Takeshi Kitano: An Art House Criminal – By Josh Samford

With all the sudden interest these days with Japanese cinema, it seems as if Takashi Miike with his films of chaotic violence and surrealist expressionism have taken the majority of the lime light. Well before Miike was the staple of all that is current in the land of Nippon, Takeshi Kitano ruled the fanboy circuit. With his films, Kitano has created a style that is wholly his own, and has essentially created a complete genre of cinema. His influences can be felt all through Asian cinema, and these days such existential tales of love, dread or the madness involved in knowing that you will eventually die; are all the rage. The effect he has had on the international film community cannot be denied. No matter how short a time (comparatively) he has been directing, his name will go down on record as that of one of the most respected innovators and pioneers of celluloid, alongside the greatest of auteurs. Kitano’s films are not suited for everyone, so there’s no point in even trying to pretend, these aren’t for jaded cinematic audiences who go into a theater expecting unparalleled action, or even a story that is told in a fluent and structured way. The brilliance of Kitano’s work is that it’s not so much about who is doing what, or how the story is going to turn out, but the adventure and actions it takes to get to the resolution. You won’t find heroic sacrifices or heroes gunning down gangs of thugs, when violence comes, it hits quick and it hits hard. You may be watching a group of business men drinking sake in a club during one scene, but only seconds later the bar has been riddled with bullets from unknown assassins who leave everyone, including the innocent, in pools of their own blood. Kitano doesn’t present a very positive picture of humanity, but he’ll certainly present the darker sides of man in a way you probably haven’t seen.

Takeshi Kitano was born in 1947 in Tokyo, Japan. He came from humble beginnings in a working class family, the youngest of four children. His father was a rather brutish craftsman, who Kitano suspected to be a member of the Yakuza (Japanese crime organization), but who never the less lived a less than glamorous life. His mother was fervent that her children get an education, so Kitano went to college for engineering, but being the late 60’s he started hanging out with radicals (to get girls) and eventually dropped out. He got a small time job at a strip club where he eventually ran into Kiyoshi Kaneko, a comedian who Kitano joined up with to create The Two Beats. Their routine was that of a cross-talk brand of comedy, rapid fire question and answer bits similar to something one might have ran into back in the days of Vaudeville, but The Two Beats were a bit dirtier, and definitely more hip which soon gained them a cult success underground. They did their routine at small clubs and strip joints and eventually started branching out. They soon were on TV, hosted their own shows and became immediate legends. The Two Beats were not destined to last forever though, and the two broke up the act in the early eighties. Kitano remained a huge star, hosting several television programs, writing articles for magazines and painting on the side (all of which he still does). Kitano had up to this point played in a good few films, and had even had some critical success with Merry Christmas, Mr. Lawrence which he had a role in, and was to be the first film that audiences actually took him serious as an actor. In 1989 Kitano was set to star in the film Violent Cop. A nihilistic crime tale with Kitano playing a detective who plays by his own rules, and puts Dirty Harry to shame. At the time Kinji Fukasaku (now best known for his film Battle Royale, among dozens of popular crime flicks) was set for the director’s seat, but decided to drop out at the last minute when it became aware that Kitano would get the lead part and would only be available for ten days of shooting. The producers, having no where else to turn, came to Kitano and asked if he would be interested in helmed the production. He said yes.

