Tom Jolliffe looks at the career defining works of legendary Japanese auteur Takeshi Kitano…
Fans of Japanese cinema will no doubt be familiar with the iconic Takeshi name. Sometimes billed by nickname as Beat Takeshi, or more retrospectively now as Takeshi Kitano, this actor and comedian (most notable during the late 80’s for the oddball game show, Takeshi’s Castle, which is still regularly viewed to this day) would make a quite triumphant turn to directing. In 1989 he made a brutal, thrilling and sylish neo-noir called Violent Cop. It was to Japan, what Abel Ferrera’s Bad Lieutenant was to American cinema. A nihilistic look at an officer of the law unrestrained in seeking justice.
Like Ferrara’s work (which came three years after Beat Takeshi’s thrilling opener), it did what it said on the tin. It’s about a violent cop, but the gritty yet ethereal cinematography, and Kitano’s frequent (and striking) use of flat compositions (similar to what Wes Anderson would latterly be synonymous with) gave the film a unique feel. He expertly gels precisely framed still shots, with rationed tracking shots in his films. The camera effortlessly jumps between stillness and movement in a very particular, and unmistakably ‘Beat Takeshi’ kind of way. He laid this all out in Violent Cop, and it’s been a calling card since (with varying ratios of those flat shots, and occasionally meaningful profiles). The film was also an international success, proving critically popular in the West, and undoubtedly influencing a ream of Western directors (Tarantino and most likely Wes Anderson).
With such a vehemently visceral and brutal gangster film, at a time where the genre was beginning to rise in popularity across the far east (John Woo was doing his thing in Hong Kong at the time, though a Korean boom came a little later in the following decade), it would have been assumed that Kitano would stick to what got him success in the first place. In some regards he did, but his next three films were an eclectic and diverse mix which defined him as an Auteur able to gracefully flit between quirky humour, art-house sensibility, introspection and the savage punctuation of violence that made his first film so renowned. A lot like Takeshi Miike, Kitano can have an association with violent cinema, but he’s also made (like Miike) lighter fare, and dipped into an array of genres.
Boiling Point saw Kitano recast himself as a volatile character, on the opposite side of the law. He’s a supporting act in the film, which focuses more prominently on a dim-witted baseball player who falls afoul of a gangster and with the help of a bar owner with previous Yakuza connections, sets about getting revenge. The films flat shots, almost like the framing structure of family portrait photography are used to create moments of both humour and rising tension. Kitano, as has been evident in many of his films loves to linger on shots too, reluctant to cut too quickly. His quickest cutting pace usually tends to be the violent sequences.
This enjoyably quirky and somewhat irreverent gangster story is less clearly focused on a defining story than Violent Cop, portraying a kind of randomness to the whole adventure, particularly once Kitano himself comes on screen to create wild and unpredictable moments of a character who is creepy, volatile, utterly insane, yet oddly endearing. He plays it to perfection and those lingering flat portrait shots just evoke this ticking time bomb behind his eyes, that may or may not explode. Of Kitano’s opening four films (more on the following two shortly), it’s probably the weakest, but it’s still compelling, enjoyable and at its high points, brilliant.
Kitano’s next film was a complete about turn. No violence, blood or nudity, it marked the first of several more poetic films from the auteur. A Scene at the Sea is a quaint and charming tale of a deaf couple. The man (Claude Maki) who works as a garbageman finds a discarded and broken surfboard. He takes it home, fixes it and became infatuated with surfing. His girlfriend is infatuated with him and thus happy to watch his determined attempts to became a good surfer. Inevitably she begins feeling neglected and the film charts their relationship through his journey from hapless paddler to competitive surfer.
The story is very simple. The film is languidly paced, but very precisely shot (as per normal). It just has a very compelling charm to it, and Maki and Hiroko Oshima are both fantastic in silent roles (both only 18 at the time). Aside from the side characters occasionally passing comment, it’s almost a silent movie and there’s a unique feel to a film that feels like it has an underlying fable hiding behind the visuals. Additionally, composer Joe Hisaishi who will be well known to Studio Ghibli fans, is probably the John Williams of Asia. He delivers a wonderful synth score here that works beautifully with the film.
Sonatine followed and saw Kitano return to the crime genre again. Once again, he’s a gangster. A group of Yakuza (including Kitano) are sent to Okinawa to avert a potential gang war, but fail in their task. After some carnage ensues they decide to lay low at the beach, at which point the film shifts from violent, quite gritty gangster piece, to an oddly irreverent look at gangster downtime. Kitano and his cronies hold up while the dust settles, but in their listlessness become distracted by childish games. Murukawa (Kitano) in particular happens upon a woman and becomes preoccupied with her company. It’s certainly a film with an odd feel to it. It’s like Kitano captures these down moments that in any other gangster film would have been lost to a jump cup forward in time (to the films violent climax). This bizarre yet enjoyable detour to a Yakuza retreat makes Sonatine inherently unique, the kind of thing you’d probably only see Tarantino get away with (or be brazen enough to attempt) in the states. Once again, Hisaishi returns to deliver an engaging synth score that only adds to the feeling that this is something oddly melodic, as a treatise on Yakuza respite and listlessness. This may be my favourite Kitano film (though A Scene at the Sea is so easy to love).
With three films, Kitano showed a gift for skilfully juggling tones and genres, bouncing between visceral brutal violence and slapstick comedy (occasionally within the same film) and shot with the kind of precision that a select few masters of the craft have managed. It also feels like there’s a pitch perfect timing with the editing in all of the films, given Kitano has edited many of his works (including Sonatine and A Scene at the Sea) and understands the craft that’s not surprising. For cinephiles looking to broaden their knowledge of Japanese cinema and haven’t done so yet, Kitano’s first seven films are on BFI player right now. All are well worth checking out.
Tom Jolliffe is an award winning screenwriter and passionate cinephile. He has a number of films out on DVD/VOD around the world and several releases due in 2020/21, including The Witches Of Amityville (starring Emmy winner, Kira Reed Lorsch), War of The Worlds: The Attack and the star studded action films, Renegades (Lee Majors, Billy Murray) and Crackdown. Find more info at the best personal site you’ll ever see…https://www.instagram.com/jolliffeproductions/