In Japan, Takeshi Kitano is most famous as being ‘Beat’ Takeshi, one-half of the ‘Two Beats’, a stand-up comedy double act who shot to fame in the mid-70s. Then, in the 80s, he moved on to act in a number of TV comedy shows as the second ‘Beat’, Kiyoshi Kaneko, drifted out of the spotlight. Things changed in 1983, however, when Kitano won acclaim for his memorable and crucial role in Nagisa Oshima’s Merry Christmas, Mr. Lawrence. It gained him a little more global recognition and showed there was more to him than the outspoken funny-man schtick he was famous for. Supposedly Japanese audiences laughed at his scenes in Merry Christmas though, due to being so entrenched in the idea of him as a comedy icon. As the 80s moved on, he took on a number of more serious roles to try to change people’s perception of him.
A more surprising change of pace, however, came when he moved into directing. Kitano was always due to star in 1989’s Violent Cop, but Japanese crime-movie legend Kinji Fukasaku was down to direct. However, due to scheduling conflicts caused by Kitano’s TV commitments, they struggled to get production off the ground and Fukasaku eventually gave up trying. Partly aided by a mini-boom in unconventional directorial choices in Japan at the time, Shochiku studios suggested Kitano give it a go himself. He agreed and so began a new life for Kitano as a director (though he never gave up performing).
Over the years, his films have drawn much acclaim (give or take a few missteps) and he became one of the poster boys of the Asian cinema boom in the late 90s and early 2000s, aided by the success of Hana-Bi, an iconic role in the cult-favourite Battle Royale (funnily enough, directed by Kinji Fukasaku) and his reimagining of Zatoichi in 2003.
I rode the wave of Asian cinema love around that period, so I became aware of Kitano as a director and actor. I loved the aforementioned films and also got hold of DVDs of Violent Cop, Hard Boiled and Sonatine, all of which greatly impressed me.
However, after the films he made following Zatoichi failed to get releases in the UK and often received less favourable praise than his earlier work, I lost touch with what Kitano was up to. As part of their fantastic Japan 2020 season though, the BFI are releasing a box set of three of Kitano’s early films that I fell in love with back in the day, to help reignite my interest in his unique talent. The set, entitled the Takeshi Kitano Collection, features Violent Cop, Hard Boiled and Sonatine alongside a plethora of extra goodies. I snapped up screeners of the set and dived in.
Violent Cop (a.k.a. Sono otoko, kyôbô ni tsuki)
Director: Takeshi Kitano
Screenplay: Hisashi Nozawa (with uncredited rewrites by Takeshi Kitano)
Starring: Takeshi Kitano, Maiko Kawakami, Hakuryû, Makoto Ashikawa, Shirô Sano, Hakuryû, Sei Hiraizumi
Running Time: 103 min
Violent Cop sees Kitano play Azuma, a police detective prone to using excessive force and questionable methods to apprehend and punish criminals. However, he gets out of his depth when he discovers one of his friends and colleagues, Iwaki (Sei Hiraizumi), is selling drugs from the police force to the yakuza. Iwaki soon turns up dead in a faked suicide and Azuma struggles to bring the gangsters who did it to justice using his usual methods. His main barrier is the sadistic killer Kiyohiro (Hakuryû), who isn’t easily threatened by Azuma. Things truly reach a head when Kiyohiro kidnaps Azuma’s sister Akari (Maiko Kawakami) who suffers from some sort of mental illness.
If this all sounds a bit generic, that’s because it is, in terms of plot at least. Kitano has expressed embarrassment towards the film in later years, likely due to the more conventional nature of its narrative. Kitano has written the vast majority of his films since, but this began as a script by Hisashi Nozawa. Takeshi rewrote this extensively after becoming the director but asked for his name to be taken off the credits as a writer. In particular, Takeshi took out a number of flashbacks and other character-building scenes and dialogue. He wanted to leave details like that up to the audience’s imaginations. The film was originally more comic too, but Kitano toned it down in his re-write, as he was keen to develop his career as a serious actor.
The standard Dirty Harry-style narrative remained, even after Kitano’s rewrite, but I still believe the director managed to mould it into something unconventional and effective.
In general, it’s quite startling how confident and accomplished it is a directorial debut. Kitano’s preference for more static framing and fewer cuts compared to contemporary crime/action thrillers is already on display here, as is the economic simplicity of the visual storytelling. He strips back the dialogue to a bare minimum and skips unnecessary scenes, to create quite a sparse, lean film.
Although Kitano reportedly cut out a lot of the humour, there is still some very dark, sick comedy hiding under the surface. Whether or not you find any of it funny is down to personal preference, but moments such as when a woman accidentally gets her brains blown out when standing near Kitano and Kiyohiro facing off against each other elicited a quiet giggle from me.
