Takeshi Kitano was the youngest of four children born to a Tokyo working-class couple. Though his father, Kikujiro, painted houses, the little Takeshi suspected (or perhaps the later media star mythologized) the often drunk old man he and his siblings feared was a failed yakuza. Nonetheless, with his mother’s prodding, the scrawny kid excelled in math and art at a top state high school, then studied engineering in college but dropped out before completing the program.
In 1973, after stints as an elevator boy and emcee in Asakusa’s France-za comedy-slash-strip club, Kitano, together with Kiyoshi Kaneko, formed a standup duo called The Two Beats. Irreverent and bawdy—’Beat Takeshi’ shocked an NHK TV audience by lovingly describing an encounter with a literal piece of shit—the pair achieved a degree of national recognition. In the early ’80s The Two Beats had small roles (cop 1, cop 2) in perfunctory comedies until Nagisa Oshima cast Takeshi as the brutal Sergeant Hara in his surreal 1983 POW camp drama, Merry Christmas, Mr. Lawrence.
Takeshi Kitano—as distinct from alter ego Beat Takeshi, comedian, television personality, character actor—was reborn in 1989 when veteran gangster-film director Kinji Fukasaku withdrew during pre-production from Violent Cop in which Beat Takeshi was to star. The producers convinced Kitano to take over, and though he had no filmmaking experience and so was constantly at odds with his professional crew, the first-time director rewrote the script and imposed an unusually subtle tone, both visually and aurally, on his debut film.
While Takeshi Kitano made nine more films, Beat Takeshi regularly hosted two handfuls of absurdist, vulgar, silly, reactionary prime-time network shows each week and, according to an NHK poll, was Japan’s favorite television celebrity every year from 1990–1995. The current Koko ga hen dayo, Nihinjin! (Japanese, You’re Strange!), an exercise in national self-identity, features a parade of average folks (telephone operators, investment bankers, stewardesses, students) who comment on Japaneseness in the context of international and local issues ranging from the USS Greeneville’s sinking of the Ehime Maru to ganguro, a teen girls’ micro-mini-skirt, platform shoe, chocolate-faced fashion fad. And Takeshi’s Castle, a game show in which milk industry workers challenge midwives, or real-estate agents challenge high school baseball coaches, to humiliating tests of coordination and daring, has even been dubbed and syndicated in North America as TNN’s Most Extreme Elimination Challenge.
While Takeshi Kitano won the Leon d’oro at the 1997 Venice Biennale, Beat Takeshi starred as a one-eyed gay hitman in Takashi Ishii ‘s Gonin (1995) and then, ironically, as a fourth-grade-teacher-turned-sadistic-game-show-host called “Kitano” in the late Fukasaku’s last film, Battle Royale (2000). While academics compare Takeshi Kitano to Scorsese, Bresson, and Ozu, Beat Takeshi describes himself as David Letterman plus Woody Allen plus Howard Stern. (1)
Three of his first four films (Violent Cop, Boiling Point, and Sonatine, to use the titles under which they were released in the USA) established Kitano’s international career. They share an unusual combination of contrasting genre elements—the laconic loner tough guy (cop or criminal) and slapstick humor, comedy plus massacre—and an austere aesthetic.
In Kitano’s view, the difference between genres is often only a matter of perspective: “An event can be regarded as violence by the participant, but for the spectator it can be comedy.” (2) Boiling Point‘s (1990) trigger-happy Uehara gets laughs by repeatedly, over the course of nine minutes and four locations, whacking his girlfriend on the back of the head…because she followed his instructions! And when his partner can’t severe his pinky with the dull kitchen knife the gangster provides him, Uehara employs more extreme measures to ‘help’ his friend: zealously taking over the job himself, hacking at the reluctant finger, hammering the knife through the bone with a block of wood.
