The opening of Violent Cop
To begin at the beginning, and Violent Cop tells us a lot about Kitano's techniques. As I've noted in the films section of my site, it is a genre gangster film but, somehow, feels unique. Why is this?

The answer lies in Kitano's shooting and editing techniques and the way that the whole film has been put together. The opening scene contains a cruel mixture of deadpan humour and sadistic violence and it is these two elements that underpin all of his films. On a simple level, his style stems from long takes and frequently static shots; most of his scenes are viewed from one angle (usually high up) and are played out without cutting. For example, during the opening scene the homeless man is beaten up in one long take and the effect of this is to make it less graphic. We can tell that it is not real because it is played out as if on stage and the absence of cutting reinforces this. As a modern, aware audience we know that what we are watching is fake and this works to subtly temper the violence of the scene. Hence, the scene still remains nastily violent but there is a degree of cruel comedy to it; we have already laughed at the homeless man's lack of expression at the beginning and so we find it difficult not to laugh at him now. The next scene, wherein Azuma beats up one of the youths, is played even more for laughs. This time, we don't even see the kid until halfway through the sequence; just Azuma slapping someone out of shot. Kitano's weary expression aligns us with him and we feel no sympathy for the kid. Like the original Japanese audience did, we want to laugh at this ridiculous man slapping a no-good, deserving punk.

Throughout his work Kitano shoots violence in different ways depending on the situation. The youth above finds violence quick and easy and the scene when Azuma beats him is played for laughs to underline this. When the hit man Kiyohiro (Haku Ryo) stabs a drug pusher at the dock, however, we actually see a close-up shot of the knife being pulled out of the victim's chest, blood dripping from the wound. It makes clear the point that violence can be graphic and it almost always hurts.

Violence as ritual
Violence in Kitano's films is often played out as some sort of ritual. It is a necessary part of his characters' lives but they do not necessarily enjoy it. Violence that does not form a part of this ritual is often comic because it stems from the characters' hearts; they feel a need to lash out because of their emotions and, hence, they are simply acting out who they are. The ritualistic violence, however, always brings to the fore one of Kitano' main themes: the conflict between duty and personal feelings.

The scene in Violent Cop where the police chase another drug pusher through Tokyo is like this and Kitano makes the point clear by shooting the whole thing like a baseball run. We start in the apartment of the criminal as Kikuchi barges in and is shrugged off. The other two detectives then have a go, each one waiting their turn as if they were baseball pitchers on a bloody field. As a result of this they end up being overpowered and the pusher escapes. Azuma, who has been hanging back, then gives chase. When we get outside we run into a group of kids actually playing baseball and the criminal steals their bat and hits the final police officer in the head, killing him. At this point the game stops for a while and we can tell because Kitano films the scuffle in slow motion, shorthand for 'serious' violence. It is also shot like a baseball action replay. We see the full impact of the blow, blood splattering from the cop's head. After hitting the 'ball', of course, the next step is to run and the criminal does this, still keeping tight hold of his bat.

Baseball is a common motif in Kitano's films and it is used for a variety of reasons. When Azuma's sister is gang raped in Violent Cop the sequence is intercut with shots of him practising baseball, unaware of her fate. It is used to highlight the closeness of modern life to violence and depravity; violence can erupt at any moment in Kitano's work and when it is compared to something banal like baseball we know it will be bloody. The chase scene above also showed how baseball turned comedy into tragedy and the same device is used in Hana-Bi. When Nichi's partner Horibe is shot and paralysed it is after we have seen more kids playing baseball on the street. Nichi even throws their ball away and the shot of them looking dejected makes the moment funny - a clear sign that something bad is going to happen. Another conflict is set-up in his films by this: banal normality and politeness versus sudden and brutal violence.

