Flowering Blood

We are in Tokyo in search of the oldest noodle restaurant in Japan. Its 1999 and pre-gps. Guided by scant details offered in the travel guide, we take the wrong exit from the station and wander in the early evening just as the neon lights buzz to life. We find ourselves at the reception desk of a public swimming pool where they sell disposable shower caps to swimmers. The receptionist conceals his surprise and points us back towards the station. Our pace quickens as hunger takes over. Weaving through the streets we finally find the restaurant just after 8pm, a minute after the last orders have been taken. (1)

Each chapter of Sean Redmond’s book The Cinema of Takeshi Kitano: Flowering Blood begins with impressionistic descriptions reflecting the author’s sense of Japan. It is this initial, sensory impression that drives Redmond’s approach to the Tokyo cityscape and to the films of Takeshi Kitano. Whilst Casio Abe’s book, Beat Takeshi vs Kitano Takeshi has only recently been released to a western readership and Aaron Gerow’s study of Kitano explores issues of national identity and globalisation, Redmond’s contribution builds on this wave of fascination with Kitano, engaging Japanese culture, city spaces, aesthetics and affect (2). The book begins with a description of Redmond being lost in Tokyo whilst on his way to Office Kitano. Redmond is reflective of his own position, placing his own “(Western) subjectivity at centre stage” (p.1). He writes,

“I am lost in Tokyo and this pure experience of time opens me up to an infinite number of possibilities and potentialities. This is overwhelming, dreadful of course, since without representation and language to hold onto, I am adrift of the world. But this is a strangely familiar form of experience that I know too well, and one which I would suggest haunts modern life and living” (p.8).

Redmond writes about his journey to Tokyo as a ‘cine pilgrim’ through a range of positions from searcher to cultist, escapee to dreamer, all the while foregrounding questions about Japan as experienced directly and represented in the films. From the very beginning Redmond explores and exposes the inadequacy of binary modalities like core/periphery and self/other to define East/West relations. Instead of relying on these binaries, he draws from the subtlety of Sara Ahmed’s notion of ‘stranger fetishism’, via the work of Jackie Stacey, to better capture the ways that the consumption of cultural products can work to make the strange familiar, drawing the stranger into a relationship based on closeness, proximity, perhaps even incorporation (p.4). Otherness and strangeness here is, “not tied to simple us/them binaries, an alien alterity that shifts sides and folds into itself” (9). He posits that “[o]ne can argue that this desire for the Other, for the strange, radiates out from a Western cultural centre that is lacking, and which stems from a need that is about owning both the exotic Other, and devouring or ingesting them so that their energy becomes (y)ours” (p.4). It is through an analysis of the cinema of Takeshi Kitano that Redmond is able to explore broader spatial and cultural intersections.

Hana Bi (Kitano, 1997)

Hana Bi (Kitano, 1997)

The Cinema of Takeshi Kitano: Flowering Blood negotiates a careful line towards spaces that are unfamiliar, experiencing them sensually. Whilst Redmond might be new to the cityscape at the time of his writing, his book reveals a detailed Japanese film literacy in the development of a thoughtful and convincing exploration of the director and his films. Redmond describes his experience as being “lost in Tokyo in the realm of the senses… and overwhelmed by size, noise, smudged movements and flows, I tremble a little”. A paragraph later he recalls that “my body wavers, my fingers fumble, and my eyes strain to touch those things that it sees – my haptic attempt to ground the floating world in materiality. I am dizzy from the possibilities that open up before me in this liquid state of being-in-the-world” (p.7). Between the lines are recognisable references to Nagisa Oshima, Laura U. Marks, Vivian Sobchack, Martin Heidegger. The multiple mode of address keeps the reader engaged by juxtaposing autobiographical revelations alongside film and cultural theory. Redmond’s argument engages a depth of research that helps to build and inform his investigation of Japanese film culture.

This is a study of a key figure in Japanese screen culture, one that “returns us to the personal and the intimate” (p.12). Redmond writes that he is “led by the sense that being here in Japan will get me closer to the films in spatial, representational and thematic terms. I am excited by the prospect of finding something of the Japan that Kitano has created on the screen” (p.6). The book carefully identifies, maps and explores the interconnected positions of writer, spectator and theorist in relation to the films, to the broader cultural context, to pivotal strands of film theory and to the multiple personas created by the director.