Kitano’s, like Chaplin’s, is a comedy of repetitions, exaggerations and, especially, contrasts. Kitano feels both the absurdity and the humanity of his subjects. (3) Violent Cop‘s Detective Azuma is, like Dirty Harry, a cop on the edge, dispensing justice idiosyncratically but, more than Eastwood’s character, Azuma seems to understand that this whole cops-and-criminals thing is just a game, that the two sides are interchangeable. (4) Masaki, Boiling Point‘s lethargic and slightly dim-witted gas station attendant, a bumbling underdog, takes on the mob almost single-handedly. And in Sonatine (1993), Kitano both mocks yakuza conventions—sunglasses and tattoos on the one hand, business suits and ‘hostesses’ on the other—and romanticizes his yakuza hero, the stoic and nostalgic, paternal and mischievous, philosophic and impulsive Murakawa.
Stylistically, too, the early Kitano movies achieve their impacts through contrasts. According to Japanese critics, these films, “the products of a cinematic ‘amateur’ (Kitano had no formal directorial training), violate many of the existing ‘rules’ about form and storytelling.” (5) But they violate those rules consistently. Already in Violent Cop, Kitano directs with the confidence of an amateur with years of experience as a comedian and with a simple aesthetic strategy.
Kitano’s early style, like his deadpan acting, is based on negation. He steers clear of many narrative and cinematic conventions, often refuses to show a scene’s most dramatic beats, and peels away decades of Western influence with respect to composition, movement, space, pace, and sound design.
Stillness dominates Kitano’s style. Characters are planted in static compositions. Violent Cop opens on a seeming freeze-frame of a smiling toothless vagrant; Boiling Point on a long, dark, static face, Masaki in an outhouse. Detective Azuma rings a doorbell, and waits…and waits…and waits. And even during a shootout in an Okinawan bar, Sonatine‘s gunmen stand, nailed to the floor, weapons extended stiff-armed in a locked frame. (6) (7)
This stillness is underlined by two more formal elements: small subject image sizes and protracted shot duration. A wide shot in which a dozen people remain motionless—like the utterly inert, group ‘portrait’ of Murakawa’s team in the aftermath of the Anan clan’s bombing their headquarters, a shot so distant and static it becomes extremely difficult to determine even who is speaking—draws particular attention to its avoidance of classical, ‘realistic’ filmic customs. And the longer it lasts—the shot just described clocks in at healthy seventeen seconds—the more ‘aggressive’ the rejection. (8)
Kitano’s subtle soundtracks emphasize quiet, the aural equivalent of stillness. The writer minimizes dialogue, and the post-production supervisor makes little effort to ‘fill out’ the mix with irrelevant ambient or off-screen sounds. When his superior fires Azuma toward Violent Cop‘s end, there’s a 14 second static medium long shot of the detective, perfectly still, and silent. A ten second medium close-up of the police chief, also silent, follows. Kitano uses music sparingly and, principally, structurally. No dramatic cues or expressive leitmotifs here. Whether electronic Satie or a Joe Hisaishi original score, Kitano’s music—minimal, repetitive, unpresumptuous—functions to bridge set-pieces, accompany characters’ down-times, montages of wandering through shopping districts or of relaxing lakeside. (9)
Spatially, Kitano’s early films, like the bulk of silent comedies, are abnormally flat. (10) His camera finds his characters’ full frontal faces, their profiles, and the backs of their heads. Compositions, too, seem more architectural than organic. A line of four faces in Boiling Point, for example, may be bunched down in the lower third of the frame—an artistically conservative film instructor might fault Kitano for “too much headroom”—and the left and right frame edges often slice through marginal characters, a phenomenon the typical film would try to avoid by adjusting the image size, moving the camera closer to the image’s central character so as to ‘frame out’ the insignificant one. (11)
This basic, austere, architectural style (still, wide, protracted, quiet), aside from unifying the look and sound of each film, has two main values. First, in and of itself, Kitano’s default style absorbs the willing viewer in the creation of these films’ emotional content. (12) Since the director himself provides only minimal clues to a character’s inner life—no ‘meaningful’ close-ups of quivering faces, no push-ins at times of crisis, no soaring melodies signaling the triumph of the human spirit—the audience members may work to load into Kitano’s characters emotions from their own personal (and personally significant) storehouses of sentiments. Each movie becomes, then, one long Kuleshov experiment. Or a Bresson action-comedy. (13) For me, the thrill of watching a Kitano film like Sonatine, perhaps the best example, derives from the tension between my near complete sympathy for one or two of the principal characters—partly, or even largely, because I am able to invest the blank characters with my own feelings—and my sense that those laconic, mysterious characters, like me, will forever remain indecipherable, wholly other.
