and Roll indeed.