SYNOPSIS: An American soldier imprisoned in postwar Japan enters the dark world of the yakuza, adopting their way of life in repayment for his freedom.
Now that the zeitgeist in Hollywood is of inclusion, it’s suddenly become unfashionable to have a ‘white man’ at the centre of any foreign culture – or so we think that’s why critics have come down so hard on Netflix’s latest original film offering ‘The Outsider’, which stars Jared Leto as a former American soldier who becomes a member of the ‘yakuza’ in post-World War II Japan. Truth is, we didn’t find this movie racist or terrible at all; in fact, we think it’s actually a pretty solid hard-boiled crime drama that aims for meaning than mayhem and comes off more poignant than we had expected it to be.
Unfortunately for Leto’s ex-serviceman Nick Lowell, there isn’t enough backstory about his past for us to understand just how he got into a Japanese prison in the first place, or for that matter why a chance meeting with a fellow ex-GI (Emile Hirsch) so perturbs him that he feels the need to cut the latter by his throat. When we first meet Nick, he is already in the same penitentiary as the Japanese gangster Kiyoshi (Tadanobu Asano), whom he helps escape via a deliberately failed suicide attempt. In turn, Kiyoshi honours his word by securing Nick’s release, and brings him into the underworld family he works for.
Given how un-fond he is of explaining where he had come from, Nick fits right into the culture of the ‘yakuza’, proving his loyalty by bludgeoning a local American businessman (Rory Cochrane) working with a rival gang, standing up for Kiyoshi and other members of the clan when challenged by the same gang at their own strip club, and last but not least participating without hesitation in their time-honored ritual of slicing off his own fingers to make up for a mistake. Nick’s allegiance earns the respect of its aging leader Akihiro (Min Tanaka), who takes Nick in as his own, despite the fact that Nick is clearly a ‘gaijin’.
Nevertheless, the fact that he isn’t Japanese doesn’t bother Nick at all, who swiftly becomes the de-facto enforcer of the Shiromatsu family. That role however brings him into sharper conflict with the members of another clan known as the Seizus, whose younger leader (Nao Omori) is keen to consolidate power. A seemingly distracting but ultimately substantial subpoint has to do with Nick’s romance with Kiyoshi’s sister Miyu (Shioli Kutsuna), not only because it is a weakness that the Seizus exploit later on but also because it earns the ire of Kiyoshi’s sworn buddy Orochi (Kippei Shiina) who was once dating Miyu and remains fond of her.
As you probably can guess, things do not go well for Nick or for the Shiromatsus in general, but that in itself isn’t an excuse for Danish filmmaker Martin Zandvliet to indulge in some generous bloodletting; on the contrary, even though it is bloody, the violence is handled with surprising nuance and elegance. Together with his screenwriter Andrew Baldwin, Zandvliet sketches out the generational turf war as a allegory of the conflict in Japan’s post-war transition between tradition and modernity. Ditto for Orochi’s resistance towards Nick, unable as he is to accept an American into the ranks of his own brethren, his disdain further compounded with jealousy as he finds his former flame falling in love with Nick and out of love with him.
Quite admirably, it isn’t spectacle but character that drives the storytelling; in particular, the key Japanese parts are sharply defined in relation and in contrast to each other, such that their motivations and tensions are without doubt. What his character lacks in definition, Leto makes up for with a quietly charismatic and grounded performance that is both convincing and compelling. Leto himself executive produced the film, and the actor opts to let Nick be a foil to the rest of his Japanese counterparts, even if it means that Nick becomes somewhat a passive observer to his circumstance.
It is for this reason too that we fail to understand why some have lamented of the film’s cultural appropriation, unless being a ‘white survivor’ means the same as being a ‘white saviour’. As far as we can see, ‘The Outsider’ is an engrossing mob drama that also packs an emotional punch. Sure, the hyper-culturally sensitive will bristle at the very thought of an American being accepted in post-war Japan, but there is absolutely no attempt here to assert one culture’s superiority over another; if anything, it actually romanticises the Japanese and the premium they place on honour, sacrifice and brotherhood..
Review by Gabriel Chong