Second, Kitano’s early films’ default style provides a convenient set-up, a visual and aural ‘straight man’, for moments of comedy and of violence, for both punches and punch lines. Most commentators have noted that Kitano’s films are “punctuated by moments of startling violence” or that “violence explodes onto the screen” but the mechanism for this, how it is achieved, is not considered. Technically, these eruptions, these explosions, derive through moments of simple contrast with the films’ default style. Movement, bigger image sizes, quick cuts, and loud sounds disrupt the otherwise low-energy filmmaking at points where Kitano wants laughs or winces.
The shootout in Sonatine‘s bar is typical. Though still static and wide, it’s relatively quick-cut—nine shots in fourteen seconds, compared to the previous two minutes’ only twelve shots—and noisy. Incessant deafening gunfire drowns out, contrasts with, the distant waft of muzak which precedes and, drolly, follows it.
And in Violent Cop‘s impromptu wrestling match between one of Azuma’s partners and a fugitive low-level drug dealer, the violent climax—the cop’s head is bashed open with an aluminum baseball bat—’explodes onto the screen’ in at least two ways. Kitano has shot the fight in slow-motion so that there is minimal displacement of the image, minimal movement despite the scene’s ‘action’. The scene reads not so much ‘violent’ as ‘dreamlike’, a cosmic ballet set to a sorrowful tune reminiscent of a Nina Rota ballad. There are no other sounds. But when the bad guy swings the bat, Kitano’s camera shifts gears, reverts to 24fps. There’s a quick burst of movement as the bat whacks against the cop’s skull. The new camera speed underscores the extreme violence. At the same time, Kitano hard cuts a synch effect. Suddenly, the very realistic sound of ‘bat on flesh’ dominates the mix. Violence by contrast.
Already in these first films, the ‘amateur’ Kitano shows a command of visual and aural rhythm, which sets him apart from his more professional but more conventional colleagues. When at his most confident, as in Sonatine, Kitano can juxtapose contrasting tones—Ravelian daydream and ruthless slaughter—so that each gains from the other. The violence jolts by contrast with the reverie’s relaxed pace. And the melancholy of Murakawa’s nostalgia for youth as he mentors his apprentices—neophyte killers who play with dolls, frolic on the beach, and spurt roman candles at each other—is deepened by our fear that the violence that will inevitably erupt around them may mean this will be his last stand. (14)
During the second half of his career so far, Kitano became a fixture on the international festival circuit. Kids Return, Kikujiro and Dolls played at Cannes, Hana-bi and Brother at Venice. A 2000 Village Voice critics’ poll named Hana-bi one of the decade’s top ten films. And after the same film won Venice’s top prize, the comedian-turned-auteur, eschewing understatement, informed the press: “I am the Master!”