Violent Cop would set the stage for a great deal of Kitano’s work thereafter. He knew nothing of cinematic technique, so his only indication for when he was breaking the rules came from his crew who were all very nervous to be taking the risks that this seemingly bizarre director wanted to carry the film. Kitano brought a rhythm to the film unlike nearly anything in cinema up to that point. He filled the voice with awkward silences, gave the camera a minimal position by moving it very little and leaving shots on much longer than any editor would ever normally try. The pace of the film was slowed down, giving it a reflective atmosphere and showing violence in blunt, disturbing and horrific steadiness. The darkness of the film is capsulated from the very start with a gang of youths beating a homeless man in the park. Kitano’s character follows one of the kids to his home, greets his mother, walks upstairs and beats the teenager. The tone is bleak, and the message is even more so. The gritty streets of Tokyo were shown in ways never before, and although Violent Cop may not have revolutionized the cops/yakuza genre, it certainly set the table for what Kitano was capable of and would eventually deliver. At the Japanese box office though, as with the majority of Kitano’s work, Violent Cop was hardly a success. Japanese audiences weren’t ready for Kitano in such a role, and to this day he still rarely seems to have true success with cinema in his home land. After his first film, Kitano returned to a partial Yakuza crime tale with Boiling Point. The story of a quiet gas station attendant who runs into trouble with a local Yakuza group. By circumstances he eventually sets out to bring the group down himself, but must travel out of town to retrieve a gun. He does so with his close friend where he runs into a group of very bizarre, violent and insane Yakuza willing to help. It is a film often criticized as Kitano’s weakest work, but even if that were true (which I personally do not believe), It’s still a very entertaining ride. With even less dialogue than Violent Cop and more attention to visuals than information, it can be looked at as a stepping stone in his career, as every one of his films tends to be. The violence takes on a somewhat dark humor somewhere in the midst of all the chaos and proves to be one of Kitano’s most bizarre films. Which I find to be a very valuable thing when exploring the director’s work. It seems these days a lot of the older reviews are fading out as Boiling Point has recently been getting a bit of recognition among some Asian film communities, but it may be a while yet before it truly gets the audience it deserves.

Kitano followed with his third film, A Scene at the Sea. It is essentially a silent film, as the two leads are both deaf-mute, and works as Kitano’s bridge between narrative dialogue and visual oriented film. The story focuses on a dead/mute teen who works as a trash man who one day finds a surf board which he patches together and tries his best to learn the sport. Along the way his girlfriend (also deaf/mute) and he generally just float along with one another. From this point on Kitano’s films have all been light in Dialogue, but not quite as noticeable as some of his earlier work. A Scene at the Sea also features the highlight of also being Kitano’s first collaboration with musical supervisor Joe Hisaishi who has been working along side Kitano nearly ever since. The teaming of the two can only be equated to the pairing of Sergio Leone and Ennio Morricone and the work they did on their Spaghetti Westerns. Hisaishi’s style seemed to link perfectly with Kitano’s film work, that it is always a loss when the two do not team up. The score for Scene… is a light piano theme mixed with synthesizers and turns out to be extremely catchy. The work here would later be echoed in Kids Return and Sonatine. The actual film it’s self is Kitano’s first true attempt at tackling on-screen love, and it works magnificently. It’s a touching tale of two people lost with only each other, and although it’s one of Kitano’s more obscure titles, it’s certainly as worthy as any of his Yakuza outings. After this point, Kitano made the film that is always debated on whether to be the greatest work of his or not. The previously mentioned Sonatine. The story of a big time Yakuza (Kitano) sent to a small beach town with a gang of amateurs to work out a peace agreement between rivaling Yakuza fractions. Things go sour, and it becomes apparent that the reason they were sent was not to just work out an agreement, but to be killed. The gang heads to the beach where they spend their time reliving their childhood’s in a small cottage. It’s a focus on at least one man who knows that he will soon die. The question becomes, if you were going to die at any moment, how would you choose to live your life? Surely not as a petty murderous gang member. That’s where Sonatine makes it’s name, and it incorporates everything Kitano had been working on up to that point, and truly still stands as the greatest use of his most unique traits.

