Takeshi Kitano is not a typical filmmaker. Known popularly as 'Beat' Takeshi, he is arguably the biggest media celebrity Japan has ever known. Before becoming an actor or director, he was a hugely successful stand-up comic and television personality as well as being a journalist, fiction writer and social commentator. He did not make his first film (Violent Cop, 1989) until he was 42, and his status as a film director in Japan has been vastly overshadowed by his television and media personality, to the point where his films have struggled to be taken seriously: none have been big box-office successes in Japan. He has been adopted by European and American cine-literate audiences, receiving widespread recognition after Hana-Bi (1997) won the coveted Golden Lion at the '97 Venice Film Festival.
Takeshi's films are very personal pieces made with almost total artistic control, having written, directed and edited the ten films he has made to date (including Dolls) whilst starring in seven. He has stated that, 'films are my hobby, even if a serious one' and '...films, or music, or whatever, can very easily become mirrors to their creator's own life'. Each work explores very similar themes filmed with his own unmistakable Auteurist touch. The themes, situations and characters (and actors) can be seen being constantly re-worked and developed throughout his body of work, and indeed gives credence to Francois Truffaut's veiled compliment that, 'An auteur only ever makes one film and continues to remake it'.
Takeshi first became noticed on the international scene for his use of unglamorous and relentless violence in his debut feature film Violent Cop (1989). Knowing that the violent East-Asian films tended to sell well abroad, especially in America, he admitted later "It was just that I needed something by which I could be recognised at that time and, to me, that was violence". The title of the film also clearly states his intentions and, for once, it is not merely an Americanised title aimed at blood-thirsty audiences; the Japanese title is even less subtle, roughly translating as Warning! This Man is Wild! Japanese journalist Tomohiro Machiyama describes the effect of Takeshi's debut: 'The violence in Violent Cop was unlike anything most movie-goers had ever seen... In Takeshi's work, shots are fired out of the blue and death can occur at any time. No matter how disturbing the action, the images are calmly shot...' Violence continued to be an important aspect of many of his subsequent films, yet he portrays violence in a fresh light, away from the stylised conventions popularised in East Asia by directors such as John Woo.
His films however, are not 'about' violence, and do not use violence simply as visual spectacle. In a sense he has been a victim of his own success, using violence to tap into an international market only to become tagged by some as a one trick pony. His preference for stillness over action (in both camera and acting movement), and for silence over dialogue, point towards a more philosophical intent. Violence, especially when involving guns, is typical portrayed by Takeshi without dialogue. As Azuma walks towards his wounded enemy Kiyohiro in the finale of Violent Cop, he walks at a steady pace, hardly flinching as he takes two bullets to his own body. In Sonatine (1993), a gun battle in a bar begins with no prior warning, and the only reaction of Murakama's (Takeshi) gang is to pull out their guns and fire back: few are left standing. Takeshi leaves the gunshots and blood to speak for themselves; any words in such a situation would be pointless. Takeshi always strives for a certain level of realism. Often violence is over almost a soon as it starts, unlike the drawn-out sequences popularised in Hollywood and Hong Kong action films. In Kids Return (1996), the teenage protagonists' subway fights are typically over in a single punch. At the beginning of Brother (2000), Yamamoto (Takeshi) reacts to a seemingly aggressive black American (later developed into a central character Denny) by thrusting a broken bottle into his face: real acts of violence are over quickly.
The moments of contemplation and stillness after violence signify Takeshi's more elegiac concerns. In Sonatine, as we see the Yakuza gang play with a Frisbee on the beach, Susumu Terashima's character Ken runs to pick up the Frisbee from beside the boat where Murakawa and the girl are sat. He stops dead and looks straight ahead at the camera; there is a quick cut revealing the assassin at the other side of the boat aiming the gun directly at the camera/ Ken. As Ken falls dead at Murakawa's feet, the camera tracks up to Murakawa's face, almost expressionless yet still conveying a sad recognition, staring strait ahead. The girl also hardly reacts, staring pensively at the body lying in the sand. Takeshi does not equate violent acts with hysteric reactions, and prefers to focus on Yakuza or police characters who are used to facing death. Effectively, the less his characters react, the more scope the viewer has to read emotions and significance. Takeshi keeps a subtle balance between ambiguity and simple visual explanation. The beach has become, by this point in the film, a place for Murakawa's gang to return to the innocence of nature and childish games before their inevitable death. Embroiled in the middle of a Yakuza turf war in which both sides want Murakawa dead, they are imprisoned on the beach, constantly faced by the sea that reminds them they have come as far as they can go.
