Takeshi Kitano is not a typical filmmaker. Known popularly as ‘Beat’ Takeshi, he is arguably the biggest media celebrity Japan has ever known. Before becoming an actor or director, he was a hugely successful stand-up comic and television personality as well as being a journalist, fiction writer and social commentator. He did not make his first film (Violent Cop, 1989) until he was 42, and his status as a film director in Japan has been vastly overshadowed by his television and media personality, to the point where his films have struggled to be taken seriously: none have been big box-office successes in Japan. He has been adopted by European and American cine-literate audiences, receiving widespread recognition after Hana-Bi (1997) won the coveted Golden Lion at the ’97 Venice Film Festival.
Takeshi’s films are very personal pieces made with almost total artistic control, having written, directed and edited the ten films he has made to date (including Dolls) whilst starring in seven. He has stated that, ‘films are my hobby, even if a serious one’ and ‘…films, or music, or whatever, can very easily become mirrors to their creator’s own life’. Each work explores very similar themes filmed with his own unmistakable Auteurist touch. The themes, situations and characters (and actors) can be seen being constantly re-worked and developed throughout his body of work, and indeed gives credence to Francois Truffaut’s veiled compliment that, ‘An auteur only ever makes one film and continues to remake it’.
Takeshi first became noticed on the international scene for his use of unglamorous and relentless violence in his debut feature film Violent Cop (1989). Knowing that the violent East-Asian films tended to sell well abroad, especially in America, he admitted later "It was just that I needed something by which I could be recognised at that time and, to me, that was violence". The title of the film also clearly states his intentions and, for once, it is not merely an Americanised title aimed at blood-thirsty audiences; the Japanese title is even less subtle, roughly translating as Warning! This Man is Wild! Japanese journalist Tomohiro Machiyama describes the effect of Takeshi’s debut: ‘The violence in Violent Cop was unlike anything most movie-goers had ever seen… In Takeshi’s work, shots are fired out of the blue and death can occur at any time. No matter how disturbing the action, the images are calmly shot…’ Violence continued to be an important aspect of many of his subsequent films, yet he portrays violence in a fresh light, away from the stylised conventions popularised in East Asia by directors such as John Woo.
His films however, are not ‘about’ violence, and do not use violence simply as visual spectacle. In a sense he has been a victim of his own success, using violence to tap into an international market only to become tagged by some as a one trick pony. His preference for stillness over action (in both camera and acting movement), and for silence over dialogue, point towards a more philosophical intent. Violence, especially when involving guns, is typical portrayed by Takeshi without dialogue. As Azuma walks towards his wounded enemy Kiyohiro in the finale of Violent Cop, he walks at a steady pace, hardly flinching as he takes two bullets to his own body. In Sonatine (1993), a gun battle in a bar begins with no prior warning, and the only reaction of Murakama’s (Takeshi) gang is to pull out their guns and fire back: few are left standing. Takeshi leaves the gunshots and blood to speak for themselves; any words in such a situation would be pointless. Takeshi always strives for a certain level of realism. Often violence is over almost a soon as it starts, unlike the drawn-out sequences popularised in Hollywood and Hong Kong action films. In Kids Return (1996), the teenage protagonists’ subway fights are typically over in a single punch. At the beginning of Brother (2000), Yamamoto (Takeshi) reacts to a seemingly aggressive black American (later developed into a central character Denny) by thrusting a broken bottle into his face: real acts of violence are over quickly.
The moments of contemplation and stillness after violence signify Takeshi’s more elegiac concerns. In Sonatine, as we see the Yakuza gang play with a Frisbee on the beach, Susumu Terashima’s character Ken runs to pick up the Frisbee from beside the boat where Murakawa and the girl are sat. He stops dead and looks straight ahead at the camera; there is a quick cut revealing the assassin at the other side of the boat aiming the gun directly at the camera/ Ken. As Ken falls dead at Murakawa’s feet, the camera tracks up to Murakawa’s face, almost expressionless yet still conveying a sad recognition, staring strait ahead. The girl also hardly reacts, staring pensively at the body lying in the sand. Takeshi does not equate violent acts with hysteric reactions, and prefers to focus on Yakuza or police characters who are used to facing death. Effectively, the less his characters react, the more scope the viewer has to read emotions and significance. Takeshi keeps a subtle balance between ambiguity and simple visual explanation. The beach has become, by this point in the film, a place for Murakawa’s gang to return to the innocence of nature and childish games before their inevitable death. Embroiled in the middle of a Yakuza turf war in which both sides want Murakawa dead, they are imprisoned on the beach, constantly faced by the sea that reminds them they have come as far as they can go.
The beach and the sea are recurring and complex motifs in Takeshi’s films, evident in all but Violent Cop and Kids Return, essentially used for contemplation of life and death. Takeshi has offered this insight into this motif, "…I do love the sea, but at the same time, something inside tells me to keep a distance from it. We all know our origin is in the sea and it feels to me as though Mother Nature is calling us home. But on the other hand… we know we no longer belong there."
In Hana-Bi it is to the sea that Horibe (an ex-policeman disabled in a gun-fight) looks towards in contemplation of his life, and possible suicide. While sat in his wheelchair on the beach in one scene, we are shown the waves beginning to lap against the wheels, as if Mother Nature is indeed trying to call Horibe home. In A Scene at the Sea (1991), the sea can again be seen as the Mother Nature giver and taker. The central character Shigeru discovers a passion for surfing which offers him a release from his troubles as a lower-class and physically handicapped man. It is as if he enters into a Faustian pact with the sea, which gives him happiness and release over the space of one summer, but finally consumes him and takes his life at the end.
In Kikujiro (1999) a young boy Masao and a Yakuza-bum Kikujiro (Takeshi) set off on a journey to find Masao’s mother. The journey once again ends on a beach after the disappointment of realising his mother has a new family and life without him. Partly an autobiographical film, Kikujiro being the name of Takeshi’s father, Takeshi recalls his father being a ‘distant and violent’ man, except for one occasion where: "…he took me along with some of his fellow workmates from the paint factory on a trip to the seaside… he left me alone to do what I wanted". The distance between himself and his father in his childhood is clearly an influence on this film. In this scene the emotional distance between the two characters is shown visually as Kikujiro stands by the road, looking towards Masao far down the beach. Despite the lack of dialogue or monologue, he is clearly deciding whether to walk towards the boy and comfort him, or keep the impersonal distance between them.