The violence is not generally something to laugh at here though. It’s quite a brutal film, aided by the fact Kitano shoots in a naturalistic fashion and the lack of histrionics from the stony-faced cast give the carnage a cold, disturbing quality. The expressionless, passive-aggressive approach to the Azuma character makes him a protagonist that’s hard to warm to, but that’s the point. He’s not a ‘Harry Callahan’ figure whose actions are glorified and only ‘stuffed shirts’ in the police department are shown to stand against him. Azuma is almost as sadistic as the villain. The only glimmer of humanity is in his love for his sister, though his treatment of her isn’t as loving as you’d expect from a Hollywood film.
The film isn’t perfect. I wasn’t entirely convinced by the use of music, for one. Kitano likes to use it as a counterpoint to the action, but I don’t feel it always worked. In particular, there’s a lengthy chase that is played out with a sedate, lounge-jazz score that took me out of the scene. Perhaps it’s supposed to be a bit of a joke, using a style often used in moody film noir crime thrillers over a botched, bone-crunchingly violent assault on a suspect but, for me, the gag didn’t really pay off.
Overall though, it’s a stripped-back but subtly stylish sucker-punch of a film that launched Kitano’s directorial career with a bang.
Boiling Point (a.k.a. 3-4 x jûgatsu)
Director: Takeshi Kitano
Screenplay: Takeshi Kitano
Starring: Yûrei Yanagi, Yuriko Ishida, Taka Guadalcanal, Takeshi Kitano, Duncan
Running Time: 96 min
Though Boiling Point is often marketed as featuring another starring role for Kitano, it actually centres around a gormless teenager called Masaki (Yûrei Yanagi, a member of ‘Takeshi’s Army’, Kitano’s team of young apprentices who were involved with his TV work). He plays baseball in his spare time, largely sat on the bench as he’s not very good. When he gets in trouble with a local yakuza member at work, causing problems for his employer, he approaches his coach, Iguchi (Taka Guadalcanal), for help. You see, Iguchi used to be a yakuza member in the same gang but retired from the business to live a quiet life. He wanders back to his old headquarters to ask the gang to take it easy on Masaki and the garage in which he works, but he oversteps his boundaries, trying to use the clout and aggression he was famous for as a gangster. The yakuza won’t stand for this now he’s a civilian though, so they badly beat him up.
Iguchi plans to go to Okinawa to meet a connection there and get a gun to go back and kill the gang members. However, he’s in no fit state to do it, so Masaki volunteers to go for him. His friend Kazuo (Duncan) tries to talk him out of it but instead ends up joining him in Okinawa. There they meet Uehara (Kitano, finally appearing half-way through the film), an unhinged gangster who’s having problems of his own, due to owing a yakuza boss a lot of money. The group, which includes Uehara’s ill-treated girlfriend Fumiyo (Eri Fuse) and his right-hand man Akira (Makoto Ashikawa), ‘enjoy’ a wild night out and some time at the beach before heading to collect the weaponry so that they can all deal with their problems head-on. Nothing goes as planned though, as you might imagine.
Boiling Point saw Kitano having complete control over a film for the first time, from script to edit (he didn’t actually edit it, but had a say over the final cut. He would edit his own work from his next film on though). As such, you can really see his stamp over everything and his unique style comes to the fore.
Kitano’s preference for static tableaus, largely used to punctuate the ever-elliptical scenes within the film, is prevalent here and would frequently appear in his later work. It reflects his interest in art/painting and adds to the offbeat, unusual nature of Kitano’s style that mixes realism with surrealism.
The film is very unpredictable too, in comparison to his debut. Throughout, Kitano skewers the traditional idea of what the yakuza and a yakuza movie should be. There’s little trace of the sense of honour that looms large over many examples of the genre. Uehara has aggressive homosexual tendencies too, attempting to rape Akira at one point.
Kitano also takes the stripping-back of plot and exposition to an extreme here. Many believe too extreme, as it can be quite a hard film to follow, due to so much being left out. A such, the film has been criticised as being one of Kitano’s lesser early films. I quite like the approach though. It gives you, as an audience member, more work to do, though it helps that I’ve seen the film a few times so can more easily piece it together.
There’s more overt comedy here than in Violent Cop too, though once again this is mixed with disturbing elements that make for an uneasy experience rather than a laugh-out-loud one. Some of Uehara’s actions, for instance, can be seen as horrifically sadistic or laughably ridiculous, depending on your stance.
Yanagi delivers a deadpan performance that his mentor must have been proud of. It doesn’t seem like he’s acting at all, giving little indication of his feelings through his stony, empty-headed demeanour, but somehow it works in his favour and you do feel for the sadsack youngster.
It’s a very peculiar spin on the yakuza/crime movie then. Its often languid pace and minimalistic storytelling won’t be for everyone, but it has an unusual charm, aided by plenty of offbeat humour among flashes of violence.
Director: Takeshi Kitano
Screenplay: Takeshi Kitano
Starring: Takeshi Kitano, Aya Kokumai, Tetsu Watanabe, Masanobu Katsumura, Susumu Terajima
Running Time: 96 min
In Sonatine, Kitano plays Murakawa, an ageing yakuza underboss. He’s getting fed-up of the gangster life and has enough money to live comfortably now, so is thinking about retiring. He’s given a suspicious-sounding job by his superior that sends him to Okinawa with his gang to help the affiliated Nakamatsu clan in a turf war. It turns out there isn’t much of a war going on, but, nevertheless, a couple of savage attacks are made on Murakawa and his men.