The beach and the sea are recurring and complex motifs in Takeshi's films, evident in all but Violent Cop and Kids Return, essentially used for contemplation of life and death. Takeshi has offered this insight into this motif, "...I do love the sea, but at the same time, something inside tells me to keep a distance from it. We all know our origin is in the sea and it feels to me as though Mother Nature is calling us home. But on the other hand... we know we no longer belong there."
In Hana-Bi it is to the sea that Horibe (an ex-policeman disabled in a gun-fight) looks towards in contemplation of his life, and possible suicide. While sat in his wheelchair on the beach in one scene, we are shown the waves beginning to lap against the wheels, as if Mother Nature is indeed trying to call Horibe home. In A Scene at the Sea (1991), the sea can again be seen as the Mother Nature giver and taker. The central character Shigeru discovers a passion for surfing which offers him a release from his troubles as a lower-class and physically handicapped man. It is as if he enters into a Faustian pact with the sea, which gives him happiness and release over the space of one summer, but finally consumes him and takes his life at the end.
In Kikujiro (1999) a young boy Masao and a Yakuza-bum Kikujiro (Takeshi) set off on a journey to find Masao's mother. The journey once again ends on a beach after the disappointment of realising his mother has a new family and life without him. Partly an autobiographical film, Kikujiro being the name of Takeshi's father, Takeshi recalls his father being a 'distant and violent' man, except for one occasion where: "...he took me along with some of his fellow workmates from the paint factory on a trip to the seaside... he left me alone to do what I wanted". The distance between himself and his father in his childhood is clearly an influence on this film. In this scene the emotional distance between the two characters is shown visually as Kikujiro stands by the road, looking towards Masao far down the beach. Despite the lack of dialogue or monologue, he is clearly deciding whether to walk towards the boy and comfort him, or keep the impersonal distance between them.
Just as important to Takeshi as elegy, contemplation or violence, is his use of comedy. Moments of comedy are evident in all his films, both in the form of visual physical gags and in editing. In Sonatine, Murakama and his gang act out various boyish pranks and games: sand traps, sumo wrestling, and mock geisha dancing. As with much of Takeshi's comic moments, they do not necessarily add to the narrative but rather create a particular tone.
The humour of these scenes heightens the sadness of the film, that these men have needlessly chosen a way of life that will cause their early deaths: the viewer shares these personal boyish moments with the characters but must also view their deaths. Takeshi's personal take on the world indeed equates violence with comedy: "I personally do not find much difference between violence and comedy. An event can be regarded as a violence by the participator, but for the spectator it can be comedy." Takeshi's training as a comedian is evident in his editing, becoming the cinematic equivalent of cutting straight to the punch-line. In Kikujiro, a more overtly comic film, Kikujiro's attempt to swim in the pool are shown with him jumping in, then cuts to showing him upside-down in his rubber ring, perfectly still with legs spread in the air, then a cut to him being resuscitated by the pool-side. The film is part road movie, part social realism, part autobiography, part slapstick comedy: therefore, wholly 'Beat' Takeshi Kitano.
Comedy is so important to his films that he occasionally drifts into parody. In Boiling Point, Takeshi plays a supporting role as the Yakuza boss Uehara, a monstrous parody of Yakuza excesses and of 'Beat' Takeshi's television persona. Sight and Sound writer Tommy Udo describes Uehara as, 'one of cinema's great human monsters' yet Takeshi has commented '... I meant to portray him as a comic figure, a caricature'. It is perhaps not a joke that works well given the unsavoury sadism of the character, and the context of what is mostly a social realist film.