Kitano’s mastery is signalled by a shift in both his films’ formal strategies and by their more overt (and sometimes even unmitigatedly clichéd) character motivations. The newly anointed auteur’s sixth film, Kids Return (1996), not surprisingly, is most like his earlier work in its aesthetic and emotional reticence. Like Violent Cop, Boiling Point and Sonatine, Kids Return considers the oyabun-kobun (mentor-apprentice) relationship, but this time Kitano focuses on the apprentices. One of the two high school drop-out protagonists joins the yakuza; the other, a boxing gym. The filmmaker interweaves the two tales of inevitable self-degradation, and the boys end up where they began, biking in circles on the asphalt outside the school that has abandoned them. (15)
But if Kids Return feels more personal, more purposely poignant than Kitano’s previous work, that feeling derives in large part from the film’s more relaxed, more traditionally ‘relational’ aesthetics. Kids Return‘s production design is more cluttered, more lived, than any of Kitano’s earlier films: potted plants, still-lifes, matchboxes, lamps, phones, and even extras fill the backgrounds and foregrounds of shots. Still, wide, flat, quiet moments here share screen time with mobile medium-close-ups, staged in depth. Shot-reverse-shot sequences connect characters more conventionally. The principal performers seem less stiff, arms sometimes dangling, shoulders slouched. Kitano unlocks his camera, its operator reframing to compensate for an actor’s minor repositioning. There are even a couple of unmotivated, expressive dollies. (16)
Then, with a budget of US$2.3 million, Kitano, according to most critics, reached the apex of his filmmaking powers with his seventh film, Hana-bi (1997). (17) The rough edges have vanished. Kitano seamlessly cobbles together an elegiac mood-piece that mixes his trademark elliptical editing (18) with flashes of mindscreens. (19) The result is beautiful and moving. But it also marks the first significant step down a path that leads away from the inscrutable, absurdist tone of his first films. With Hana-bi, Kitano’s work begins to slough off its hardcore tough-guy skin—and the ascetic style associated with it—and find an international arthouse audience.
Hana-bi shares so many plot features with Kitano’s first film it could almost be called a remake. Like Violent Cop, Hana-bi concerns a police officer of questionable ethical standards who is indirectly responsible for a partner’s death and who must care for an ailing family member while underworld figures hunt him. And though Hana-bi, to be sure, is understated—Kitano, who stars as Nishi, barely has a line of dialogue in the first half of the film; and his clearly loving relationship with his dying wife is played out vicariously, through card games and silent haggling over desserts, not sexually—the film is, compared to Violent Cop, openly sentimental. Nishi provides financially for his deceased partner’s family and introduces his semi-paralyzed friend to art’s therapeutic powers. He leads his wife on an odyssey through some of Japan’s most spiritually iconic sites: a raked sand-garden, a Buddhist temple, a country inn, Mount Fuji. And in the final scene, before he shoots her, he even pats her hand!
Hana-bi‘s aesthetics support Kitano’s new, more elegiac content. (20) Image sizes have increased: faces and their stories fill more of the frame than ever. Camera positions are less frequently frontal, analytical, architectural. Shots are composed in depth, actors occupying the middle ground between, for example, a melancholic rain-spattered window and a newly executed felt-tip-pen painting. Movement, much of it highly dynamic and z-axis oriented, challenges stillness for supremacy in Hana-bi. Classically ‘beautiful’ images—like the reflection of clouds and phone lines on Horibe’s van’s windshield. Unmotivated, expressive pans. Tilts to the clouds. Dissolves!
Still, Kids Return and Hana-bi, despite their increasing ‘warmth’, share with Violent Cop, Boiling Point and Sonatine the appetizing recipe of a meditative drama of a well-intentioned loner blended with large doses of humor and hostility. Kitano’s next three films proffered their tones increasingly straight. Kikujiro (1999) focused on comedy; Brother (2000) on violence; and Dolls (2002) on inner tragedy. None, partly because of their lack of tonal complexity, partly because their comedy, violence, and tragedy failed to engage, moved me.
Dolls is certainly Kitano’s most puzzling work. Self-consciously gorgeous—the director suggests “you could frame virtually any shot” (21)—but utterly unaffecting, schematic, hollow, technically juvenile. The film opens in a bunraku puppet theater where six stone-faced black-clad puppeteers manipulate two dolls that perform an eighteenth century Chikamatsu play. Dolls tells—or the bunraku dolls tell (22)—three stories of blind love played out over the course of four seasons. In one, Matsumoto flees his arranged wedding when he learns his true love, Sawako, has attempted suicide. He kidnaps Sawako from a mental hospital—her brain is apparently mush; she doesn’t speak, but sometimes mumbles unintelligibly at ceramic figurines of angels—and the pair trudge through Japan (in posh, supersaturated Yohji Yamamoto outfits!) bound together by thirty feet of thick, deep red rope. In another similar narrative thread, an aged yakuza boss visits the woman he jilted forty-something years earlier. She’s been waiting for him on the same park bench at which they used to meet on weekends, fixing him each week his favorite bento box. And finally, Nukui, aging groupie to pop-star Haruna, puts out his eyes so he can meet his idol who, disfigured in an auto accident, refuses to show her face in public.