Playing at being gangsters
Sonatine, more than his other films, shows this ritual nature of violence extremely well. The conflict between duty and personality is clear in this tale of a Yakuza who is sick of his violent life. Being a genre movie, we know that he will be unable to escape the cycle of violence and will have to succumb to it to stay alive. The ritual begins with the murder of the owner of a mah-jong parlour who is drowned in the bay. The scene is edited at a very slow pace and Kitano cuts from the guy being plunged into the water to shots of Murakawa and his men watching impassively from the side. No emotion is shown (except that of the victim) and we know that this is just part of their job. Murakawa's words at the end, 'We killed him, but never mind' show his lack of concern and the nature of his world. The gangsters even talk about the upcoming Okinawa trip while the victim is underwater and, therefore, forget about him for too long.

Humour is brought into the film when we meet Murakawa's 'new boys', arrived to help with the Okinawa trip. A tracking shot introduces them as they say their names in turn but the last man, Itoh, is too big and, hence, his head is out of frame. The situation descends into slapstick when more new recruits arrive and a scuffle breaks out. One of them is stabbed but it is not serious and is signified as funny due to a number of factors:

  1. The onlookers (all older men) watch impassively and don't react at all.
  2. The stabbing is accomplished as part of the same shot and no editing is involved (we also see no blood).
  3. The soundtrack is full of the shouts and arguments of the fighters, showing that it is all just young male bluff and, thus, not serious.

The combination of these factors works here to undermine the sudden violence and turn it into something else. The scene is funny while we are watching it, but not all of Kitano's sequences are like this. The shootout that occurs later in the film in an Okinawan bar is initially played out very realistically with, by necessity, rapid cutting between the two sides. It is violence as ritual because of the way each participant stands their ground and never moves from their spot, as if everyone is aware of their assigned positions. After the brief battle we cut to a shot of three men watching, all of them wide-eyed. It is the contrast between the onlookers' expressions and the violence of the gangsters that provides unexpected humour in this scene, laughter that only comes after the act. Kitano then, of course, shows images of the corpses, just so we don't begin to get used to the violence.

Sounds like murder
The way Kitano uses the soundtrack to highlight humour is a key identifying factor in his films. The scene mentioned earlier in Violent Cop (the murder of the drug pusher by Kiyohiro) takes place in near silence, just the sound of the water breaking the stillness. It gives us time to reflect on what is happening and on the awfulness of the act and it also marks it as ritual and, therefore, unfunny. The fight and stabbing between the new recruits of Sonatine, however, is played out to a soundtrack of shouting and squabbling, deflating the tension and seriousness of what has happened. Kitano makes it even more clear when the victim says to his attacker later in the film, 'It still hurts where you stabbed me.'

The opening of Hana-Bi
Hana-Bi is probably Kitano's most accomplished film in terms of shooting style and complexity, and the opening scene tells us a lot about his techniques as a director.

We start with a shot of the sky before cutting to a mid-shot of two car-park attendants staring at us. We then see Nishi staring at the two men. Shots of food dirtying the bonnet of a car are cut with more shots of Nishi staring until we suddenly see him reach into his pocket. Nothing happens, however, and we then cut back to the two attendants staring and then to a shot of one of them washing a windscreen. Something has happened here and the connection of Nishi's movement to the windscreen washing suggests ... something - we are not sure what. As the guy cleans the glass, Nishi kicks him on the backside, knocking him over. It is a humorous scene, due mainly to the fact that nothing is revealed and we are forced to make our own inferences. We haven't actually seen any violence yet so we can't take the scene seriously; the only significant image we are left with is that of Nishi and the two guys staring at each other, suggesting power games beneath the surface. They are a part of Kitano's technique of including spectators in his violent scenes, innocent bystanders whose lack of reaction inflects what is happening. We notice that time is being played with here, in the same way as the rest of the film. Kitano is setting us up, preparing us for his temporal jump cuts, flashbacks and flashforwards. We can infer from this that Nishi is a man living in the past and much of the film will, indeed, be borne from his memories.

After the above we cut to the title itself and the music fades in before we then see a shot of an empty parking space with the words 'DROP DEAD' painted on the floor. Nishi's car drives down a seafront road and the camera tilts up to the sky to be back where we started. The elliptical nature of this gives us no clues as to when this scene has happened. We also know now that Nishi is casual towards violence and a great deal of his power is expressed in his silence, a threat of what is to come.

