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January 2011

Deadly Outlaw: Rekka

cast: Riki Takeuchi, Kenichi Endo, and Sonny Chiba

director: Takashi Miike

96 minutes (15) 2002
widescreen ratio 2.35:1
Arrow DVD Region 2

RATING: 8/10
review by Jonathan McCalmont

Deadly Outlaw: Rekka

Traditionally, foreign films were seen as the preserve of cultural elites. Lacking recognisable stars, usually screened with subtitles, and frequently boasting not only odd cultural perspectives but unconventional cinematic grammar, foreign films were seen as very much the preserve of the art house crowd. They were films that were 'good for you' and 'challenging' rather than fun and entertaining. However, with the arrival of DVD all that changed and, for a while, Takashi Miike was the poster boy for a new kind of foreign film.

Anointed with slogans such as 'Asia extreme', this new form of cinephilia tried to reinvent world cinema as a source of transgressive imagery and bizarro plotlines. Japanese horror merged with Hong Kong action films and European sex dramas as DVD labels reached out to new audiences who would normally have run a mile at the sight of subtitles. Miike was the poster boy for this new and inclusive form of cinephilia because, aside from being packed full of transgressive imagery and ultra-violence, films such as Audition (1999), Dead Or Alive (1999), and Ichi The Killer (2001) were actually rather good. Demented, but good...

Miike was a director who could lure in the punters while also possessing a singular enough vision to qualify as an auteur. Thanks to Miike, labels such as 'Asia extreme' were not simply re-visitations of the VHS era's love story with European exploitation film and video nasties, they were intellectually respectable. However, nearly ten years on and you don't hear the name Takashi Miike as frequently as you used to. Miike is a stunningly prolific director, producing several films a year, but his films seldom make it as far as a DVD release in this country. What happened?

Takashi Miike's fall from the limelight can be seen as the result of two different realities. Firstly, the strategy to suck in new audiences was actually quite successful. To this day, the UK DVD market is a good deal deeper than that of many of its continental counterparts. Go to France and try to find a shop that sells DVDs that aren't recent blockbusters or old TV series and you will see what I mean. However, as the UK DVD market has matured and a wide array of small labels has emerged to compete for our money and attention, Miike's shocking images have started to lose their power to suck in the punters. The UK DVD market has combed the archives of world cinema for transgressive films and you can only push so much gore and sex at punters before they start to get wise or grow jaded - especially when the Asia extreme label was applied to a lot of terrible films as well as a lot of genuinely good ones. The second part of the problem is the nature of Miike's output itself. According to the taxonomy laid down by the editors of the venerable French film magazine Cahiers du Cinema, directors tend to come in two different shapes:

The first camp is made up of what has come to be known as 'metteurs-en-scene'. These are jobbing members of the film industry who work as 'guns for hire' on whatever project they can get themselves attached to. Because their primary concern is getting their next job, metteurs-en-ecene are widely seen as non-artistic as their job is usually to follow the instructions of the producers. The second camp is the better known group of 'auteurs'. There are directors who see themselves as artists and, as artists, they pick their projects carefully (frequently writing their own scripts) and owe their chief allegiance to their own personal vision.

Miike is a director who has steadfastly refused to fit comfortably into either category. Astonishingly productive, Miike hops from one project to another seemingly without ever completely internalising the rules of any of the genres he operates in. This makes it rather difficult to sell his films as his output is both too indiscriminate to be marketed as art and too oddball to be marketed as genre. Deadly Outlaw: Rekka (aka: Jitsuroku And Noboru kyd-den: Rekka) is a rare exception to the elusiveness that has characterised much of Miike's recent career. It is an intelligent and well-made gangster movie whose traditional genre narrative is augmented rather than deconstructed by Miike's myriad tics and techniques.

The most obvious Miike-ism is the film's opening. As with Dead Or Alive, Miike plunges us head-first into a high-octane series of assassinations and action sequences with a howlingly weird musical accompaniment and very little dialogue. People sprint through crowded streets. Someone is strangled. Someone else jumps through a window. As the music fades and the primacy of the spoken word reasserts itself, we find ourselves in the middle of a turf war between different clans of yakuza. The boss of one clan has been killed but his underlings do not want war. War is expensive. War is dangerous. Far better to agree to a truce...

Miike depicts the leadership of the various clans as a collection of grey men. Faceless and suit-clad, these leaders of tomorrow look like they could be employed in any Japanese business you care to mention. They have none of the honour or panache that is evidently expected of a Japanese gangster, where are the outlandish clothes? Where are the tattoos? These grey men feel that they have too long been under the thumb of traditional gangsters and so they decide to carry out what they call a 'corporate restructuring' whereby the colourful bosses of the various clans will all be assassinated allowing the younger and more business-minded underlings to take over.