In Sonatine, Murakawa’s inner turmoil affects largely because he refuses to explicitly externalize it. In Dolls, the characters are so conventional, so clichéd—the penitent working off his sins; the wizened old man who realizes, finally, his mistake; the idolatrous devotee—so external, so anti-Kitano-as-we-have-come-to-know-him, there’s nothing left for an audience to feel. The film’s characters have done all the emotional work for it.
Technically, too, Dolls is atypical of Kitano’s work so far. The film feels hermetic, like an extended student project, at best a (failed) experiment in nonstop camera movement. A combination dolly-pan tracks across a nightstand and some sleeping bodies—very ’70s TV. In the mental hospital’s corridor the camera gratuitously dollies counter to the characters’ movement. And, for some reason, a wide shot of a parked car warrants a slow, extended, arcing dolly.
Worse, camera movement takes on an all-too-obvious thematic function. A semi-circular track around the Chikamatsu puppets in Dolls‘ prelude is repeated exactly around Matsumoto and Sawako, identifying the two couples … for whatever that’s worth. There’s a ‘meaningful’ push-in to close-up of the nostalgic old mob boss. Then during his golden tinted memories the camera traces a semi-circle around him and his boyhood sweetheart too. None of this is terribly funny. (23)
Kitano’s next project, his first period piece, looks like it could provide a return to form. Zatoichi, the blind swordsman, is rife with opportunity for violence, comedy, and a touch of angst. In the mean time, there’s always this week’s episode of Most Extreme Elimination Challenge!
Violent Cop (Sono otoko, kyobo ni tsuki, literally Warning! This Man is Wild) (1989) also actor and (uncredited) writer
Boiling Point (3-4x jagatsu, literally A 3 to 4 Loss in Extra Innings) (1990) also writer and actor
A Scene at the Sea (Ano natsu, ichiban shizukana umi, literally That Summer, a Quiet Ocean) (1992) also writer and editor
Sonatine (Sonachine) (1993) also writer, actor, and editor
Getting Any? (Minna yatteruka!) (1994) also writer, actor, and editor
Kids Return (Kidzu ritan) (1996) also writer and editor
Hana-Bi (Fireworks) (1997) also writer, actor, and editor
Kikujiro (Kikujiro no natsu, literally Kikujiro’s Summer) (1999) also writer, actor, and editor
Brother (2000) also writer, actor, and editor
Dolls (2002) also writer and editor
Zatoichi (2003) also writer and actor
Darrell Davis, “Reigniting Japanese Tradition with Hana-Bi”, Cinema Journal, 40.4, Summer 2001, pp. 55–80
Michele Fadda and Rinaldo Censi (eds), Kitano Beat Takeshi, Parma, Stefano Sorbini, 1998
Aaron Gerow, “A Scene at the Threshold: Liminality in the Films of Kitano Takeshi”, Asian Cinema, 10.2, Summer 1999, pp. 107–115
Aaron Gerow, Kitano, London, BFI, forthcoming
Brian Jacobs (ed.), ‘Beat’ Takeshi Kitano, London, Tadao Press, 1999 [biographical notes, film reviews, artworks]
Takeshi Kitano, Rencontres du septième art, Paris, Arléa, 2003 [interviews and essays]
Nicholas D. Kristof, “Where Conformity Rules, Misfits Thrive”, The New York Times, 18 May, 1997, section 2, 43
Tony Rayns, “The Harder Way”, Sight & Sound, June 1996, pp. 24–27
Tony Rayns, “Puppet Love”, Sight & Sound, June 2003, pp. 18–20
Mark Schilling, Encyclopedia of Japanese Pop Culture, New York, Weatherhill, 1997
Gavin Smith, “Takeshi Talks”, Film Comment, March–April 1998, p. 32
Articles in Senses of Cinema
A Scene at the Sea: Reflections by Andrew Saunders
Never Yielding Entirely Into Art: Performance and Self-Obsession in Takeshi Kitano’s Hana-bi by Daniel Edwards
Kitano Takeshi’s Sonatine by Dan Harper
Kitano’s Hana-bi and the Spatial Traditions of Yasujiro Ozu by Mark Freeman
The Willing Embrace of Destruction: Takeshi Kitano’s Brother by Daniel Edwards
Film Directors – Articles on the Internet
Many online articles can be found here.
