Warning, This Man Is Wild: The Films Of Takeshi Kitano


To the extent that he is known in America at all, Takeshi Kitano is seen as a violent filmmaker and actor. In his review of Kikujiro, Roger Ebert says that “Japanese audiences would know he is a movie tough guy” and compares him to Clint Eastwood. Actually, Kitano’s film persona is opposed diametrically to how he’s seen in his homeland, where he is best known as an insouciant comedian and ubiquitous media personality1. Besides that, the violence of his films is overplayed — at least as a visceral element.

When discussing violence in movies, one tends to mean violence that serves to excite and raise tension. Kitano’s violence is subtle. The violence can be graphic, but the visual strategy takes it offscreen, showing us anticipation and aftermath. The viewer is spared the actual violent act. And when the violence is graphic (as in Violent Cop), it’s disturbing, not exciting. When Azuma, the anti-social and violent cop of the title, watches other cops get beat up, he laughs at their incompetence. The violence does not bring us into the story and delineate the good guys from the bad. It is a distancing device to keep us from identifying too strongly with Kitano’s “protagonists.”

Distance is a strategy Kitano employs regularly, sometimes with strong results. And sometimes this distance mutes the impact of the film. A Scene At The Sea, for all its powerful imagery, fails to engage on the level of Kids Return, a film he made later. Kitano keeps us at arm’s length from the protagonists — almost always.

This technique has gotten better as his strength as a filmmaker has grown. As Kitano uses larger canvases with stronger characterization, the lack of direct sympathy with the main characters becomes a boon. Since you aren’t emotionally invested with any one individual, the satisfaction comes from the development of the characters (or, in a film like Kids Return, the lack of development).

Delving into Kitano’s body of work, what becomes clear is how much his expanded canvas makes for a deep, rich viewing experience, largely through implication. In the subplot for Kids Return, we follow a relationship: initiation, marriage, the man’s unhappiness at work, his wife’s dissatisfaction with his job performance, and his eventual death in a traffic accident. But we get none of the usual connective tissues of cinema — we only see the couple together once. The subplot is maybe ten minutes of film. It could be eliminated, and all we’d lose from our main characters is a minor prank one of them pulls, stealing a love letter.

But the inclusion of the couple opens what could have been a claustrophobic experience and enriches it. The protagonists of Kids Return are thuggish and hard to love. If we were only enveloped in their world, the film would be poor. By creating the context of life around them, Kitano rescues the characters. Without this subplot, they would be losers. With it, they become people, just like everyone else.

On this widened canvas, Kitano maintains a dedicated focus to violence and the sort of men who are violent. One could argue that his real subject is the outsider, but in two films — A Scene At The Sea and Kikujiro — the violence is almost nil2. The protagonists of his most violent films are men pushed to breaking points: men who either transgressed a code or got so fed up that the only way they could react is violent opposition. The violence is always futile, and the protagonists (usually the Kitano character) do not survive. Their end is semi-suicidal (though in Fireworks and Boiling Point, there’s nothing “semi-” about it), or at least self-destructive. They face insurmountable odds. They know they can’t win, but they refuse to try and escape. Death is important — the struggle is important.

The characters are self-destructive, but their suicide fantasies are interesting because they aren’t doomed from the start (like in a Greek tragedy). The suicides of Fireworks, Brother, and Boiling Point are not necessarily the logical endpoints of these characters, but the only option left. They’ve tried everything else. Now they die trying to do what they couldn’t in life.

This theme has not been stagnant in Kitano’s work. Despite a few occasional back-steps (e.g. the shootout and heroic death of Kitano’s character at the end of Brother, which feels like a throwback), his work has a forward thematic trajectory. The nihilism and existentialism of Violent Cop are not central to Fireworks (his western breakthrough), and they’re repudiated by Zatoichi, his most popular film at home.

The Violent Cop beats on the suspects and moves on cases where he has a chance to engage in violence, but he doesn’t get anything done. He kills the bad guys for a personal offense, and a corrupt cop kills him. The implications are clear – the criminals and the enforcers of the law are interchangeable and interlocked. Death has the same stripe. When a lady is killed on the street during a fight between Kitano and a Yakuza underling, he doesn’t even stop to look at her. He has barely more reaction to the death of his own sister.

Boiling Point is violent, but a ball player’s fantasy dreamt on the toilet. The image of himself driving a truck full of explosives into the Yakuza HQ with a girl by his side – suicide and vengeance and love all intermingled – is just a trick of the mind. None of it happened, or will. The cynicism of Violent Cop can be inverted if we had a real stake in the characters of either film. We don’t. Kitano keeps us at arm’s length, and so the real point is obscure.

It becomes less so as we get to Fireworks, which, coming after Kids Return, puts the emphasis on the aftermath of violence. The bookends for Kids Return show us that once the violence is over, life goes on. For the kids to have any worth (and the film is affectionate towards them, so we have to assume that’s the point), they must continue to live. Having moved beyond violence, they go back to where they started. It was not a road to progress.

In Fireworks, we have contrasting characters, Nishi (Kitano) and Horibe (Ren Osugi). Horibe is confined to a wheelchair, mainly because Nishi wasn’t there to protect him. His wife and child leave him, and he sits on the beach, contemplating suicide. But Nishi buys him paint, and instead of killing himself, Horibe throws himself into art, making pictures of animals with flowers for heads. (Kitano did the paintings. He took it up after a motorcycle accident paralyzed his face and left him bed-bound.) Nishi, though, has nothing to turn to, and with his dying wife by his side, kills himself and her before the Yakuza or the cops can get to him. He can provide recuperation for others, but not himself.

The point Kitano’s films seem to be driving at is kind of amazing, given the focus of his work. The focus on violent men and their doings is misplaced. The heroism of Zatoichi is not underlined, because it’s not heroism — it’s his job. And though, from Violent Cop on, we see people who get respect for doing their jobs, there’s nothing to celebrate. The headlong plunges into death aren’t poetic. They’re functional. And though I’ve pointed to the distancing effect that Kitano uses with his characters, it’s impossible to not be caught up in the exuberance of the dance at the end of Zatoichi, performed in celebration of a festival and for the old woman whose house was rebuilt. These are the heroes.

In effect, Kitano hasn’t altered his strategy so much as widened his scope. The bleak nihilism of Violent Cop can still be seen, but that isn’t all there is. Zatoichi doesn’t go to the dance because he has nothing to do with making something new. For him, there is no celebration, and really no future.

1His films are something of a side-job, which makes his overall excellence even more frustrating to those of us who are frustrated by others’ excellence (like me). For a better grasp of Kitano’s Japanese context, see the indispensable Midnight Eye Guide To New Japanese Film.

2When I was doing this overview, I didn’t have access to Getting Any or Dolls, so if they’re completely non-violent, they’d count too. But most of his oeuvre fits this explanation.

About Kent Conrad

To contact Kent Conrad, email kentc@explodedgoat.com