There is something narcotic about Takeshi Kitano's face. Something insidiously pleasurable about his heavy-lidded, beatific gaze and Buddha-pleasant serenity; something intoxicating in his radiant grin. You watch him for awhile, this little man with the beaming smile, thinking you are merely amused, immune. Then the craving begins.

In Japan, where he's known by his nickname, "Beat" Takeshi, the 46-year-old Kitano reigns over a nation of addicts. Ubiquitous as a television personality--appearing as everything from abrasive talkshow guest to sports commentator to aggressive product pitchman in a whirlwind eight primetime slots each week--he is universally acknowledged as Japan's "number one entertainer."

His celebrity began in 1971, as half of the comic duo The Two Beats, who confounded older audiences with their rapid-fire delivery and political irreverence, and delighted the nation's tradition-sick youth. Today, Kitano publishes outspoken newspaper columns, collections of aphorisms and serious novels, and is beloved by the Japanese, who pay him to provoke them with his deadpan sarcasm and razor-barbed zeal.

American moviegoers might remember him for his role in Nagisa Oshima's Merry Christmas, Mr. Lawrence ('83), as Tom Conti's captor, the brutal and occasionally sentimental Sgt. Hara (he utters the film's title line). With his appearance in the upcoming Robert Longo film of William Gibson's Johnny Mnemonic, where he'll appear as Keanu Reeves' nemesis, Kitano's face value will seep further into America's pleasure-furrow. (It's seeped a bit already: Americans who've lived in Japan sometimes return with horror stories about the "Beat"-persona's purported xenophobia, misogyny, homophobia, what-have-you.)

He also writes screenplays, and directs and edits his own feature films--five of them to date: Violent Cop ('89), Boiling Point ('90), A Scene at the Sea ('92), Sonatine ('93), and the just-completed Everybody's Doing It. Though filled with the same combination of whimsy and outrage that have made "Beat" Takeshi a superstar, Takeshi Kitano's films are, at heart, seriousminded examinations of Japan's surface tensions, and they have rapidly made Kitano the brightest star in the Euro-American critical mapping of contemporary filmmakers from Japan. (That so little of contemporary Japanses filmmaking is ever seen outside Japan is a separate, though not unrelated, issue.)

In director Kitano's world, as in "Beat" Takeshi's comedy, placid surfaces are made to be enjoyed, indulged, and then shattered. Silly bits of comedy coexist with episodes of savage violence: in the sunny, contemplative Sonatine, an aging yakuza takes time out from an ill-fated assignment to spend a few days relaxing on an Okinawan beach, and in the baseball-noir Boiling Point, a teenaged loser takes a lesson in self-assertion from a psychotic killer. Each of Kitano's films embrace death as a form of self-determination, and yet each offers an underlying concern for victims, outsiders and children, and for the consequences of violence, both on the body and in society.

In a national popular cinema long accustomed to splatter and grand guignol, Kitano gleefully conforms, giving unstinting expression to the blackest modes of irony. Three of his films are filled with face-pummelings, belly-stabbings, and bullet-riddlings, and corpses litter the screen in ways that would tickle that preeminent stylist of nihilist yakuza spectacle, Suzuki (Branded to Kill) Seijun.

In the fourth, A Scene at the Sea, a deaf-mute trashman teaches himself to surf.

As a director, comparisons with Kitano's style have run the gamut: Woo, Ozu, Scorsese, Melville, Tarantino, Bresson. As a physical presence, his recognizability is immediate and unique. He could trademark his stoop-shouldered slouch and unmistakable waddle; so distinctive is his shamble that one Asian film programmer was moved to evoke Jacques Tati, though there's a bit of ham-calved Popeye in there, too. In three of Kitano's films, he also stars or plays a crucial supporting role; his characters range from saturnine cop to yakuza sodomite, and each is indelible.

In A Scene at the Sea, Kitano does not appear, and there is no bloodshed. It is his most radical film.

