Jared Leto, Tadanobu Asano, Shiori Kutsuna, Kippei Shiina
…a solid crime movie, elevated by a keen sense of place and some fine performances.
In 1950s Osaka, former US soldier Nick Lowell (Jared Leto) finds himself drawn into the orbit of a struggling organised crime family after he saves one of their number, Kiyoshi (Tadanobu Asano) from being murdered while in prison. Nick’s fearlessness, adaptability and talent for sudden violence make him a useful tool to the yakuza clan, and one they’ll need; rivalry with another yakuza gang blossoms into bloodshed in a war for control of Osaka in general and the city’s valuable docks in particular. However, for all that he takes to the outlaw lifestyle like he was born to it, Nick is still a gaijin – an outsider – and his loyalty and ruthlessness might not be enough to secure his place in a criminal underworld that may never accept him.
Written by Andrew Baldwin, The Outsider went through a couple of iterations in development before finally reaching the screen under the guidance of Martin Zandvliet (the excellent Land of Mine) and with the divisive Jared Leto as the titular figure. At one point Daniel Espinosa (Life) was set to direct Michael Fassbender in the film, while at another Takashi Miike (200 movies and counting – you’ll know at least five of them) was going to call the shots on Tom Hardy (and, for real, imagine that). Still, there’s little worth in wondering what might have been; the version of The Outsider we’ve got is solidly entertaining, even if its plot steers well inside the familiar narrative constraints of the Mafia picture, Japanese or other.
The joys of the film are in the details. Zandvliet does well to place is an unfamiliar and intriguing milieu: postwar Japan after the end of the official American occupation but still under the Western power’s economics and, to a degree, cultural heel. As captured by cinematographer Camilla Hjelm Knudsen’s crips, clean work, mid-’50s Osaka is a place of clashes and contrasts: thugs wear slick western suits and visit America-style strip clubs, but tanto daggers are wielded as well as Colt .45s, a tea ceremony seals an oath of allegiance, and making amends for failure means losing a finger joint in a display of stoic self-mutilation. A few ignorant column inches have already been spent on the negative connotations of a story set in Japan centering on a white Western protagonist, but in this context that contrast is part of the film’s underlying thematic weave; this is no Mighty Whitey or White Saviour narrative, but an exploration of a time and place in cultural flux.
Leto makes some interesting choices in his portrayal of Lowell, keeping him closed off and inscrutable for the most part, while the script only alludes to his past life and prior crimes (Emile Hirsch crops up as a war buddy at one point, surprised to find his messmate suited up and prowling Osaka’s neon streets; the encounter does not end well). we get no explanatory or ironic Scorsese-esque voiceover, and must parse Lowell for ourselves. The inescapable conclusion is that he’s a sociopath and is determined to carve out a place fro himself in a world where that particular shortcoming is viewed as an asset; on reflection even his stilted romance with Kiyoshi’s sister, Miyu (Shiori Kutsuna), for all that it risks earning the ire of ally and foe alike for the perceived crime of miscegenation, seems calculated.
Inscrutable protagonists are, of course, a staple of the yakuza subgenre – look at the oeuvre of “Beat” Takeshi Kitano for plenty of examples. Kitano’s shadow falls on The Outsider in other ways, too. The film’s execution of violence, which almost uniformly explodes out of stillness onto the screen with explosive force, owes a lot to Takeshi’s body of work, although the film of his it most obviously parallels is Brother (2000), the director’s only english-language film to date, which saw a nigh-mute yakuza member decamp to the US and guide a small gang of American drug dealers to preeminence.
The other obvious touchstone is the recently deceased Seijun Suzuki, who was making scandalous yakuza-themed B-movies not too many years on from The Outsider‘s period setting – consider Youth of the Beast (1963), Tokyo Drifter (1966), and Branded to Kill (1967), all highlights of the genre.
Nothing The Outsider does comes close to what those two wrought at the peak of their powers, of course, but while sublimity is always welcomed, solidity is good enough. With that in mind, The Outsider is a solid crime movie, elevated by a keen sense of place and some fine performances. Expect few surprises and revel in the texture.