A new BFI collection featuring three films by the idiosyncratic and eccentrically charming ‘Beat’ Kitano
If you aren’t from Japan, it’s rather hard to comprehend the breadth of the impact that Takeshi ‘Beat’ Kitano has had on their entire cultural industry. A comedian, TV presenter, actor, painter, and even one-time video game designer, this is a man who somehow seems to be the jack of all trades (and master of all) in his home country. But outside of his native Japan, he is primarily known for his small roles in internationally popular movies like the gleefully violent Battle Royale, as well as his successful career as an actor-director. From what I’ve already stated, you might assume that Kitano takes a universally appealing approach to filmmaking, leaning into his comedic persona or perhaps into a kind of variety show appeal. But Kitano isn’t one for the conventional, and his static, idiosyncratic style is definitely an acquired taste.
This new collection courtesy of the BFI contains High Definition transfers of three films from early in Kitano’s career, the first (and his directorial debut) being the outrightly named Violent Cop (1989). The film follows Kitano as rogue policeman Azuma, beating up everyone in sight for his own gain. The actual details of the plot feel largely unimportant – in any other cop film, the motivations are usually tied to justice, whereas here the story seems to operate based on what Kitano’s character feels like at that given moment. In fact, the construction of the narrative feels particularly relevant to right now – the concept of police enacting violence upon whomever they feel like hurting is certainly true to life.
Here, Kitano establishes a mainstay of his style: juxtaposing moments of lucidity with scenes of extreme, gratuitous violence. This is aided by his use of long takes with a static camera, where sparsely populated surroundings are afforded the stillness of a painting even when something horrific is happening within the frame. The most disturbing example incorporates a macabre use of montage: Kitano cuts back and forth between his own character hitting balls in a batting cage, while a young woman is drugged and raped. The dissonance between the act itself and Azuma’s lack of conviction in stopping it is unsettling, though the fact that rape seems to appear frequently (and often unnecessarily) in Kitano’s works does come off more as shocking window dressing for the rest of the plot.
The second of the collection, and my favourite, is Boiling Point (1990), a film in which Kitano only appears in a supporting role. Instead, the plot centres around Masaki (Yurei Yanagi), the most incompetent player of an even worse baseball team who has very little sense of direction or purpose in his life (not that he seems to care). After a run in with the Yakuza, he makes his way to Okinawa to purchase a gun, falling in with Kitano’s psychopathic Uehara in the process. Honestly though, as wonderful as Kitano is in this role, his pointless nastiness creates some strange absurdist humour, the first half is preferable. Using a similar aesthetic to Violent Cop, he establishes the mundanity of Masaki’s life in a manner reminiscent of a Wes Anderson movie, who may owe something to Kitano’s use of awkward interactions and comedic scenes with characters running stiffly from the foreground to the background.
It is in this film where Kitano most successfully turns the Yakuza film sub-genre on its head, switching out their impenetrable cool for the duller moments between shootouts, a choice that makes sense with the knowledge that Kitano himself actually grew up surrounded by Yakuza. Masaki, for instance, never undergoes any kind of cool Yakuza makeover or Godfather-esque rise to the top, remaining as passive and quiet as he is at the beginning of the film. You see characters moodily eating ice cream together more often than you actually see them undertaking what you might consider gang activity. In fact, while Uehara does inject some excitement into the plot, his violent behaviour is almost comically petty. My favourite moment in the film involved him leaving another gang member behind in the middle of the road for seemingly no reason – hardly the slick actions of a master criminal.
The final film of the collection is Sonatine (1993), and although it was still made at an early point in Kitano’s filmography, it feels almost like a swan song. Once again playing a mid-level Yakuza member, Kitano’s protagonist Murakawa travels to Okinawa (these films are easy to confuse) to mediate a gang dispute. But once again, most of the runtime doesn’t feel like it’s spent working towards any kind of goal, and Kitano here seems more concerned with the corrupted psychology of his hardened lead character. This mostly takes the form of investigating the character’s very evident death drive, which when coupled with his complete indifference towards the people he murders creates an extremely nihilistic tone, even with some of the lighter moments on the Okinawa beach. Sonatine is also the film that received the most international praise of the three initially, reflecting it’s sense of focus and introspection compared to a film like Violent Cop that’s definitely rougher around the edges.
Included in the set are a variety of extras that would appeal to both long time fans of Kitano and those who have only just discovered the multi-talented man. Audio commentaries provided by Japanese cinema expert Chris D (Violent Cop and Sonatine), and David Jenkins (newly recorded to accompany Boiling Point) lend a fair amount of rewatch value. Interviews with producer Masayuki Mori and actor Yurei Yanagi provide an interesting new perspective of the film in Okinawa Days: Kitano’s Second Debut (2016, 20mins), and the short documentary That Man is Dangerous: The Birth of Takeshi Kitano (2016, 20mins) is an excellent introduction to Kitano’s life and work if you’re unfamiliar. Trailers and a 44-page book (unavailable for review) with new writing on the films and their director from Tom Mes, Jasper Sharp, Mark Schilling and James Masaki-Ryan round out the extras.
There are a few issues with Kitano’s films: the confusing plots, the over-reliance on sexual violence, and the fact that these films are so similar that the flaws they have are essentially identical. But they still possess an eccentric charm and self-awareness that saves them from dour misery, and the moments where the actor-director’s famous sense of humour shines through are the most memorable. All in all, this set will be loved by those already fans of Kitano, it may leave others a little bewildered if they have no prior knowledge of ‘Beat’ Kitano.
The Takeshi Kitano Collection (3-Disc Blu-ray) is released on 29th June
It’s the end, but the moment has been prepared for…
Continue the conversation over on The Digital Fix Forum