Kitano's overdriven directorial debut, Violent Cop (Japanese title: Warning! This Man is Wild!), came about by accident. Set to star as the irascible Detective Azuma, a rogue cop who uncovers corruption within his department's ranks, Kitano rewrote the script and stepped behind the camera when the film's original director dropped out. The nihilistic gusto with which he reworks the generic premise is as riveting as the film's erratic mood swings. In one excruciating sequence, a group of children look on as a frenzied beating abruptly downshifts into a slow-motion fistfight--scored to a bit of Eric Satie--then resumes its hyperbolic pace with the sickening crack of a metal baseball bat on a policeman's skull.

Detective Azuma's volcanic, Dirty Harry demeanor--beating confessions from teenagers, running thugs down with his car, kicking the hapless suitor he finds in his brain-damaged sister's bed down a flight of stairs--is unbalanced by Kitano's comic-iconic presence, and his refusal to resist a sight-gag: Azuma continues swatting that hapless suitor just long enough for the guy to miss his bus. And the more we learn about the incidents of Azuma's tarnished career (disregard for his superiors, the accidental shooting of a bystander, his spontaneous savagery), the more Kitano begins to mirror them with the actions of his equally psychotic foe, the gay hitman Kiyohiro ("Good taste," Azuma polymorphously quips upon finding a rentboy in Kiyohiro's bed).

Azuma's relentless settling of scores reaches Death Wish proportions when he realizes Kiyohiro's men have kidnapped his sister, but what begins as a vicious potboiler ends as an indictment of Japan's institutionalized corruption. Violent Cop's chilling final image--a yakuza chieftain's secretary steals a contemptuous glance at a new cop on the take, then returns to her typing--is more slyly devastating than all the violence that's come before. Nothing survives except the system, and those it corrupts: children, seen constantly at play in the periphery of Violent Cop's ongoing brutality, heirs to the legacy of mayhem the film both condemns and indulges.

Kitano's follow-up was the ambitious and unpredictable Boiling Point. A violent coming-of-age fable filled with passages of gruesome ultrablack comedy, it dispenses with formula altogether. Teenaged Masaki, a dreamy, dimwitted gas station attendant, belongs to a local baseball team, The Eagles, but seems to have little talent for, or understanding of, the game. Hotheaded ex-yakuza Iguchi, a local bar owner and the team's sponsor, regards Masaki with disgust. Masaki in turn spends much of his time on the bench, or in the ballpark's out-house--where the film begins and ends.

A metacritique of the Japanese tension between team play and individual action, Boiling Point knocks Masaki's minor-leagude ineptitude out of the ballpark when, during an incident at the gas station, the ineffectual teenager spontaneously punches a belligerent yakuza. Now the target for a floodtide of potential reprisals and extortions, Masaki turns to Iguchi for advice. Iguchi attempts to intervene, but manages only to receive a punishing lesson in lost face when he rekindles past bitternesses with his onetime cronies--a group of steely-eyed Golems in shark-skin suits, whose constrictive codes of behavior Kitano parodies by cramming them like scarfaced mannequins into a series of absurdly bunched-up compositions.

Kitano embroiders Boiling Point's increasingly violent narrative with a variety of comic digressions--a witless punk's face-bloodying attempts to control his first motorcycle, an abrupt car crash and fistfight out of Godard's Weekend, and Masaki's improbable success in asking a young waitress on a date--but frequently omits some central bit of action: a motorcycle crash, a brawl, the tropes of courtship. By cutting directly to the punchline, Kitano establishes a pattern of unforeseen results that reverberate with the implicit violence of the early baseball scenes, where one player is inadvertently struck by a low pitch, and (in an echo of Violent Cop) a batter's warmup swings come danerously close to Iguchi's head.

In the film's delirious middle section, Masaki travels to Okinawa in search of an independent yakuza who can supply him with a little firepower. There he encounters Boiling Point's ultimate individualist: the polysexual Uehara (Kitano himself, his ultimate essay in murderous perversion). A maniacal extension of the "Beat"-persona's unsavory contentiousness--and a juicy piece of critic-bait for those prone to confuse a character's deranged behavior with a director's endorsement of same--Uehara knows no limits. He batters his girlfriend, rapes his lieutenant, turns an afternoon at the beach into a brutalizing endurance test, and humiliates a silent, statuesque (and fetishistically deployed) black bar girl.

