The Irreverent Gangster: Takeshi Kitano's Subversive Cinema

Straddling genres and breaking norms ever since "Violent Cop," Kitano's cinema is the playful and belligerent world of an iconoclast
Leonardo Goi

MUBI's retrospective Takeshi Kitano: Destroy All Yakuza is showing January 18 - March 28, 2020 in the United States.

Illustration by Yuwei Qiu

When veteran genre director Kinji Fukasaku pulled out of Violent Cop (1989), the film’s star, Takeshi Kitano, was a 42-year-old TV icon averaging seven small screen appearances a week. By the late 1980s, Kitano had achieved household name notoriety among Japanese audiences under the alter ego of irreverent comedian “Beat” Takeshi (one half of the stand-up manzai comedy duo The Two Beats). To see him star in anything other than his bawdy prime-time network shows led to short-circuits no audience seemed able to handle. (Commenting on his dramatic turn in Nagisa Oshima’s 1983 POW film Merry Christmas, Mr. Lawrence, Kitano has recalled the day he tiptoed into a theatre to watch the audience react to his performance, and felt “devastated and humiliated” as the whole theatre burst out laughing at the comedian’s sight). Violent Cop was not the first supposedly serious film Kitano would appear in, but it’d be the first he’d ever helm. With Fukasaku out of the picture, the producers turned to Kitano, and the man—who’d never directed before, and was at odds with the crew—agreed to take over.

Kitano’s cinema emerged from, and long wrestled with, his two irreconcilable personas: Takeshi Kitano (the director and auteur) and Beat Takeshi (the actor and TV megastar), the stage name he’d retain for the best part of his acting credits. The comedian’s extraordinary popularity clouded the director’s credentials, so much so that—by Kitano’s own admission—his early works were regarded as a TV icon’s hobby. It would take the international success of Fireworks (Hana-bi, awarded the Golden Lion at the 54th Venice Film Festival in 1997) to dispel the cloud of skepticism that wrapped his first vehicles, the products of “a cinematic amateur,” as critics back home first shunned him, hell-bent on violating formal rules and traditions. But such obstructionism speaks more of the myopic critical reception of the time than the director’s own shortcomings. It was by breaking free from those established norms that Kitano could begin crafting his uncluttered and distinctive cinematic language. The antinomy ingrained in his artistry (a comedian and auteur? Impossible!) came to percolate and inform his filmmaking. To wade into Kitano’s cinema is to enter the subversive and irreverent world of an iconoclast, a universe that doesn’t succumb to its many ambivalences and contrasts, but draws vital force from them.

Above: Violent Cop.

Violent Cop follows Kitano’s laconic and (nomen omen) ruthless detective Azuma as he dispenses justice around Tokyo, an idiosyncratic affair that leads the Dirty Harry-like cop to concurrently beat up teenage punks, Yakuza thugs, and colleagues. Anticipating a theme that would run all through Kitano’s early works (from his 1990 sophomore Boiling Point to the 1996 Kids Return, via 1993’s Sonatine), Violent Cop is a tale of mentors and apprentices. That relationship here ties Azuma with a junior sidekick, Kikuchi (Makoto Ashikawa), a maladroit newbie just as eager to take down the underworld as he is to extract some sort of confessions and heart-to-hearts from his superior. A fruitless pursuit, for Kitano’s Azuma talks little and walks plenty, with a cocksure gait and lopsided smirk that would resurface as trademark traits of Beat Takeshi’s future characters, be they cops, gangsters, or hybrids thereof. It is also a revenge film, a theme that would traverse a vast—if not the largest—chunk of Kitano’s oeuvre, here propelled by the murder of a colleague by the hands of the mob (another prominent leitmotif). But as Azuma closes in on the case, this swells into a Herculean task: it is not a lone wolf the cop is up against, but an ossified system governed by an outlaw gentry in a symbiotic relationship with crooked police forces.  