However, in order to do this they need to find the right kind of weapon; a disposable weapon that can be used to murder a boss and then killed in turn in order that the victimised side not lose too much face. Enter Kunisada (Riki Takeuchi). Kunisada is a gangster from the old school. Fiercely loyal to his adoptive father (the recently assassinated boss), he is more than willing to throw his life away on a quest for revenge. Arrogant, violent, flamboyant, and accompanied by a coterie of men who are loyal to more than his money, Kunisada is exactly the kind of thug that the leaders of tomorrow need in order to carry out their palace coup. He is also exactly the kind of thug that they instinctively fear and hate.

In a move that is very much reminiscent of The Wire's conflict between Avon Barksdale and Stringer Bell, Deadly Outlaw: Rekka explores the different ways in which criminals see themselves. In The Wire, the two founders of the Barksdale organisation fall out with each other because Stringer believes that the drugs business should be run like any other business while his partner Avon still adheres to an older and more militaristic model wherein rival groups of 'soldiers' battle for territory. A similar theme emerges in Sudhir Venkatesh's sociological memoir, Gang Leader For A Day: A Rogue Sociologist Takes To The Streets (2008).

Venkatesh reveals that different generations of Chicago drug-dealers see themselves in very different lights and while the younger dealers see themselves as businessmen, the older dealers see themselves as community organisers very much like the Black Panthers and the civil rights activists of the 1960s and 1970s. Deadly Outlaw: Rekka presents the clash between a business-focused understanding of the life of the yakuza and a more traditional samurai-inspired one. Kunisada is initially presented as little more than an angry thug (he is said to have Korean blood and, apparently, you "can't reason with guys like that"), but as the film progresses it soon becomes clear that he is someone who operates under a very strict code of honour. Miike unpacks this code in a number of different ways.

Firstly, Miike pays great attention to the style of dress of the various characters. For example, the leaders of tomorrow all wear poorly cut suits while the members of the old guard all wear kimonos. This use of visual motifs is astonishingly effective, particularly when you consider the way in which Miike deploys veteran actor Sonny Chiba as an almost numinous presence who drifts through the film embodying traditional values and demanding respect from all criminals but without his actual role or position ever being made clear. Kunisada refers to him as "your honour" but it is quite clear that Chiba's character represents Kunisada's honour and his connection to the old ways. However, while Kunisada is clearly closer to the traditional gangster than the leaders of tomorrow, he is also a violent thug, and so Miike makes sure to dress both him and his henchman in horrible 1980s-style suits. Kunisada is a man out of time, he sticks out, and he is an anachronism. But he is also kind cool.

Secondly, Miike depicts Kunisada as operating under quite a strict code of self-denial. Indeed, despite swaggering about the place and completely giving in to what appears to be every flick of his significant temper, Kunisada turns down the opportunity to run away and find love and safety in the arms of a beautiful Korean girl. In one moving scene, she begs him to follow her to Hong Kong, but Kunisada has a mission to fulfil. He must have vengeance, despite the fact that the man who was assassinated was only nominally his father. This is not a matter of feeling but a matter of principle.

Thirdly, Miike highlights the extent to which Kunisada's actions are based on a code by comparing him and his companion to a pair of assassins who are clearly completely nihilistic. Initially, the actions of the two sets of killers are similar but, gradually, clear moral differences start to emerge and Kunisada reveals himself to be a man of principle.

Aside from possessing a strong story with roundly-drawn characters and a set of deeply resonant themes, Deadly Outlaw: Rekka is also shot with a good deal of style. Miike pre-empts many of the faux-exploitation techniques used by Quentin Tarantino and Robert Rodriguez in Grindhouse (2007), to make a contemporary film look like a throwback to the 1970s. Indeed, Rekka is full of intentionally 'bad' editing, missing bits of film and a distinctly atmospheric grainy picture quality. Miike also relies heavily on the use of handheld cameras meaning that a lot of the footage feels as though it was shot in great haste and with little regard for proper framing and whether or not there's a street light in the foreground. Add to this, buckets of blood and some wonderfully gonzo action sequences, and a distinctly bizarre ending, and you have a film that is not only a great deal of fun but also a cut above your average Hollywood action movie.

Ideas, drama, action, and fantastic cinematography; Deadly Outlaw: Rekka has it all and, what's more, Arrow has been kind enough to include not just one but two fascinating interviews with Miike about the making of the film. All in all, this is a genuinely excellent release.

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