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