A mortifying cartoon of individual assertion, Uehara becomes Masaki's hyperbolic role model: "You gotta learn to swing the bat," Kitano told interviewer Tony Rayns last year, "if you want to hit the ball." But does the explosiveness of Masaki's final action suggest that Kitano endorses the nihilism that Uehara illustrates? Or does Masaki's final ultimate emergence from the outhouse suggest that Japan's will to social conformity limits self-determination to the realm of a loser's daydream? A look at Boiling Point's pessimistic Japanese title--3--4x Jugatsu, a baseball tally indicating that the away team has secured a victory in extra time--would seem to settle the score.

Where Boiling Point may well be considered one of the darkest sports films ever made, Kitano's followup, A Scene at the Sea, is, on its surface, one of the lightest. Shigeru, a deaf-mute Eurasian employed as a garbage collector, finds a broken surfboard, repairs it, and teaches himself to surf.

A pacific, decelerated tone poem in which Kitano is conspicuous by his absence, A Scene at the Sea takes a musical approach to its simple, largely wordless narrative. The surfer and his similarly handicapped girlfriend enact a series of comic variations on their daily routine: carrying the surfboard to the beach, cracking goofy smiles, watching the tide. Far from anomalous, the film takes up a concern submerged within Kitano's previous work--the fate of those adrift in Japan's social margins--and contemplates it in the sunlight.

Doubly outcast by his disability and his racial mix, Shigeru thrives (figuratively, geographically) at the edge of Japanese tolerance. Unlike the ineffectual Masaki, Shigeru's a natural beach bum who has no difficulty acting on his desires: he gains acceptance within a surfing clique, wins a trophy, and comes to inspire those who had ridiculed him. But triumph has its price. After 90 minutes of light breezes and cuddly romance, the film culminates in unexpected tragedy: Shigeru, in an offscreen moment, is swallowed by a calm, gently lapping sea. But his martyrdom, like the movie, is sugar-coated, and it closes with a sappy montage of silent friends, soaring music, and happier days.

A superficially indulgent contribution to--but subtly seething condemnation of--the Japanese fondness for all things cute (kawai), A Scene at the Sea is Kitano's most subversive work. Its childlike rhythms and superficial tendernesses, like the smoothed-over surface of Japan's "racial harmony" and conformist ethics, mask a roiling and deadly serious undertow. THE LIGHT AND SPACE of A Scene at the Sea return in Kitano's most recent film, Sonatine. It's the Zen rock garden of his work: spare and playful, its episodes of occasional violence purposefully arranged in a bright, meditative setting. It is another film about yakuza--again with Kitano in the starring role, as Murakawa, a middle-aged gangster with a yen for retirement--and another film about Okinawa, Japan's southernmost landmass, prime vacation spot, and home to the nation's most ruthless criminal gangs. Terrifically funny and masterfully edited, Sonatine is Kitano's elegy to violence; a film about selecting the circumstances of your demise, and enjoying yourself while you wait.

Sonatine opens in Tokyo's neon-lotus nightworld, where Murakawa maintains his turf with a calm, exacting proficiency. Though ruthless, he's also indulgent, treating his lieutenants well, and occasionally taking a would-be punk under his wing. Security, however, is not in the job description, and Murakawa has begun to have doubts about his latest assignment, a trip to Okinawa to help settle a regional dispute. His lieutenants are doubtful, too: "There's something fishy about this trip to Okinawa," one comments during a lull in the evening's business. They're using a construction crane to dunk a recalcitrant mah-jongg parlor owner in Tokyo Bay, and their distraction shows: when they haul the mah-jongg parlor guy up, it turns out he's gone and drowned.

With a dead guy dangling at the end of Murakawa's line, fishiness easily comes to mind--a fishiness that's emphasized in the image on which Sonatine opens: a phosphorescent blue fish, skewered on a harpoon and raised against a blood-red sky. It's the same fish that appears on Sonatine's poster, next to a slogan that translates as "That savage guy sleeps here."

