YAKUZA ON THE MOVE
I’ve been following current events in Japan, especially through the twitter of Jake Adelstein, an American journalist covering the crime beat in Japan, who has been chronicling the Yakuza’s role in providing aid and relief to the survivors of the Earthquake.
His report in the UK Independent on the nature of the Yakuza and their part in policing the disaster areas to prevent looting and violence in the wake of the earthquake is riveting and revelatory.
This makes the DVD and Blu-ray release of “Beat” Takeshi Kitano’s latest movie OUTRAGE rather timely, a return to the Yakuza genre that cemented his international reputation as a filmmaker. It’s odd to consider that the West sees Kitano as a director of tough gangster movies like VIOLENT COP, SONATINE and HANA-BI while in Japan he’s primarily known as a Benny Hill-style comedian who got his start in improvised verbal comedy and then slapstick sketches on TV. In fact, I’m amazed that very few movie outlets have even bothered to report on the release of OUTRAGE. Maybe it’s because Kitano has spent the last few years making personal and very quirky movies that didn’t fit conventional genres, let alone gangsters and Samurai after his reboot of ZATOICHI. TAKESHIS, GLORY TO THE FILMMAKER and ACHILLES AND THE TORTOISE were all deadpan comedies that perhaps indulged too much in private jokes he was telling himself that made the most sense to him – TAKESHIS was a kaleidoscopic and ironic look at his own fame and reputation through the eyes of a struggling actor doppelganger also played by him, his 8 ½, as it were. GLORY TO THE FILMMAKER was him in his deadpan slapstick comedy mode as he took the piss out of the pomposity of filmmakers, including his own, and ACHILLES AND THE TORTOISE was a tragicomedy about a man determined to be a great painter despite his utter lack of talent, addressing Kitano’s own forays into painting following his near-fatal traffic accident. I suspect Western film critics find Kitano’s non-gangster films utterly baffling and can’t fit him into the rigid image they’d built up of him from his gangster films. As a result, he seems to have fallen from grace in their eyes. That’s too bad, because OUTRAGE is Kitano back in violent, ruthless gangster mode, a movie that demolishes the sentimental myth of the Yakuza as honourable outlaws with hearts of gold.
Here, Honour is only a façade. Power and ruthlessly crushing one’s enemies are everything. Too bad it hasn’t been picked up for release in the West.
THE LOWNESS OF YOUR HIGHNESS
So the James Franco fantasy spoof YOUR HIGHNESS has gotten brutal reviews and pretty ropey box office returns in its first weekend. It seems to be a part of a (very) minor trend right now in pop culture to revive and take the piss out of the already self-parodying Medieval Fantasy Quest genre that’s been bubbling away for the last couple of years, starting with the BBC-Comedy Central co-production KROD MANDOON AND THE FLAMING SWORD OF FIRE and the BBC Radio 4 comedy ELVENQUEST, the latter of which lasting two seasons with a possible third coming this year.
Taking the piss out of the Sword & Sorcery genre is rather like shooting very large fish in a small bucket. The genre, with its hidebound conventions of questing heroes, wizards good and bad, and evil tyrants to be defeated, has been done to death in countless novels since Tolkien’s LORD OF THE RINGS and is pretty much a much bigger book market than Science Fiction most of the time. it’s comfort food to its fans. To many non-fans, the genre’s simplistic morality and characters make them as silly and juvenile as superheroes. Occasionally, you get revisionist takes like George R. R. Martin’s A SONG OF ICE AND FIRE series, which takes a kind of Degree Zero approach to the genre to make it grittier and more morally ambiguous, but the basic tenets of the genre have remained the same since Tolkien, who never set out to create a literary genre when he wrote his books.
What the above three comedy projects have in common is the basic approach, “What if the heroes are idiots?” KROD MANDOON features a band of heroes on a quest to defeat an evil ruler though the hero is much more hung up about his sexual problems with his warrior girlfriend. ELVENQUEST stars GREEN WING’s Stephen Mangan as a cynical author of fantasy novels who finds himself and his dog transported to the type of magical fantasy world he makes a living writing about, where he can predict all the plot twists coming around the corner because they’re all clichés of the genre, only for the questing heroes to look upon him with awe.
The other thing that KROD MANDOON and ELVENQUEST accidentally had in common was the nature of their villains. As played, respectively, by Matt Lucas and Alastair McGowan, the evil tyrants of both series were blokes with surprisingly modern 21st Century outlooks on things, practical and sensible and completely at odds with the medieval society around them that they were supposed to lord over. Lucas was a naughty-schoolboy-as-despot who would rather have fun than waste time living up to his evil image while McGowan was like a middle-class Englishman trying to hold a nice dinner party for a horde of very strange and gauche people. They were frequently exasperated and befuddled by the demands of being a villain: all that torturing and murdering to show everyone how evil and scary they are when they would rather have a nice cuppa tea and a conversation with someone pleasant. Lucas and McGowan’s characters were the best jokes of their respective series, particularly when they conveyed that “Why am I supposed to be doing this again?” vibe and being especially appalled by their overzealous henchmen.
The problem with YOUR HIGHNESS is that for a long list of reasons, it’s a lot less funny than KROD MANDOON or ELVENQUEST – and KROD MANDOON really isn’t very good when Matt Lucas isn’t on screen. Star and co-writer Danny McBride and director David Gordon Green have said their main influences were the really cheap and naff Sword & Sorcery movies from the 1980s and 1980s such as DEATHSTALKER, THE SWORD AND THE SORCERER, BARBARIAN QUEEN, THE WARRIOR AND THE SORCEROUS (whose plot was a take-off of YOJIMBO, with David Carradine and the dubious distinction of the heroine having her boobs out for the ENTIRE film for no reason other than the most obviously gratuitous), THE BEASTMASTER, all deeply silly movies designed solely to appeal to adolescent males. I was never allowed to see those movies as a child and when I finally caught them on video recently, I found them hysterically funny and kitsch, and they gave me a hankering to see Albert Pyun’s upcoming new entry in the genre TALES FROM AN ANCIENT EMPIRE. But anyway, back to YOUR HIGHNESS. It seems to me that based on their influences, they were already setting their bar pretty low, and the biggest failing of the movie is that it’s simply not funny, vulgar or crazy enough. The jokes often fell flat and just sat there, their timing often seemed a bit off, which killed any chance of being even remotely amusing. They simply didn’t push their piss-take as far as they should have, despite the preponderance of dick jokes. And Natalie Portman saying ‘fuck’ loses its novelty value very quickly. There was a lot of talk of how the humour was influenced by being stoned, but it looks like the biggest mistake they made was not actually having the heroes be paralytically stoned all the time in the movie, which might have at least given it the context and the edge it needed. And it seems they also didn’t bother drawing on the literary traditions of the genre and merely took from the crappy 80s movies, which were already watered-down take-offs of the books to start with, thus depriving themselves of a deeper pool of source material to draw upon once they ran out of dick jokes and Natalie Portman saying ‘fuck’. Hell, they could have taken on the conventions of fantasy role-playing video games, which put playing the actual characters of the genre in the punter’s hands and would be an endless source of comedy. I’m not out to play armchair script editor here, but I can’t help feeling that YOUR HIGHNESS and ELVENQUEST highlight the differences between American piss-takes and British piss-takes. With the former, being stoned and watching crap movies really isn’t enough. With the latter, being literate really helps. A lot. And being British and not well-publicised, ELVENQUEST remains niche and obscure, which feels perversely like a badge of honour. I only stumbled upon it because I had Radio 4 on while I was making supper.
OUTRAGE can be ordered from Yesasia.
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