While embracing a somber aesthetic, Violent Cop cobbles together different genre elements (comedy and violence, though protagonists and slapstick humor). It also manifests that curious sense of negation that would feature prominently in Kitano’s early style. Oftentimes, the director deliberately elides the action, offering a set-up and aftermath while cutting a scene’s most dramatic moments (a strategy that would become more frequent after 1991’s A Scene at the Sea, the first feature Kitano would edit himself). When Azuma and Kikuchi run over a thug after an exhausting car chase, we do not hear the thud or see the body fly across the street: the image freezes, teasing us for more. That early style is also characterized by a sense of stillness. Characters grace the frame in static compositions, staring—frequently back at the camera—as if trapped in a catatonic trance, a feeling accentuated by the director’s reliance on long takes. Such hypnotic inertia finds an aural counterpart in the subtle soundtracks Kitano disperses through his first few works, minimalist scores used sparingly, less to amplify this or that dramatic effect than the omnipresent silences. And it also helps to provide a set-up for the films’ violent and comedic ruptures. Writing for Senses of Cinema, Bob Davis has observed that Kitano commentators often remark on his insertion of startlingly violent scenes without considering how these sudden outbursts are achieved. Again, the answer lies in the contrasts. It’s the clashes between Kitano’s still, protracted, and quiet “default” style with unexpected camera movements, cuts, and noises that make these explosions—of comedy and/or violence—burst into being.

Above: Boiling Point.

Consider Boiling Point. Interweaving a coming of age tale with Yakuza tropes, Kitano’s sophomore feature is possibly even more freewheeling and uncompromising than his first. Entry point into the drama is no longer Beat Takeshi, but a lad by the name of Masaki (Yurei Yanagi), a garage attendant with a half insouciant, half lethargic swagger. An altercation with a local mobster introduces him to the underworld, and when Masaki’s baseball coach (a former Yakuza himself) is beaten and disgraced by old comrades, the boy flies to Okinawa to buy a gun and avenge the friend. It’s in the sun-scorched island that Masaki and his pal Kazuo (Duncan) bump into Beat Takeshi’s Uehara, a psychotic gangster who takes both under his wing for a few days of mayhem and idling about.

Early into their baptism with the mob, Uehara takes the boys to a bar, and proceeds to tease a terrified Kazuo. The place is unrealistically quiet—no ambient music, no chattering—and Kitano’s camera remains fixed on man and lad. A cut, and everything comes to life: Kazuo is now drunk and singing under a karaoke bar’s disco ball, and the camera starts moving, swirling around the room to capture two thugs sitting opposite Uehara, who dare to provoke him and are savagely beaten—all while Kazuo continues to croon in a tipsy bliss. Laughter and bloodshed coexist in what unspools as a Yakuza comedy of manners. A curious and absurdist crossbreed, Boiling Point straddles irreconcilable worlds, tropes, and conventions. Kitano’s Uehara is all id: a bloodthirsty and impulse-driven Dionysian force alternating moments of extreme violence (waged just as savagely against his enemies as his associate and poor girlfriend), and others where the bandit seems to take on an older brother-like role, and Boiling Point shuffles along with the seductive and languid ease of a late summer afternoon—a feeling crystallized most emblematically in a gorgeous baseball match improvised at the beach by Uehara, his disciples, and girls.

Above: Fireworks.

It’s curious that the film that would consecrate Kitano’s auteur credentials should be the one that would also signal a shift away from that early austere style. Fireworks, in the context of Kitano’s filmography, heralds as many breaks as it promises continuities. Thematically, the director’s seventh feature finds us again in the province of revenge tales, with a plot redolent of Violent Cop’s. Beat Takeshi serves as detective Nishi, a man with a dubious moral compass and a shady past, tending to an ailing relative (a sister in Violent Cop, a terminally ill wife here), while fighting the underworld and processing the guilt for having failed to protect his colleagues from the mob. But it is also a startlingly sentimental and harrowing work, to an extent that seems to contradict the emotional and aesthetic reticence of Kitano’s previous projects.

Compared to Boiling Point, where Uehara only showed up in the film’s second act, and the focus rested squarely on Masaki’s shoulders, Fireworks affords Beat Takeshi a more central role. But his Nishi is a far cry from the id-fueled and brutal characters he’d embodied in either Violent Cop or Boiling Point. Which is not to gloss over the indomitable anger the cop unleashes against his enemies. It’s to suggest that, to a possibly unprecedented extent, Takeshi’s onscreen persona exudes a far more fragile and broken aura; that his trademark hands-in-pockets and cool stance belies rabid fury as much as deep-seated vulnerability; that even the man’s simmering rage gradually registers as desperation. Nishi’s fights with the Yakuza interpolate the pilgrimage he embarks on with his dying wife through some spiritual and idyllic landscapes: a Buddhist temple, Mount Fuji, a raked sand-garden, a snow-covered mountain. Earlier on, the detective invites former colleague Horibe (Ren Osugi), left paralyzed by a bullet and abandoned by wife and daughter, to find solace and stave off suicidal thoughts through painting. And we also see the cop pay a few visits to a deceased partner’s spouse, whom he helps financially.

