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Wednesday, Sept. 25, 2002

The hits just keep coming

Jitsuroku Ando Noboru Outlaw-den: Rekka

Rating: * * *
Director: Takashi Miike
Running time: 96 minutes
Language: Japanese
Now showing

Back in the days when Takashi Miike was making only four films a year, I thought of him as a throwback to the old studio pros of the '50 and '60s, who ground out similar numbers of movies annually and thought nothing of it. His work ethic was admirable, but hardly extraordinary. This year, however, I've already reviewed five Miike films ("Koroshiya Ichi," "Dead or Alive Final," "Katakurike no Kofuku," "Shin Jingi no Hakaba," "Kin'yu Hametsu Nippon: Togenkyo no Hitobito"), while somehow missing three new releases, including "Sabu," a made-for-TV film. So who is this guy? Are creative demons driving him? Are loan sharks after him? Or is he simply another obsessive-compulsive?

News photo
Yuya Uchida and Yoshiyuki Yamaguchi in "Jitsuroku Ando Noboru Outlaw-den: Rekka"

When I interviewed him two years ago, he struck me as eminently sane, talking in a deep, slow voice about his philosophy of filmmaking, which boils down to "the more I make, the better I get." Which presents a problem for this reviewer, because he is right more often than not. If I ignore an apparently minor film (e.g. "Visitor Q," "Dead or Alive 2") to keep from being overwhelmed by the flood, movie nerds are soon proclaiming it as his latest masterpiece. On the other hand, if I try to review everything, I start to feel like Butch and Sundance with that maddening posse on their heels. The only escape is over the cliff.

This month's Miike film, "Jitsuroku Ando Noboru Outlaw-den: Rekka (Noboru Ando's True Outlaw Tales: Raging Fire)," is a yakuza thriller with the by-now-standard supercharged beginning and ending, but with an uncharacteristically twisty story about a gang power struggle in between, "supervised" by former gang boss and legendary Toei star Noboru Ando. It's as though after "Koroshiya Ichi," that feature-length wallow in madness, deviance and gore, Miike realized he was in danger of being typecast as Mr. Geek Show and drew back into, if not normalcy, a semblance of conventionality.

The opening is that gang-genre standby: the assassination of an oyabun (gang boss) by an anonymous hit man. Because this is a Miike film, the hit man is shot running at a breakneck pace through the streets, as Joe Yamanaka's rock score pounds, then leaping into space. As he comes flying over a roof in slo-mo, both guns out, he blasts the oyabun's bodyguards and finally the long-haired oyabun (Yuya Uchida) himself. The old boy is hard to put down, however, throttling the hit man with both hands even as round after round slams into his body. Then . . . but why spoil one of Miike's cooler effects? Enough to say that the boss ends up dead, while the hit man ends up with a most unusual necklace.

Naturally, this hit enrages the surviving Sanada-gumi members, particularly Kunisada (Riki Takeuchi), a fire-eating gang lieutenant who regarded the oyabun as a surrogate father. Back on the streets after a stretch in prison, Kunisada goes on the hunt for the killers together with his doggedly loyal second-in-command Shimatani (Ken'ichi Endo) and the rest of his crew.

The contractor of the hit, Kunisada learns, is Otaki (Renji Ishibashi), the boss of the rival Otaki-kai and a degenerate swine. Whacking Otaki will start a war, of course -- not that Kunisada cares. He and Shimatani move on the attack, while finding time to bed two Chinese girls drifting about the big city.

Meanwhile, Kunisada's Sanada-gumi colleagues, including the gravel-voiced Kugihara (Rikiya) and smooth-talking Iguchi (Kazuya Nakayama), are maneuvering for the top spot behind his back -- and intend to use him as cannon fodder. Scheming on the other side is Nakajo (Daijiro Harada), an Otaki-kai capo whose loyalty to his slithery boss is less than absolute. Serving as mediator is Hijikata (Shin'ichi "Sonny" Chiba), a Hanto Rengo boss, who seems to be the soul of neutrality but is playing both sides against each other for his own ends. Observing these plottings and counter-plottings is a gang elder known only as Gozen (Tetsuro Tanba), who may be cloistered in his mountain retreat but sees and knows all.

Needless to say, Kunisada gets his man (with a grimly clever ruse that belies his out-of-control image) and becomes the target of the same Otaki hit men who whacked Sanada. These two, however, are not the only ones who want him and those around him dead. As outrage follows outrage, Kunisada's anger grows, until he is ready to annihilate his enemies with the sort of firepower that George Bush would love to unload on Saddam Hussein. Get ready for Desert Storm II, in the center of Shinjuku.

After appearing in more than 170 films, usually as a yakuza, Takeuchi is a practiced hand at the sort of scowls and explosions the part of Kunisada requires. Miike, however, pushes him beyond his usual mannerisms, as when, armed with a crowbar, he lays waste to a gang of mocking hoods and finishes the slaughter with a manic, woebegone glance at his stunned girlfriend, exposing the needy little boy behind the tough-guy mask. This sort of I-couldn't-help-it-please-forgive-me look is utterly un-yakuza, though as he grows older and puffier, Takeuchi is taking on an uncanny resemblance to Bill Clinton.

Also, while supplying the sort of over-the-top action his fans have come to expect, such as firestorms that consume entire buildings, Miike is more interested in the film's complex intrigues than its slam-bang effects. Is this just another phase -- Miike taking a breather before plunging again into the pop-culture cesspool -- or is he finally growing up? We'll probably have a few more chances to answer this question before New Year's to find out.

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