We return to this scene later in the film and the rest is revealed. Nishi walks to his car and meets the two men, one of them holding up a knife. Nishi stakes a step forward and then we cut to the third guy, who watches something happening - a fight, evidently, as this is what we can hear. It is funny because of Kitano's focus on the spectator, whose weary non-reaction makes us laugh. We then see a shot of the knife clattering away before cutting to a shot of Nishi and his opponent's shadows as they fight. The scene gradually becomes less funny as we assume the violence to be more 'real'. The sound dies away and we are left with Nishi holding a knife above the other man, who is on the ground. In silence he lets the knife drop but the other man catches it, a tense moment because it takes place in silence and the victim is seen to tense and squint before it drops. The seriousness is also achieved by montage, hence it cannot be funny. When Nishi is driving away we notice that his hand has been cut. He apparently considered it unimportant while fighting and, supposedly, so should we. Finally, the two punks are seen relaxing after their encounter, 'DROP DEAD' in the foreground, and it is clear they are both alive and well. We can finally relax as we realise the scene is meant to be taken humorously, something we were unsure of before. Kitano has undermined our expectations with his editing and has mixed his opposites of humorous and serious violence. Tony Rayns, in Sight and Sound, also notes how this scene is made humorous by the final shot:

[The last] shot defines [the attendants], like the other peripheral characters, as on-lookers, spectators of everything that happens at the core of the film. They are ... losers defined by their inability to dent Nishi or to penetrate the central drama. As such ... they are also figures of fun.

Compare them to the woman accidentally shot by Kiyohiro in Violent Cop, who exists only to be killed. And the spectators at the shootout in Sonatine, who are there just to make the scene funny.

Themes explored in Hana-Bi

  • Life versus death (Horibe's failed suicide leaves him to find new meaning in his life while Nishi kills himself after organising his life).
  • Family versus loneliness (Horibe's family leaves him when he is shot and he lives alone while Nishi takes his wife (Kayoko Kishimoto) on a second honeymoon after they have lost their daughter. This theme is also contrasted in Horibe's paintings: families in front of fireworks. When Nishi's real firework fails to go off we are reminded of his dead daughter.)
  • Privacy versus society (Kitano's own paintings are predominant throughout the film; in the bank, the Yakuza HQ, etc).

The theme of duty versus individualism has already been mentioned.

A recurrent theme in these three films is that of youthful innocence and idealism versus corruption and resignation. It comes to a fore right at the beginning of Violent Cop, when Azuma is assigned Kikuchi as a partner. It is a generic convention, although Kitano upsets this by making Azuma the worst mentor imaginable, corrupting the boy by taking him to gambling establishments and making him an accessory to his violent methods. At the end of the film Kikuchi is seen becoming a criminal, taking the place of Azuma's old partner. There is no explanation given for this change of character, just an acceptance that the rules of the establishment will always prevail. In Sonatine we also have the recruit who follows Murakawa to the end and is the only survivor of the film. When Murakawa says to him, 'You've had enough [violence], haven't you?' he doesn't answer. We know that he hasn't and will become the next Murakawa in the same way Nakamura (Terajima Susumu) is seen in the process of becoming another Nishi in Hana-Bi.

Rayns also comments on this:

It's their matching eagerness to break ... taboos that makes both Azuma and Kiyohiro characters worth celebrating, and pits both of them against the 'systems' they work for ... It is the 'systems' that prevail. [Violent Cop's] closing credits roll over a freeze-frame of [Nito's] secretary ... an exemplar of the very mindless conformity and complicity that 'hero' and 'villain' both stood against.

Azuma and Kiyohiro fight the system in two entirely different ways: one by being a 'violent cop', the other by being gay.

Essay originally posted here

by Dobromir Harrison 2004. All rights are reserved by Dobromir Harrison. The article is reproduced by Kitanotakeshi.com.