Takeshi Kitano’s rise to fame in the world of film has been a strange one. He originally found much success in his native Japan as a comedian, working alongside his friend Kiyoshi Kaneko to form a double act known as “The Two Beats” (referring to their stage names, Beat Takeshi and Beat Kiyoshi respectively). This form of duo comedy is known as manzai in Japan. However, when director Kinji Fukasaku dropped out of the comedy film Violent Cop, starring Kitano, Kitano joked that he would direct the film so it didn’t have to be shelved; bearing in mind that he had absolutely no experience in making a film before this, outside of acting. Producer Hisao Nabeshima surprisingly took Kitano’s joke seriously and hired him to direct. Kitano mostly dropped the comedy elements, creating a gritty and violent cop/yakuza film. Thus began his now highly prolific career as a filmmaker, undoubtedly one of the most talented in the world; in which Kitano directs, writes, and edits almost all of his own films, and usually stars too.
What’s also notable is the partnership formed between Kitano and acclaimed Japanese composer, Joe Hisaishi, my favourite composer, mostly due to his work with Kitano. Joe Hisaishi, whose real name is Mamoru Fujisawa, is most well-known for his partnership with Studio Ghibli and Hayao Miyazaki. He has composed the scores for such widely-revered films as My Neighbour Totoro, Princess Mononoke, Spirited Away, and many more. It’s fascinating to hear his work with Kitano, given the stark differences between the films of each respective director. Nonetheless, throughout his 7 film collaboration with Kitano, he brings an ethereal, sentimental quality that only enhances the director’s own talents and body of work. Hisaishi and Kitano make you wish for a time you never experienced, or reflect upon your own journey and experiences on this Earth. Many of the films that I will be discussing here feature Joe Hisaishi’s music, and I’m sure you’ll find his compositions as enchanting here as they are in his Ghibli work.
Whilst Kitano’s name and works are not too well known outside of his native Japan, as well as film circles, his face likely is. Many whose childhoods were spent in the 1990’s to early 2000’s likely enjoyed reruns of the popular Japanese game show Takeshi’s Castle. The show was named after and sometimes presented by Takeshi Kitano, who featured as the daimyō (feudal lord) of the titular castle and whose challenges contestants must brave through in order to face him in the final round. Furthermore, the aforementioned Kinji Fukasaku directed Battle Royale (2000), which seems to be that one Japanese film that even non-film lovers have at least heard of before. The film co-stars Kitano as the lonely, sadistic teacher who signs his former class up for the eponymous deathmatch.
This third episode of ‘Film Browse’ will focus on ten films from Kitano’s directorial filmography and will journey through his tremendous range; from his origins in the brutal yakuza genre to a return to his comedic roots. And to his more sensitive meditations on undying love, the meaning of family, youth, and finding that one thing that makes you truly happy.
These films will be presented in my personal order of preference, and although Kitano has directed eighteen films total, I shall restrict the list to ten of the ones that I have seen.
A more recent offering from Kitano, and a return to his cinematic roots in the brutal world of the yakuza. Outrage plays out like a sort of yakuza The Godfather, complete with double-crossings and backstabs from the various factions at play as they all aim for further power and status within the complex webs of the yakuza hierarchy. The title is almost tongue-in-cheek from Kitano, as the various yakuza factions all find brutal ways to one-up one another; becoming ‘outraged’ at the transgressions, which leads to further transgressions and further outrage. Thus, Kitano highlights the endless cycle of violence and destruction that permeates the Japanese underworld, an underworld that is supposed to be based on traditional codes of honour.
An amusing anecdote regarding this film: when Kitano was giving a speech at the 30th-anniversary celebrations of the crowning of then-Emperor of Japan, Akihito. Kitano recalled a previous meeting in which the Emperor asked him how his filmmaking was going; the Emperor mentioned viewing one of Kitano’s films, but not which one. Fast forward to Kitano’s anniversary speech, and he joked that he had been worrying for 3 years now that the film of his which the Emperor had seen was Outrage; for everyone expects the Emperor and his family to watch “decent” films, and Outrage is one chock full of brutal violence and criminal dealings. This joke prompted a laugh from Akihito, and I can’t help but wonder if Kitano ever learned which film he had seen.
Getting Any? (1995)
Whilst Kitano is highly acclaimed in the film world for his mostly down-to-earth filmography, I previously mentioned that his career began in comedy, and he became a superstar through this avenue. Kitano himself is usually referred to by his stage name Beat Takeshi in Japan, for this is what everyone knows him for; moreso than his films. Kitano’s films are often punctuated by dark humour, but it was perhaps inevitable that Beat would return to his origins in full-force at some point. 1995’s Getting Any? is that film.