With the fate of savage men so clearly predetermined, Kitano takes his time with their destinies, and lovingly tinkers with the yakuza film's generic codes as he goes. Patience and distraction are Sonatine's central effects. When Murakawa and his superiors gather raw recruits for the Okinawa job, the hotheaded punks they've assembled are so eager to prove themselves that they're stabbing one another before the interview's even begun, and the frenzy of youth is measured against the stoic reserve of their elders, who barely shift in their seats during the petty melee. Kitano's willfully mismatched eyeline cues and baffling nonreaction shots further unhinge the proceedings, mimicking the yakuza shell-game of loyalty and betrayal with an ongoing series of gazes that only seem to unify an always uncertain space.

This dynamic of action and inertia, direction and distraction, comes to a head once Murakawa and his men arrive in Okinawa. After a bomb blast kills two of his men, and several more return to Tokyo, Murakawa and his dwindling number are attacked in a tiny whiskey bar: it's a scene in which those comparisons to Ozu finally pay off. So attuned are we to Murakawa's perspective--and to Kitano's unnerving editing --that when lead suddenly fills the air, it hails from a direction we'd been convinced to ignore. And like the rigid yakuza of Boiling Point, Murakawa's men take their medicine standing up, in formation, moving nothing but their trigger fingers while a low and immobile camera foils the potential for Woo-style gangland hyperkinetics with a motionlessness Noh tableau.

Then the fun begins. Holed up in vacant beach house, Murakawa and what's left of his gang allow the hot, sandy beach to melt their icy, professional cool. The burly, tattooed toughs break out frisbees, dress in loud Hawaiian shirts, and play at sumo wrestling (captured by Kitano's cinematographer Katsumi Yanagishima as a quirky bit of pixillation). Murakawa grudgingly befriends a gorgeous, gangster-obsessed local woman, and as she begins to rekindle his passion for living, death returns--in the guise of a fisherman.

In Sonatine's press notes, Kitano opines that "really tough guys don't experience a lot of tension: by nature they're cool." When the warm breezes of Sonatine's summer vacation inevitably end, Kitano takes up Murakawa's frosty calm and stages the film's climatic shootout as little more than the muted reflections of gunfire on the roofs of a few parked cars. "It seems to me that life and death have very little meaning in themselves," Kitano told Tony Rayns, "but the way you approach death may give a retrospective meaning to your life."

There is a moment in Boiling Point, as the flamboyantly awful Uehara awaits his demise, in which Kitano's editorial style, and his character's death-captivated subjectivity, unexpectedly merge. Sitting in his car, Uehara suddenly flashes forward on a series of images that include his own splattery termination; images that, free of context when first envisioned by Uehara, are soon re-presented within the film's narrative flow.

This moment of death foretold is emblematic of Kitano's filmmaking--a spontaneous condensation of the mindsets of character and director, of violent death and creative play--and finds its rhyme in Sonatine's widely circulated central image: Murakawa, a pistol to one temple, a grin on his face, a geyser of blood blowing out the other side. Why is this man smiling? Because he's "Beat" Takeshi Kitano, and the approach he takes to death is the meaning of his life. Outrage and resignation, calm and calamity, killer and clown--all bound up in a single, irresistible smile.

Ride in the Whirlwind.

In the early hours of August 2, 1994 (while this article was in preparation), Kitano lost control of his motorcycle and crashed into a guard rail in Tokyo's Shinjuku area, not far from the performer's headquarters. Suffering from a broken jaw and related head injuries, Kitano spent nearly two months in isolation in Tokyo Medical College Hospital --an absence that sent Japanese television network producers into a scramble for substitute talent for the many programs Kitano usually hosts.

Kitano's release from hospital on September 27 was perhaps more calamitous still. Nerve damage has left the right sight of his face temporarily paralyzed, contorting the trademark sublimity of his countenance into a disturbing grimace. Though doctors predict that, after a six-month period of physical therapy, Kitano should recover completely, reporters were apparently stunned by his appearance and uncharacteristically muted demeanor.

Kitano currently remains on hiatus from all television work. Ironically enough, one of his upcoming projects was to have been a TV adaptation of Edogawa Ranpo's detective novel A Man With 20 Faces.

By Chuck Stephens (Film Comment Jan-Feb 1995). All rights are reserved by Chuck Stephens and Film Comment. Copyright 1995 Film Society of Lincoln Center. The article is reproduced by Kitanotakeshi.com.