Some people tend to look for the subtlety of a meditative ikebana arrangement when viewing a Japanese action movie with a white protagonist. They’re severely disappointed when out comes an elephant stomping on the flowers that were supposed to be appreciated, Basho-like, for their precious narrative petals and interrogative handshake between East and West.
In this sense, The Outsider is almost tailor-designed to be misunderstood, but it shouldn’t be.
It’s 1954 in Osaka and former US soldier Nick Lowell (Jared Leto) is serving time in a bleak Japanese prison like a nightmare version of “Locked Up Abroad.” We have no idea what his crimes are, how long his sentence is, or why his lush man-beard and slicked-back hair make him too gorgeous for somebody doing hard time—maybe Japanese inmates aren’t big on the whole Sodom and “gonna make you my bitch!” culture, but the dude seems too healthy and upbeat given his circumstances.
Keep in mind that Japan was still pretty much a closed empire back then and seeing a white guy, a former soldier at that, in a correctional facility without having been extradited to the conquering US of A already strains credulity.
But moving on, Nick’s luck takes a turn for the weird when he saves heavily tattooed Yakuza Kiyoshi (Asano Tadanobu) from being involuntarily hanged to death in the bathing area while Nick is on janitorial duty. The rival gang that tried to make it look like a suicide in the first place doesn’t appreciate Nick’s interference but Kiyoshi has a plan to bust them both out.
Escape does come when Kiyoshi commits ritual suicide, designed to fail with Nick’s assistance. “I need you to keep me from dying and make sure the guards come,” whispers Kiyoshi. Done and done. That’s Kiysohi shipped to the hospital and Nick secured for release a short while later.
Upon his jail exit, Nick gets one of those “can’t refuse” offers to do a “small favor” for the gangsters. Turns out his inmate pal Kiyoshi is a big fish in the Shiromatsu Yakuza. His initiation job seems easy enough, requiring him to “negotiate” with an American businessman Anthony Panetti (Rory Cochrane) who’s allied to one of the rival gangs. When the uncouth Panetti starts mouthing racist epithets to justify his business practices Nick is forced to take the dialogue into a more aggressive channel with a typewriter and judicious blunt force trauma.
First big test passed and Nick is soon deep in the Yakuza. Quickly enough he’s sporting his own black suit, an apartment in an upscale part of town, and sporting full body tattoos. Not bad for a gaijin, an outsider.
The first thing you’ll notice is Gitte Malling’s elegant, superb production design where the rich colors of Osakan traditional finery clashes with the gloom and grey of the streets and the weather. The heavy rain coming down almost every few scenes and the petals on a wet black bough that it conjures is juxtaposed quite well through Camilla Hjelm’s cinematography with the black suits of the gangsters, painting an Osaka in the throes of development, that post-war rebuilding that eventually propels Japan into today’s technological wonderland.
Contrasting all that with how the narrative certainly takes a heavy-handed approach to all things Japanese, like a tourist fetishizing his trip to “the Far East” and celebrating their surface joys while ostentatiously overlooking a deeper appreciation for the culture.
Certainly, Danish filmmaker Martin Zandvliet is a much different animal than previously rumored director Takashi Miike (who had Tom Hardy attached to the lead role), and his politics certainly don’t go beyond checking his list for this trip to 1950s Osaka. They include the following cultural backdrops for no other reason than they look pretty and deepen the Japanese feel: sumo, kabuki theater, loads of sake and titty bars, plus the time-honored staples seppuku and yubitsume.
Here’s the thing, though, the movie never presented itself as anything other than a gangster drama/thriller with the requisite contemplative moments thrown in. Nick’s journey and POV are squarely in keeping with the theme and title, even when he falls in love with Kiyoshi’s drop dead kawaii sister Miyu (Shiori Kutsuna).
It’s all par for the course with his further attempts at embracing the underground crime culture of Osaka, which is also a form of social death, he later learns. “The koi fish that swims up against the waterfall can become a dragon,” declares Miyu in place of insight, when they’re comparing their irezumi ink in bed.
While Leto tries his best to come off as cool and progressively confident in his role as a Shiromatsu enforcer, it often comes across as shellshock, some post-war and post-prison PTSD detachment, where he’s always trying his best to fit in an alien land and not quite succeeding even with his deep, inscrutable bond with his patron Kiyoshi.
Even if you can see the plot points coming a mile away the pleasures of this fish out of water setup are undiminished. Whatever’s compelling here comes from the Japanese players problematizing about what to do with Nick, even as the white guy proves he’s one of the best Yakuza to ever don the suit.
With Kiyoshi it’s the dilemma of being able to fully trust Nick with his new mafia family—and his sheltered sister, who’s taken an unsurprisingly deep liking to the white guy. As a lifelong gangster who values his honor, Kiyoshi really wants to be able to give Nick the benefit of the doubt and prove that he’s worthy of the debt he incurred. He’s also deathly scared of betrayal as he sees Nick climbing the ranks. Can he ever have full faith in the foreigner’s loyalties?
On the other side of this “let’s totally trust the gaijin” spectrum is Orochi (Kippei Shiina) another elder Shiromatsu gang member whose traditional views make him deeply suspicious and antagonistic towards Nick, calling him out for thinking he’ll ever be a true Osakan punk even if he’s drunk the sake, acquired the tats, and slept with the boss’s girl.
The spectacle of ultraviolence, when it does come on, is satisfying and kinetic. There’s a lot for action fans to revel in with the frisson of contrast: the formal traditions of gang politics, the outre street to street shootouts, betrayals, double crosses, ninja-worthy assassination attempts, and Nick demonstrating his deep capacity for violence and his skills at firearms.
Leto is the least interesting part in this hot mess of an outsider perennially looking in, this caricature of how a language-challenged foreigner could ever survive, much less thrive in, the intricate world of 1950s Japanese gangs.
It sure can be mighty entertaining when you drop the agenda of hoping for a deep political interrogation about the cultural transpositions and implications of how an American hero (despite being an Oscar-winner) can cut through the whole tea-drinking Gordian Knot with his whiteness as the secret weapon.
Nope, for that kind of hubris you need to go see The Last Samurai.
“The Outsider” is now streaming on Netflix.