Getting Any? follows one man’s quest to get laid, a man named Asao. He’s not the brightest of individuals, and his ridiculous schemes drop him in increasingly bizarre situations. From buying a car to robbing a bank, joining the yakuza, and to taking part in some dodgy science experiments and much more, all in the desperate hope of “getting some”. The film is an almost never-ending reel of comedy gags and slapstick humour, and although it’s far from his best work, it won’t fail to entertain. Expect parodies of everything from cult film series Zatōichi (more on that in just a moment), to Ghostbusters, The Fly, and even Mothra and Kaiju films. Starring the hilarious Dankan who excels in his role as the desperate and dumb Asao and featuring a wonderful guest appearance from Kitano himself, as well as many of Kitano’s regular actors, don’t come into this one expecting a deep meditation on human lust; just sit back and prepare to watch some seriously silly stuff.
The aforementioned Getting Any? contains a strange example of foreshadowing; a sequence in which our main character blags his way into starring in a new film in the much-beloved cult samurai series Zatōichi. How strange then, that 8 years later, Kitano would be hired to direct, co-edit and star in a revival of the very same series. Perhaps this is another case of producers taking Beat Takeshi’s jokes seriously.
Kitano plays the titular character, a blind swordsman who comes to the defence of a small town caught within a local yakuza gang war. Kitano himself has admitted that the film was not his own idea and so he dropped his distinct style to create a more marketable film, suitable for the local multiplex. Despite this, he still crafted one of the better chanbara films of the 2000s. If you happen to be new to samurai cinema, this is likely a good place to start. Having said that, I’d always encourage people to dive into the deep end of the samurai genre with the masterpieces of past legends like Akira Kurosawa, Kihachi Okamoto or Masaki Kobayashi.
Kitano’s sole chanbara film thus far, it’s easily accessible for audiences new and old to the genre. You have the classic hero-saves-weak-from-villains structure, thrilling action, likeable characters, and a healthy dose of humour. You won’t really find the director’s brutality or his prevailing sensitivity, but you will no doubt have a fun time sitting back, perhaps with some popcorn, enjoying this blockbuster.
Violent Cop (1989)
This is where it all started for Beat Takeshi, not where he was starting to be taken seriously, but his beginnings nonetheless. But don’t let that fool you, Kitano’s style, particularly in the yakuza genre, can be seen in its infancy here. What’s more, this is quite a solid debut.
Kitano directs and stars as Detective Azuma, a rather violent cop, as the title suggests. Azuma comes into increasingly dark and escalating conflicts with the local yakuza for various reasons, and he isn’t afraid to break every rule under the sun if it solves his problem.
This is a film full of twists; often with extreme and bloody results. Whilst not a film for the more sensitive of souls, it’s surely worthy of your attention if gangster and cop films are your thing. However, it’s mostly lacking in what Kitano would later come to excel in: the stripping down of film into only what is necessary, with no room for excess. It is clear to see that Kitano was still finding his feet as a director; as this is a more orthodox, brutal thriller. Nonetheless, Kitano’s trademark dark humour is on display from the off, including a hilarious scene in which Azuma repeatedly slaps a drug dealer for information in the bathroom of a nightclub. To this day, I still haven’t seen someone repeatedly slap another person with such speed and ferocity.
Kids Return (1996)
Kids Return is an important one in retrospect because it was made shortly after Kitano suffered a motorcycle crash which prompted rumours he might never work again. This coming-of-age film is about two dropouts as they search for direction and meaning in life. One becomes a boxer, the other joins the yakuza.
Perhaps influenced by his aforementioned crash, Kitano seems to use this film as a space to reflect. We’ve all been there, some of us still are, having no clue what to do with our lives. We try new things and hope they stick. We learn, we grow; some things work, some things don’t. The film even features the boys attempting manzai comedy, the very thing that made Beat Takeshi famous in the first place. Perhaps that crash really did give Kitano the perspective to consider his own life from a new, more mature angle.
I feel that this is a film we can all relate to, it’s about the confusion of youth; feeling lost and insignificant within a world much larger than ourselves. Ultimately, however, Kitano reminds us that no matter what point we are at, whether we have found our direction or are still searching for it, it will be alright in the end.
Now this is where people started to take note, not of Beat Takeshi the comedian, but of Takeshi Kitano the director, writer, editor and actor. Sonatine, alongside Hana-bi, is one of his most famous films. It follows the yakuza Murakawa (played by Kitano) as he and some of his men are sent to Okinawa to resolve a violent dispute between two warring yakuza factions.