Features an excellent interview
Kinema Club Japan
This site offers a searchable database of books and articles on Japanese media.
Kitano à ses Debuts
Interview (in English) by Chris Dafoe.
Kitano Takeshi . Com
Useful online resource devoted to Kitano.
Reviews of Japanese Films
Aaron Gerow’s pithy reviews of recent Japanese films (including Kitano’s) can be found on the same site.
Click here to search for Takeshi Kitano DVDs, videos and books at
- Nicholas D. Kristof, “Where Conformity Rules, Misfits Thrive”, The New York Times, 18 May, 1997, section 2, 43. For more on Beat Takeshi, see Mark Schilling, Encyclopedia of Japanese Pop Culture, New York, Weatherhill, 1997, pp. 253–257.
- Gavin Smith, “Takeshi Talks”, Film Comment, March–April 1998, p. 32
- This ambivalence distinguishes Kitano from Itami, another contemporary director whose comedies—Tampopo (1985), A Taxing Woman (1987), The Anti-Extortion Woman (1992)—often mock underworld figures. For, unlike Itami, Kitano usually serves up his slapstick with a big helping of Mishima, whose obsessions with brotherhood and death, individuality and authority, pre-figure Kitano’s.
- This becomes especially clear at film’s coda, when the rookie cop Azuma has been mentoring goes on the syndicate’s payroll. The crime-boss’ henchman has the thematic last word: “Everybody’s crazy.”
- Aaron Gerow, “Recognizing ‘Others’ in a New Japanese Cinema”, The Japan Foundation Newsletter, 29.2, January 2002, p. 2. Kitano himself seems to have been fully aware of his atypical approach to shooting Violent Cop: “There was a crew who had been in the industry for a long time and who had studied the usual methods, which were based on the Western influence—moving the camera, getting different camera angles… So I had to fight with my staff to get the shots [I wanted]. After the movie came out, people said I didn’t know how to make films.” (Chris Dafoe, http://membres.lycos.fr/martinlang/interv2.htm)
- A special case of ‘stillness’, though by no means a dominant aspect of Kitano’s style, perhaps should be mentioned here. Occasionally Kitano will leave a shot’s ‘tails’ (the end of a take) in his film even after the actors have deserted the frame. In Sonatine, for example, Murakawa forces his nemesis, Takahashi, out a hotel fire escape. Kitano’s editor (Kitano himself), rather than cut to the bludgeoning Murakawa is no doubt giving his captive, holds on the closed door behind which his actors have vanished. This kind of stress given to the environment through which humans pass harks back to the famous ‘empty shots’ in Ozu, whose camera lingers in a hallway after his characters have passed through it or on early morning shopfronts before the market is peopled or on a clothesline, its clothespins now drooping from the wire, evidence of prior human activity.
- When Kitano’s camera does move in these early films, it most often moves parallel to the actor whose movement motivates it. The result of this kind of parallel, motivated movement is that, though the background migrates through the frame during the course of the shot, the subject remains fixed in one portion of it, thus effectively static.