Kikujiro (Takeshi Kitano, 1999)

Kikujiro (Takeshi Kitano, 1999)

One compelling thread that Redmond pursues throughout the book is the concept of the liquid. He writes about the affinity between “the dreary, grey city of a Kitano film, and the cataclysmic becoming one experiences on the city street, in an age of liquid modernity” (p.24). The writing here is informed by Zygmunt Bauman’s perception of the uncertainty of the modern subject flowing through the chaos of late modernity (3). Redmond connects this to his earlier work on ‘liquid celebrity’ to think through Kitano’s various screen personas and media (4). Here, the film history that is mapped through Kitano’s oeuvre is neither chronological, nor evolutionary. Instead, Redmond’s approach is articulated via reverberations across and between films. As he writes,

“Certain themes, stylistic traits, temporal and spatial relationships, and modes of camera-consciousness rise and fall, contract and expand, changing their elemental states like the atoms, liquids and gases that they are really made of. Kitano’s film work ‘heats and ‘cools’ but in patterns and circles or sheets, in a commingling of past, present and future; and in a splitting and conjoining that destroys and reassembles film time, or Kitano time…” (p.17).

This supports Redmond’s investigation of the films via the work of Giles Delezue and his asynchronous temporalities of the movement image. Kitano is seen as creating an “asemiotic cinema that takes his characters (and the viewer) from the realm of representational cliché to a new time image made up of intense sensations” (p.26).

Redmond moves beyond an understanding of Kitano’s cinema, identifying aspects of the director expressed in Beat Takeshi’s comedic performances, in the filmic roles played by Kitano, in his paintings and even in the development of a Kitano Sewing Machine. The discussion is not limited to the classification of Asian cult directors as “figures of Oriental genius and difference” (p.2-3) and the work certainly transcends the impossible perception the filmmaker as the sole auteur and maker of meaning. Throughout the book, Kitano is perceived according to a complex modality that identifies the filmmaker at the intersection of his work on large and small screens. Kitano is considered before and beyond his motorcycle accident as an artist and performer marked by road trauma and his near death experience. Redmond elaborates on the concept of ‘liquid celebrity’ to perceive Kitano as a figure who is critically self-reflexive, offering “multiple nodes of heightened connectivity for emotional security and enrichment” (p.10). Takeshi Kitano’s/Beat Takeshi’s performative stillness and his frenetic kinecticism (sometimes displayed within a single sequence) illustrate the complexity that characterises the filmmaker and his work.

The Kitano Sewing Machine

The Kitano Sewing Machine

The ‘flowering blood’ of the book’s subtitle hints at the level of detail Redmond affords Kitano’s aesthetic. He writes about how the color blue “is the base for all cinematic relations … it is not the signification of blue but the feeling, the sensations it produces when experienced” (p.31). Kitano reveals that some locations in Hana-Bi (1997) were selected for the prominence of the colour blue. Kitano says that whilst he is not exactly sure where Horibe lives, he imagines that the audience will assume that he lives somewhere near the blue roof, a determining factor in his choice of location (p.31). Later, Redmond identifies ‘Kitano red’ as “a violent sensation that runs throughout his film work and which is implicated in the ruination of representation itself” (p.47). The red, of course, signifies the affect of violence, but beyond this, the author sees red in “the incandescent rage that bursts out of the explosive violence his characters unleash upon the world” (p.47). The analysis of the ways that Kitano uses blue and red are entwined and escalated when Redmond writes: “The cold and expansiveness of the blue is contrasted with the heat and thickness of the red, while they are also brought into synaesthesia alignment, the crisp taste of the blue melted by the volatile flavour of the red, stinging, warming the air, the flesh and the tongue with their aggressive mobilisation of the senses” (p.47).  Redmond’s evocative articulation of the intersection of extreme beauty and violence in Kitano’s early gangster films offers an example of how to think through film analysis beyond formal interpretation. It is subjective, engaged writing like this that inspires me to return to review Kitano’s film work.