Whilst the film has its share of bloody violence, the director’s great skill in using violence in highly effective short flashes of brutality, rather than excessive freedom, comes to the fore. Much of Sonatine is instead spent following the yakuza as they attempt to pass time in Okinawa, throwing pretend sumo matches on the beach and just generally messing around. Kitano deftly deconstructs the yakuza genre, choosing instead to come at it from an existential angle. Murakawa seems to feel weary of the life he leads, he wonders what the point of it all even is. This is not a gangster film concerned with the achievement and inherent corruption of power and violence, but rather, a question asking why we are even attracted to such lifestyles in the first place.
Sonatine features many of Kitano’s regular actors, most notably Susumu Terajima and the late Ren Osugi, whom you will find in many of the films being discussed here.
One of the first films I saw from the director, Kikujiro stars Kitano in the titular role, a yakuza past his prime who becomes the unlikely companion to a young boy named Masao, as they travel across Japan to reunite the lad with his mother, whom he never met. There is little in the way of darkness here, instead the film portrays a heartwarming and whimsical road-trip of personal growth and relationships, not only between Masao and Kikujiro, but also the lively cast of characters they meet on their way.
Kikujiro explores the bonds of family, not only of those we’re blood-related to, but also of those whom we choose. As Kikujiro has clearly declined in his macho yakuza character, he grows as a pseudo-parent and guardian; learning the importance of childhood innocence and the necessity of protecting it.
The film has a magical quality (helped by Hisaishi’s score), and if we were to change the setting to something more fantastical, we might easily call the story a fairy tale. Expect to laugh along the duo’s wonderful journey, and perhaps, to cry too.
The director’s most artistic film to date, and no doubt his most visually beautiful. Dolls is so-called after a Japanese form of puppet theatre known as bunraku, a performance of which opens and closes the film.
Using this puppeteering motif, Kitano weaves three tales of undying love. Dolls is patient, dramatic, and highly stylised much like the aforementioned bunraku itself. The vibrant seasons of Japan, something so integral to Japanese culture, changes to reflect the journeys of our on-screen lovers and lost souls.
Our characters move from one stage of their lives to the next, almost as though an invisible hand is holding their strings, weaving their tales in a way that they don’t realise is not in their control. A typical western mindset might find this thought existentially dreadful, but I don’t feel that this is what Kitano intends. Rather, the course of our lives is neither benevolent nor malevolent; it simply is, and it is nothing to fear.
Kitano’s most famed film also happens to be one of his very best. The story of Detective Nishi (played by Kitano), a quiet but violent cop who resolves to rob a bank so that he can afford to quit his job and spend more time with his dying wife; as well as to support the painting hobby of his paralyzed ex-partner on the force; the only thing that now brings him any solace.
In the hands of another director, this could easily have been another by-the-numbers heist thriller, but Kitano rejects that; using harsh violence only in flashes; and instead devoting much thought to the transience of life. Perhaps one of the most tightly edited films I’ve ever seen, not a single shot feels unnecessary or out of place. Nishi takes his wife on one last holiday through Japan, doing all he can to make her laugh and be joyful; all whilst pursued by yakuza who wish to extort him; and a former colleague who has to arrest him. During one sequence, Nishi’s ex-police partner ponders upon the blooming cherry blossoms, a flower that is breathtaking in its beauty, yet only blooms for 2 weeks. Likewise, Kitano ponders upon the profound beauty, yet fragility, of life itself.
A Scene at the Sea (1991)
In my opinion, the most criminally underrated of Kitano’s filmography, A Scene at the Sea follows a young deaf man, Shigeru, who discovers a surfboard during his shift as a garbage collector and begins to dream of surfing on the sea. The boy is taught by an ex-surfing legend and lovingly supported by a girl(friend?), Takako, who is also completely deaf.
A Scene at the Sea is the first of the Kitano/Hisaishi collaboration, and the most subtle of all Beat Takeshi’s work. The film is not only about finding that one thing that makes you truly happy, but also a tale of love between two kindred souls, romantic or otherwise.
The film is unsurprisingly light on dialogue. And despite our main characters’ deafness, very little sign language is used too. Emotion is instead conveyed through perhaps the purest means; the glint of the eyes, a tear rolling down the cheek, a knowing smile.
Kitano flourishes with the quiet grace of Ozu, as he achieves so much feeling with so little plot, and those feelings are difficult to put into words. Whilst their styles differ greatly, fans of that particular master auteur of cinema will no doubt notice that the film takes place in Atami, the same place that the grandparents of Ozu’s 1953 masterpiece Tokyo Story visit for a spa retreat. The sea wall that the elderly couple sits upon in one of Story’s most famous shots makes an appearance in Kitano’s film repeatedly; a clear nod to the great director, whose own body of work most likely inspired this one.
The film almost feels like a beautiful memory, accentuated by Hisaishi’s nostalgic score. Time passes and relationships come and go, much like the waves of the ocean.