- According to Barry Salt, Film Style & Technology: History & Analysis, London, Starwood, 1992 edition, p. 144f. and passim, excessively short or abnormally long average shot lengths (ASLs) often correlate to the work of an auteur. David Bordwell, “Intensified Continuity: Visual Style in Contemporary American Film”, Film Quarterly, 55.3, p. 16f. suggests that ASL for the typical Hollywood film of any genre in the 1990s is between three and six seconds. The ASLs for Boiling Point, A Scene at the Sea, and Sonatine are 13.5, 14.5, and 12.
- Violent Cop has only three music cues, which are used a total of twelve times. By comparison, the average standard-length Hollywood film uses its dozens of cues between 60 and 150 times. Boiling Point, which some, like Tommy Udo in Brian Jacobs (ed.), ‘Beat’ Takeshi Kitano, London, Tadao Press, 1999, p. 22, take to be Kitano’s most uncompromising film, has no non-diegetic music whatsoever.
- For a good, practical introduction to the vocabulary of visual design—words like ‘flat’ and ‘deep’ and ‘depth of field’ have horrific histories in film studies—see Bruce Block, The Visual Story, Boston, Focal Press, 2001. Flat space images are those whose principal lines tend to reinforce the frame lines; deep space relies on convergence of lines.
- Two more aspects of Kitano’s ‘amateur’ film style may be worth briefly noting. First, the director often shuns the shot-reverse-shot convention, even at moments when it would seem inevitable. For example, the ‘introduction’ of Uehara (Boiling Point) consists of two wide shots of a mob boss addressing someone just off camera, dressing down that someone. Kitano withholds the reserve shot of the addressee, Uehara, for an eternal forty-five seconds. And, second, like Ozu, Kitano sometimes allows false eyeline cues which, for the average Western viewer, can render spatial relations momentarily ambiguous. In Boiling Point a sequence of three shots presents (a) a full face medium close-up of Masaki looking just slightly off camera left, (b) a full face medium close-up of a low-level yakuza looking just slightly off camera right, a seeming reverse of (a) that suggests the two characters are facing each other, then (c) a wide shot which shows the two standing at a 90 degree angle to one another, Masaki’s face to the yakuza’s profile.
- In this I perhaps take slight issue with Gerow’s analysis of what he calls the “detached style” (“Recognizing ‘Others’…”, p. 6) of much of contemporary Japanese cinema, including Kitano’s. Gerow rightly notes that Kitano rejects both the close-ups that “in most films are used to provide access to character psychology or emotion” and the quick-cutting that directs “spectator vision…to clarify or explain what characters are doing”, but the result of these negations is not necessarily that characters become “so external we rarely know what they are thinking.”
- Lev Kuleshov, Soviet theorist and sometime filmmaker, conducted editing experiments that suggested audience members import ‘meaning’ (narrative or emotional) into any sequence of shots, if at all possible. A neutral shot of a man’s face followed by a shot of a bowl of soup may denote ‘hunger’, etc. Robert Bresson, French filmmaker and sometime theorist, believed that if he could radically suppress all intentions, drain all expression out of his actors, his audience would be able somehow to see inside his characters.
- Kitano put it this way: “… what I wanted to show was what goes through a man’s mind when he knows that he’s about to die. It seems to me that life and death have very little meaning in themselves, but the way you approach death may give a retrospective meaning to your life. The point of setting it on the beach like that is that the context makes all Murakawa’s personal problems seem so minor and unimportant. That wouldn’t have happened if he had stayed in the city. It was essential to give him that space. And the beach scenes form the core of the film; the violence…comes before and after.” (Tony Rayns, “The Harder Way”, Sight & Sound, June 1996, p. 27.)
- Violent Cop and Boiling Point, too, have similarly cyclical structures. In the former, a memorable shot of the rookie cop Azuma’s been mentoring crossing the bridge over which Azuma himself had walked at the start of the film suggests the apprentice may repeat the sins of his mentor. And in the latter, the apparently dim-witted Masaki ends up where he started: in the outhouse.
