Taken at face value, Takeshi Kitano's Outrage is a perfectly satisfying crime movie. The storytelling is terse and efficient, presenting one exciting standoff after another, and there are enough weird jokes and character turns to keep it from getting monotonous. The story itself, about warring yakuza clans familiar from hundreds of other films, is intentionally slim. Yet Kitano approaches the material like an ace jazz musician riffing on an old standard, constructing entire scenes around a funky camera setup, a deadpan punch line, or an ingenious sound cue.
In the context of Kitano's career, though, the film's apparent simplicity becomes a complex artistic statement. Outrage arrives after a trilogy of autobiographical comedies about celebrity, filmmaking, and the nature of art: Takeshis' (2005), Glory to the Filmmaker! (2007), and Achilles and the Tortoise (2008). These films constitute an ambitious self-examination comparable in scope to Philip Roth's "Zuckerman Bound" novels, and their conclusions—about art in general and Kitano in particular—are no less self-critical than Roth's (indeed, Kitano described the trilogy as the "creative destruction" of his career). After a project like that, Outrage suggests a clean slate, a chance for Kitano to get away from himself and have some fun.
But is that even possible? The central joke of the autobiographical trilogy is that Kitano can never step outside the shadow of his own celebrity. First rising to fame in the 70s as half of a stand-up comedy duo called the Two Beats (he continues to use his comedy stage name, Beat Takeshi, as his acting credit), Kitano went on to become a successful TV host, action movie star, film director, and painter—in short, a Japanese icon. In contrast to his looming presence in the culture, Kitano's onscreen persona tends to be modest and unaffected in the Buster Keaton tradition, qualities that extend to his directorial approach as well: he favors minimal dialogue, clean compositions, and linear camera movements. Kitano's style often has the emotional directness of silent movies, and it's proven well suited to character comedy (e.g., 1999's Kikujiro) as well as old-fashioned tragedy (e.g., 1991's A Scene at the Sea and 1997's Fireworks, perhaps his finest film).
The contradictory relationship between Kitano the celebrity and Kitano the serious artist makes him oddly reminiscent of both Jerry Lewis and Clint Eastwood, other iconic actors whose directorial work often questions what their iconography represents. And like them, Kitano's iconography is so bound up in national concepts of masculinity and success that his self-examinations end up interrogating cultural values as well. This may explain why none of the films in the autobiographical trilogy received a major U.S. release: distributors probably assumed Americans would find them too insular and stay away (if you'd like to catch up with them, all three are available for rent at Facets Multimedia and Bucktown's Odd Obsession). Yet the films aren't hard to understand, since they're directed with an irresistible sense of showmanship; even at his most self-regarding, Kitano remains a comedian at heart.
Kitano also recognizes the cost of so much self-examination. Satirizing his public persona one aspect at a time, the trilogy breaks down his identity until there's little of the "real" Kitano left. Takeshis' parodies his cultural celebrity through the imagined story of a pathetic double, an aspiring middle-aged actor named Mr. Takeshi who moonlights as a convenience store manager. Glory to the Filmmaker! mocks Kitano's directorial career through a History of the World-style revue depicting his disastrous attempts to make a movie outside of his familiar style. Kitano stars in each of the movie parodies (which include a mawkish Yasujiro Ozu tribute and a ghost story in the fashion of The Grudge), and his failure to adapt his sad-sack comic persona becomes a hilarious running gag.
Achilles and the Tortoise offers another pathetic Beat Takeshi double, but in a further effacement of his onscreen persona, Kitano doesn't appear until two-thirds of the way into the film. The story (which alludes to Kitano's own career as a painter) follows an introverted would-be artist from childhood to middle age. The opening scenes have the feel of a Hollywood biopic, with intimations that this ugly duckling protagonist will grow up to enjoy a momentous career. But in a surprising narrative turn, the second half depicts his adulthood as one failure after another: the middle-aged painter never sells a single work, becomes the laughingstock of his town, and loses the respect of his grown daughter. Ironically, the movie becomes more broadly comic as the painter's failures accumulate, resulting in some of Kitano's funniest gags. It's also worth noting that, of the three films in the trilogy, Achilles has the only genuinely happy ending.