As Murakawa predicted then, the job is a set-up, so he heads with what’s left of his gang to a hideout by the beach. There, he contemplates his life and career path, inspired by a burgeoning friendship with Miyuki (Aya Kokumai), a woman he saves from being raped. Meanwhile, the group loosen up and enjoy their time away from the dangers of the city. Their past isn’t far behind though, of course.
Screening at the Cannes Film Festival to great acclaim, Sonatine helped get Kitano on the world cinema map. Hana-bi made a bigger splash a few years later, but Sonatine seemed to take what the director had been working towards, with his offbeat, artful spins on the crime genre and the delicate romanticism of his previous film, A Scene at the Sea, and distil them into a fully cohesive and masterful blend. There are the flashes of violence and dark humour from Violent Cop and Boiling Point, but there’s also a poignancy and melancholy that is less apparent in those earlier films.
Kitano plays a much more sympathetic character here, though he still has moments of sadism. Murakawa, like many of the characters in this trio of films, is no longer affected by death. The film has an existential air though, as Murakawa seems to realise he’s surrounded by death and the only way out of this yakuza life seems to be to die. There’s a particularly touching scene between him and Miyuki when she says he’s tough because he carries a gun, but he says “I shoot because I’m scared”. She adds, “but you’re not afraid of dying, are you?” and he replies, “when you’re scared enough of dying, you’ll wish you were dead”.
It’s not a maudlin, philosophical treatise on death though. As before, there’s plenty of comedy injected into the film, and the lengthy mid-section, set on the beach, is quite light-hearted and quirkily sweet. Like a lot of Kitano’s work, the film plays out a bit like a series of skits, complete with their own punchlines. This reflects his background in comedy. There’s still a fully-fledged story though, as slight as it might be, that holds it all together alongside the core theme.
There are some more lovable side-characters too, such as the couple of lower-level henchmen (played by Susumu Terajima and Masanobu Katsumura) that form a close friendship during their time on the beach and the traditional dance-loving Okinawan boss (played by Tetsu Watanabe) that tries to direct them in a show one night.
Kitano’s use of music improves here, after the hit and miss Violent Cop score and the complete lack of music in Boiling Point. Sonatine sees Kitano working with the great Joe Hisaishi again after A Scene at the Sea and they made a series of films together following this. The score does a lot to add to the sweet-natured poignant touches to the film.
Sonatine is beautifully shot too, making marked contrast between the Tokyo-set scenes and those at the beach in Okinawa. The latter has such an idyllic, calming quality that is intoxicating. It’s sad to see Murakawa dragged back to the city at the end.
Sonatine is a beautiful, once again unique subversion of the gangster movie. It saw Kitano really nail everything he’d been working towards with the earlier films in this set and adds a touch of humanity that perhaps was lacking before. You might call it his first masterpiece (though I must admit, I haven’t seen A Scene at the Sea yet, which is quite highly regarded).
The Takeshi Kitano Collection is released on 29th June on Blu-Ray in the UK, released by the BFI. It’s being released to coincide with Japan 2020, a major new BFI season (more details can be found here – https://www.bfi.org.uk/japan).
The picture quality of all three films is fantastic. I noticed a faint line briefly on screen in the middle of Violent Cop, but it’s a minor aberration on an otherwise spotless print with a wonderfully natural look. Audio on all titles is strong too.
There are several extra features included in the set:
– High Definition transfers of all three films
– Feature-length audio commentaries on Violent Cop and Sonatine by Chris D, punk poet, singer, actor, film historian and author of Outlaw Masters of Japanese Film
– Newly recorded audio commentary on Boiling Point by David Jenkins
– That Man is Dangerous: The Birth of Takeshi Kitano (2016, 20 mins): a documentary examining the emergence, establishment and popularity of Takeshi Kitano’s cinematic image
– Okinawa Days: Kitano’s Second Debut (2016, 20 mins): a look back at Kitano’s Boiling Point featuring interviews with producer Masayuki Mori and actor Yurei Yanagi
– Violent Cop trailer
– Boiling Point trailers
– Sonatine trailer
– 44-page book with new writing on the films and their director by Japanese film experts Tom Mes, Jasper Sharp, Mark Schilling and film critic James-Masaki Ryan
Chris D’s commentaries are excellent. He’s adept at explaining what makes Kitano a great director, without being afraid of pointing out aspects/scenes he doesn’t think work (the sumo scene in Sonatine being a notable one. He thinks it’s too precious/staged in comparison to the rest of the film).
David Jenkins’ commentary is decent too, though I’m not sure it dug quite as deep.
The two documentaries are also strong, providing an interesting look at the first two films in the set, how they came about and how they sit in Kitano’s oeuvre.
The booklet is perhaps the star of the show, with a fine selection of essays on Kitano and the films included in the set. It goes to great lengths to help better appreciate his work.