It is re-worked to much better effect in Takeshi's only all-out comedy Getting Any? Here a Yakuza boss is portrayed as even more sexually perverse, dressing up, talking and dancing like a woman in their headquarters. In one wonderful scene the boss (dressed in drag) forces his cronies to put on an absurd puppet shadow show and squeals 'Oh, how frightening, a big bad bear', and then becoming displeased shouting gruffly, 'What's that shit? They all look the same, you morons!' The film appears to be a cathartic experience for Takeshi, alleviating himself of all the parodies that occasionally creep into his 'serious' films. There is indeed a constant battle between his two personas, Takeshi Kitano the acclaimed filmmaker and 'Beat' Takeshi the TV comic. This occasionally spills over into violence. On one infamous occasion he and his gang of devotees burst into the offices of a magazine that had written a disparaging article on him; they trashed the offices with baseball bats and beat up the editor.
Hana-Bi is arguably the film in which Takeshi achieves the most successful balance of all his themes and style. It is also his most experimental film, bearing little relation to classical modes of narrative cinema. Tony Rayns, probably the foremost Takeshi scholar, offers this description of the film's structure, 'There are no orthodox establishing scenes, and Kitano's penchant for marginal but revealing episodes and narrative ellipses forces us to work to put pieces together for ourselves'. The narrative becomes secondary to the themes and character relationships, and the style in which they are shown.
Takeshi's character Nishi, after leaving the police force, decides to rob a bank in order to give his dying wife a second honeymoon and to help out his disabled ex-partner. The robbery itself is not as central to the plot as it would be in a typical action film. His demeanour, his purpose for doing it and the risk he is taking are more important than the action itself, which is mostly shown from the detached viewpoint of the security camera. His preparations for the robbery are shown inter-cut with images of him visiting Horibe and his own wife Miyuki. The short scenes with Tanaka's widow are especially effectively, both characters' awkwardness with each other speaking of the helpless situation they are in. The tenderness and affection of Nishi and Miyuki's relationship is enacted almost without dialogue.
Virtually all the comic moments of the film, which can be non-narrative 'Beat' Takeshi moments in other films, are in scenes involving Nishi and Miyuki. Instead of simply comic set-pieces, they add to the viewers understanding of their relationship and adds to the overall tenderness of the film. When on their 'honeymoon' we see them playing a card guessing-game, which Nishi is only good at because he can see the reflections in the rear-view mirror. Miyuki's look of childlike wonder at Nishi, and their laughter as Nishi reveals his cheating when all he can see is the 'Crunchy Chocolate Bar', emphasises the simple beauty of their relationship. Takeshi purposefully displays the married couple without the physical contact that is expected in conventional filmmaking. Takeshi explains "I was convinced that nothing physical was needed between the two, that smiles were enough to let the audience know what was going on". What Hollywood does in ten-minute sex scenes, Takeshi can do much more effectively with simple minimalism.
Takeshi originally wanted Hana-Bi to be called Takeshi Kitano: Volume Seven. When asked why, he only half-joked when saying "because I wanted to remind the Japanese audiences that I had made six previous films". It is also something that is worth reminding Western audiences, especially the supposed 'cine-literates'. Dolls is now coming out with a critical fanfare proclaiming a new Takeshi Kitano who is showing his softer, subtler side. This, however, is nothing new. With each 'volume' of his work he reworks and builds on thematic and stylistic concerns that are evident through the whole body of his work.
This article was not written to give a summary of all his films - your Time Out guide can do that - but rather to offer an insight into the tone, feelings and purpose of the Kitano 'volumes'. He portrays a brutal realism while at the same time transcending it; using violence, comedy and tenderness to explore the struggles of living and the meaning of death. 'Beat' Takeshi Kitano creates a divine comedy, exploring inside the dark soul of contemporary life but always making time to look out to sea.