Just as important to Takeshi as elegy, contemplation or violence, is his use of comedy. Moments of comedy are evident in all his films, both in the form of visual physical gags and in editing. In Sonatine, Murakama and his gang act out various boyish pranks and games: sand traps, sumo wrestling, and mock geisha dancing. As with much of Takeshi’s comic moments, they do not necessarily add to the narrative but rather create a particular tone.
The humour of these scenes heightens the sadness of the film, that these men have needlessly chosen a way of life that will cause their early deaths: the viewer shares these personal boyish moments with the characters but must also view their deaths. Takeshi’s personal take on the world indeed equates violence with comedy: "I personally do not find much difference between violence and comedy. An event can be regarded as a violence by the participator, but for the spectator it can be comedy." Takeshi’s training as a comedian is evident in his editing, becoming the cinematic equivalent of cutting straight to the punch-line. In Kikujiro, a more overtly comic film, Kikujiro’s attempt to swim in the pool are shown with him jumping in, then cuts to showing him upside-down in his rubber ring, perfectly still with legs spread in the air, then a cut to him being resuscitated by the pool-side. The film is part road movie, part social realism, part autobiography, part slapstick comedy: therefore, wholly ‘Beat’ Takeshi Kitano.
Comedy is so important to his films that he occasionally drifts into parody. In Boiling Point, Takeshi plays a supporting role as the Yakuza boss Uehara, a monstrous parody of Yakuza excesses and of ‘Beat’ Takeshi’s television persona. Sight and Sound writer Tommy Udo describes Uehara as, ‘one of cinema’s great human monsters’ yet Takeshi has commented ‘… I meant to portray him as a comic figure, a caricature’. It is perhaps not a joke that works well given the unsavoury sadism of the character, and the context of what is mostly a social realist film.
It is re-worked to much better effect in Takeshi’s only all-out comedy Getting Any? Here a Yakuza boss is portrayed as even more sexually perverse, dressing up, talking and dancing like a woman in their headquarters. In one wonderful scene the boss (dressed in drag) forces his cronies to put on an absurd puppet shadow show and squeals ‘Oh, how frightening, a big bad bear’, and then becoming displeased shouting gruffly, ‘What’s that shit? They all look the same, you morons!’ The film appears to be a cathartic experience for Takeshi, alleviating himself of all the parodies that occasionally creep into his ‘serious’ films. There is indeed a constant battle between his two personas, Takeshi Kitano the acclaimed filmmaker and ‘Beat’ Takeshi the TV comic. This occasionally spills over into violence. On one infamous occasion he and his gang of devotees burst into the offices of a magazine that had written a disparaging article on him; they trashed the offices with baseball bats and beat up the editor.
Hana-Bi is arguably the film in which Takeshi achieves the most successful balance of all his themes and style. It is also his most experimental film, bearing little relation to classical modes of narrative cinema. Tony Rayns, probably the foremost Takeshi scholar, offers this description of the film’s structure, ‘There are no orthodox establishing scenes, and Kitano’s penchant for marginal but revealing episodes and narrative ellipses forces us to work to put pieces together for ourselves’. The narrative becomes secondary to the themes and character relationships, and the style in which they are shown.
Takeshi’s character Nishi, after leaving the police force, decides to rob a bank in order to give his dying wife a second honeymoon and to help out his disabled ex-partner. The robbery itself is not as central to the plot as it would be in a typical action film. His demeanour, his purpose for doing it and the risk he is taking are more important than the action itself, which is mostly shown from the detached viewpoint of the security camera. His preparations for the robbery are shown inter-cut with images of him visiting Horibe and his own wife Miyuki. The short scenes with Tanaka’s widow are especially effectively, both characters’ awkwardness with each other speaking of the helpless situation they are in. The tenderness and affection of Nishi and Miyuki’s relationship is enacted almost without dialogue.
Virtually all the comic moments of the film, which can be non-narrative ‘Beat’ Takeshi moments in other films, are in scenes involving Nishi and Miyuki. Instead of simply comic set-pieces, they add to the viewers understanding of their relationship and adds to the overall tenderness of the film. When on their ‘honeymoon’ we see them playing a card guessing-game, which Nishi is only good at because he can see the reflections in the rear-view mirror. Miyuki’s look of childlike wonder at Nishi, and their laughter as Nishi reveals his cheating when all he can see is the ‘Crunchy Chocolate Bar’, emphasises the simple beauty of their relationship. Takeshi purposefully displays the married couple without the physical contact that is expected in conventional filmmaking. Takeshi explains "I was convinced that nothing physical was needed between the two, that smiles were enough to let the audience know what was going on". What Hollywood does in ten-minute sex scenes, Takeshi can do much more effectively with simple minimalism
Takeshi originally wanted Hana-Bi to be called Takeshi Kitano: Volume Seven. When asked why, he only half-joked when saying "because I wanted to remind the Japanese audiences that I had made six previous films". It is also something that is worth reminding Western audiences, especially the supposed ‘cine-literates’. Dolls is now coming out with a critical fanfare proclaiming a new Takeshi Kitano who is showing his softer, subtler side. This, however, is nothing new. With each ‘volume’ of his work he reworks and builds on thematic and stylistic concerns that are evident through the whole body of his work.
This article was not written to give a summary of all his films – your Time Out guide can do that – but rather to offer an insight into the tone, feelings and purpose of the Kitano ‘volumes’. He portrays a brutal realism while at the same time transcending it; using violence, comedy and tenderness to explore the struggles of living and the meaning of death. ‘Beat’ Takeshi Kitano creates a divine comedy, exploring inside the dark soul of contemporary life but always making time to look out to sea.