I said Fireworks beckons us back into the familiar terrain of Kitano’s revenge tales, but the revenge at stake here is, strictly speaking, uttered in the past tense. As the film opens, Nishi has already killed the gangster who murdered his colleague and left Horibe paralyzed (“He shot the gun empty on his dead body!” a colleague recalls). But this doesn’t stop the memories of that fateful day from haunting him. The odyssey he ventures into, far from an escape from the mob or fellow cops, turns into a journey of atonement, a struggle to overcome an emotional paralysis and postpone an inevitable farewell. For me, the beauty of Fireworks resides not in those electrifying and erratic outbursts of blood and laughter that would punctuate Kitano’s earlier works, but in the way the film allows room for mindscreens, where Nishi’s inner turmoil comes to the fore, evoked by gruesome flashbacks or sublimated in Horibe’s paintings (Kitano’s own), a succession of progressively abstract reckonings with death and solitude. In Fireworks’ new stylistic register, Kitano’s elliptical editing coexists with moments of introspection, and a renewed aesthetic adjusts to the film’s sentimentality. The more frequent camera movements, poetic imagery, and melancholic score (courtesy of composer Joe Hisaishi, who’d joined Kitano in A Scene at the Sea, and would become a regular collaborator) add to the elegiac mood. And if the shift away from the earlier ascetic style may water down the inscrutable and surrealist charms of Violent Cop and Boiling Point, the universe Fireworks beckons one into is still dotted with mystifying ambiguities, embodied by a deranged hero fumbling after a coherent identity—at once a cop and a robber, a gangster and a child.

Above: Outrage Coda.

Just what remains of that style and contrasts in Kitano’s latest, Outrage Coda? Released twenty years after Fireworks (and once again in Venice, where it screened out of competition in 2017) Kitano’s most recent feature and last installment of his Outrage trilogy finds Beat Takeshi’s Otomo (the weathered and unkillable gangster of Kitano’s 2010 Outrage and its 2012 sequel, Beyond Outrage) at the center of a large-scale Yakuza war. The delicate alliance between the Sanno and Hanabishi criminal syndicates is tested by a rival clan led by the powerful Mr. Chang (Kaneda Tokio), for whom Otomo now works. The assassination of one of Otomo’s men by the hands of a Hanabishi triggers a seismic feud between the three sides, sending the veteran mobster on a killing spree. It’s the right fodder for an action-packed vendetta, yet Outrage Coda is far more interested in chronicling the bosses’ endless negotiations, subterfuge and double-crossing than it is in releasing the mounting tension—so much so that when Otomo’s raging killer (a not so distant cousin of Boiling Point’s Uehara) does unleash hell, the tempest of bullets mowing down an army of black-suited Yakuza feels like a long overdue breath of fresh air.

With all its speechifying, Outrage Coda isn’t a patch on the layered psychologies and emotional landscapes explored in Fireworks. Nor does it bear much evidence of the spartan aesthetic and compositions of Kitano’s 1990s projects. Even the face-to-face dialogues (which the director once designed in rigorous medium shots, the camera facing characters and placing us in between them) gradually give way to more orthodox framing, with over-the-shoulder shots and tighter close-ups to accentuate the characters’ reactions. But if not a return to form, the film remains a return to—and a critique of—such familiar genre tropes as the cyclical re-occurrence of violence, and bloody self-destruction. To anyone mildly acquainted with Kitano’s work, his obsession with self-immolation should strike as nothing foreign. So why is it that the act in Outrage Coda carries an especially harrowing, almost melancholic aftertaste? Perhaps because, at the age of 73—the mask-like stare grown stiffer, the defiant shuffle heavier—Kitano/Beat Takeshi seems to walk through Outrage Coda as a walking metaphor for mortality, a custodian of some irretrievable era. After all, Otomo is, as fellow mobsters observe, “an old-fashioned gangster with a meticulous sense of duty,” which doubles as dogmatic allegiance to the ancient codes a new generation of Yakuza is rapidly abandoning. The subversive oomph that marked Kitano’s cinema since Violent Cop no longer stems solely from a clash between deadpan humor and obscene violence, between restrained or more lyrical registers, but one between tradition and modernity. 

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