- And Kitano, the artist, begins to experiment with classical color coding. Shinji, the quieter of the two boys, wears a tranquil blue—even under his school uniform—and Masaru, a loose cannon, red. Anomalies in this color scheme, then, reinforce thematics. Shinji wears red at two points in the film: when he succumbs to the pressure from his aging wannabe mentor to binge-and-purge, Shinji wears a red sweatshirt; and when he loses a match because he’s forsaken his training regime, he wears red boxing trunks.
- Tommy Udo, in Brian Jacobs (ed), ‘Beat’ Takeshi Kitano, London, Tadao Press, 1999, p. 33, calls it a “masterpiece”, ranking it with The Godfather, Les Enfants du paradis (a perennial Japanese favorite) and The Seventh Seal. For Dave Kehr (Film Comment, March–April 1998, p. 31), the film captured a “sublime transcendence not much felt since the golden age of Mizoguchi, Ozu, and Naruse.” And Jane Campion, Idrissa Ouedraogo, Charlotte Rampling, and Francesco Rosi, members of the Venice jury, apparently liked it too.
- In each of his films, Kitano sometimes elides the action, presenting a set-up and an aftermath, but no dramatic moment. In Boiling Point, Kitano shows a cocky young punk mount a motorbike and zoom off, then the boy’s perplexed and bloodied mug as he sits on the street next to his mangled bike, but not the crash itself. In Dolls, Kitano suggests the deoculation of a pop-star’s pathetic groupie by showing first a close-up of a razor and then a shot of the groupie’s feet trailing a cane.
- Bruce Kawin, Mindscreen: Bergman, Godard, and the First-Person Film, Princeton, Princeton University, 1978, calls shots in which the filmmaker shows what’s happening inside a character’s head, what the character ‘sees’ or imagines, ‘mindscreens’. It’s worth noting here, perhaps, that most of what critics think of in Hana-bi as ‘non-linear’ sophistication is in fact simply either old-fashioned parallel action—Horibe is shot while Nishi is visiting his wife in the hospital—or Nishi’s mindscreen, his memory-flashes of past events.
- According to Darrell Davis, “Reigniting Japanese Tradition with Hana-Bi”, Cinema Journal, 40.4, Summer 2001, p. 69, Hana-bi “should be discussed in light of its ‘badness’ [by which he means, I think: its evocation of Japanese iconography] not its aesthetics… Kitano does not censor himself or water down his style to suit the international market.” The question, however, is not one of cause (whether Kitano “censored himself”) but one of fact (“is the style indeed watered down?”) and effect (“do we feel it?”).
- Tony Rayns, “Puppet Love”, Sight & Sound, June 2003, p. 20. More from Kitano: “I’ve used colour more or less realistically in the past, but this time I went for stylisation. But I didn’t plan it in detail, only roughly. I’d never been that big on red or green—blue and blue-grey were more my taste—and during the shoot my sudden openness to a broader colour spectrum panicked some of the veteran members of my crew.” Cf. note 5. Apparently, Kitano has come full circle in his relations with his crew!
- Kitano seems concerned to deflect criticism about the film’s emptiness in suggesting that the bunraku puppets are the film’s storytellers and that the humans are their puppets. For example: “Anyhow, like everything else in the film, the notion of a fan blinding himself to spare the feelings of his idol is a caricature. It’s the relationship between a celebrity and a fan as seen by a Chikamatsu doll.” (Rayns, 2003, p. 19) But my realization that this is so, sadly, does not suddenly make the film interesting or enjoyable. Rather, the concept itself seems to me very high school. (Which is not to say it couldn’t have been the basis for a good film, just…)
- Other anomalies include zooms (a cheesy zoom-in, for example, on the three cherubim Sawako chats up), some long lens shots (as she mumbles at a flower arrangement, for example) and “magical inserts” (a blow toy and the moon). And Joe Hisaishi’s sentimental score for once burdens the film … because, this time, it doesn’t contrast with the film’s tone, but simply compounds its heaviness. All in all, like taking a bath in syrup.