Hana Bi (Kitano, 1997)

Hana Bi (Kitano, 1997)

Any research on Kitano’s cinema cannot ignore the critiques that point to the representation of femininity as traditional or limited, or as Redmond describes it, “built on normative, heterosexist binaries” (p.58). Redmond identifies feminine stereotypes in Kitano’s cinema including: the absent maternal figure, the ‘good’ mother/wife, the feminine home wrecker, the trophy wife/girlfriend and the hysterical madwoman. He sees these images as bearing “the hallmarks of patriarchal and masculine desires and fears, occupying the knowledgeable, negative position of Other in a power-saturated binary” (p.58). Redmond argues that space is specifically gendered male in films like Sonatine (1993) where women stand by, say little and exist as objects in a space “while the main dynamic of the narrative action happens in and around them” (p.60). Space is filled with the ‘nonchalance’ and ‘swagger’ that asserts the masculine being in the world (p.60-61). However, Redmond also notes that masculinity in Kitano’s films is repeatedly defined by failure (p.62), Whilst exploring the complexity of masculinity, Redmond introduces the possibility of “vertical, ulterior gender alterities in operation” (p.61). The suggestion is that within some of the more liminal ‘liquid spaces’ (like the shore line, or in game playing sequences), the masculine characters are able to “take part in clearly designated performative acts and performance rituals, to such a degree in fact that one can argue they become more like, are in fact, ‘woman’, and are liberated or transformed by the experience” (p.62). Whilst the consideration of the potential for gender to lose definition in fantasy is compelling, it is precisely because it is only in these moments of ‘play’ or doubled performance that this ‘liquid gender’ becomes possible. I hesitate to accept what to others might be a convincing argument – that masculine figures in Kitano’s cinema are given the “opportunity to experience difference” even if there is no turning back from “an overthrowing of the senses” because their (masculine) time is drawing to a close (p.63).

Towards the end of The Cinema of Takeshi Kitano: Flowering Blood we are offered a beautiful intersection between the author and the auteur. Redmond quotes Kitano’s view of life after his near death experience resulting from his motorbike accident. Kitano says, “Every now and then while I’m working in Japan, or here talking to the British journalists asking me about my films … I can’t help shaking this fear of, ‘what if I’m still dreaming?’” (p.100). Standing outside of Office Kitano, Redmond dreams his reality via a Kitano-style, blue and red, violent and beautiful aesthetic. Redmond writes,

“Having been lost in Tokyo, I find myself standing outside Office Kitano in the pouring rain. I feel this moment as a Kitano moment. I see myself in a long, still shot, with the blue-rendered building behind me the centre of the frame … The rain washes my face, the street, the roads, its metric beat borrowed from Zatoichi. I light a cigarette, raise a smile, look sweetly into the space of no space while imagining gun brawls in the most vivid of colours and temperatures. An explosion of flowering blood bursts out of my body, painting the blue door behind me. I am not sure if this is a flashback, a flashforward, something happening this instant, or if I am caught in another character’s subjective awakening. I am in an any-space-whatever, in the intensity of a time image, a body without organs. I walk towards the door, although this is not filmed, the camera having remained on the spot I have just vacated, the pain of the image staining the lens red-blue. I enter Office Kitano. I enter Office Kitano. I dream I enter Office Kitano…. “ (p.102)

The depth of engagement with the films and the director within The Cinema of Takeshi Kitano ensures a complex reading of Kitano’s cinema. This is a book that I recommend to film scholars as an example of how to experiment with film analysis and how to write on film in innovative ways. It is an excellent book for anyone interested in Japanese culture, screen media and theory. More than this, The Cinema of Takeshi Kitano: Flowering Blood  is (like Kitano’s cinema) an evocative and powerful contribution to film culture.

Sean Redmond, The Cinema of Takeshi Kitano: Flowering Blood, (New York: Columbia University Press, 2013).

Endnotes

  1. I’m offering one of my own memories of being lost in Tokyo, hoping that the review might mirror the structure of Redmond’s book. Postscript: We finally visited the restaurant almost ten years later, in our fourth visit to Japan. There we ate the most delicious noodles topped with a range of accoutrements accessed from the drawers of tiny wooden cabinets that are part of the meal. It’s a hot night and we sit on cushions with our feet below the table. Wendy Haslem.
  2. See Casio Abe, Beat Takeshi vs Kitano Takeshi, (New York: Muae Publishing, 2004) and Aaron Gerow, Kitano Takeshi, Word Directors Series, (London: BFI, 2007).
  3. Zygmunt Bauman, Liquid Modernity, (Cambridge: Polity Press, 2000).
  4. Sean Redmond, ‘Avatar Obama in the Age of Liquid Celebrity’, Celebrity Studies, 1, 1, 81-95.

About The Author

Wendy Haslem is a lecturer in Screen Studies at The University of Melbourne. Her research interests include: Japanese film culture, film noir, film theory and the intersections of film history and new media. Over the past two years she has been the book reviews editor at Senses of Cinema.