From here, Kitano returned to his roots with the oddball comedy Getting Any? about a man trying to… well, get him some. The comedy from all indications was a complete failure, and surprisingly the box office numbers were low as well. What seemed like something that might appeal to Kitano’s TV Audience, backfired. At this time Takeshi ran into some personal trouble in his life as well. On Auguest 2nd, 1994, Kitano had been drinking and went riding on his moped during the night. He crashed, shattering bones in his skull, fracturing his jaw and putting him into a ten day coma. The accident also left Kitano with nerve damage in the right side of his face, which his audience has now become more than familiar with during his performances. Kitano says the accident didn’t leave him a changed man, but it’s hard to believe it had no effect when looking at the film that followed Getting Any?, his optimistic and tragically beautiful Kids Return. Featuring a very large cast of small bit characters who all paint one very large picture, the film focuses on two high school dropout friends who begin to go in the wrong directions in life, and eventually fall away from each other. One becomes a boxer who is pressured into drinking too much and cheating, the other a Yakuza who fails miserably at nearly everything he does. The characters come together in a final return that sets the beginning and ending of the film. It’s a look at youth in some of the most natural and relaxed of circumstances. The film is genuine and stands out amongst all of Kitano’s films as my personal favorite. It’s a coming-of-age movie unlike any other out there, and is poignant under any circumstance.

Hana-bi was the big one that followed Kids Return, and to this day, it is probably the film he is most hailed for. The tale of a cop who spends his last days with his sick wife while being pursued by gangsters, it is a simplistic story, but incredibly complex in emotion and the heart and soul put into it. Kitano gives one of his patented expressionless performances, but no matter how stone-wall his face may be, he still manages to not only let the audience into his world just a little, but also make them take a step back. His character is a simplistic one, he hides his emotions as a cop must, but his actions speak much louder than his words and as a film, it is just touching. From this point, Kitano hit the big time. Having his film displayed at Venice, winning awards and finally getting his deserved recognition. There are those who criticize Kitano and say he has since let the fame abroad go to his head, but I find the idea ludicrous when looking at the films he has made since then. His immediate (well, two years later) follow up was Kikujiro, a story about a child making a trip across Japan to meet his real mother, but who must be accompanied by the ex-yakuza Kikujiro (Kitano). Kitano puts in his most selfish, childish and all around meanest performance as Kikujiro, but somehow by the end of the film, you absolutely love his character. It’s the magic of his as a filmmaker that he could make such an annoying person into a touching father figure. It receives mixed results generally, but for my money it’s just another classic of his. Brother, Kitano’s North American directorial debut followed in 2000. A tale of Japanese loyalty moved to the mean-streets of California, many die hard fans considered Kitano a sell out for making the film, but if one keeps an open mind while viewing, it may not be his greatest achievement, but it’s certainly not a drop in quality. Everything that makes a Kitano film his own, is ever present during the course, including much more graphic violence which has been edited from most North American prints. Most likely Kitano’s way of rebelling against the industry even while making the film.

Since this time Kitano has directed Dolls and his remake of the classic samurai series Zatoichi. Dolls has consistently been plagued by negative reviews, but in my opinion, although it has a weak ending and is perhaps too overtly symbolic, it stands up with the best of Kitano’s work as a tribute to love. The film covers a series of stories all focusing on love between a segment of people, tied loosely together by a pair of Dolls in a play. Make sense? No? Well, one has to watch it to truly understand exactly what is going on. Zatoichi on the other hand has been getting Kitano some of his biggest press since Hana-bi. The tale of a blind masseuse who walks into a village where rivals gangs duel, and eventually controlling the outcome of their war, it’s definitely a step in a new direction for Kitano and opens the doors for him to try new things. Featuring CGI blood and sequences with farmers plowing in time with music, it might overthrow Boiling Point for his most bizarre creation, but there’s no denying it’s much more beloved for the moment.

Kitano doesn’t appear willing to slow down at any time soon. He’s still insanely popular in Japan from his comedic act, he still acts in films on the side (Battle Royale, Gonin, Izo) and is still plugging away as a writer, even with film adaptations of his novels from other directors. Kitano is not a director everyone will love, he might be too artsy or boring for many people, for a great segment of us out there, he is equal to any of the greatest artists of our time.