Takeshi Kitano Collection Review
In recent years, Takeshi Kitano has made films which have got lost in self reference and failed to expand on the best of his previous work's virtues. His ability for simple, formal and elegiac film-making has been replaced by one gigantic mickey take of himself. In some ways this is not surprising because Kitano has always been a kidder, and a rebel. Once the film-maker got praise for the sad beauty of films like A Scene At The Sea and Boiling Point, he chose to make a slapstick stupid movie like Getting Any, and since the praise for Hana-bi, Kikujiro and Dolls, he has further contradicted his audience with Takeshis and Glory To The Film-maker.
It's almost like his own sincerity and vulnerability, so obvious in his early films and his best films, has embarrassed him. The aching sentiment of his best work and the pessimism of his early films possibly say more about Kitano than he ever wanted to be known, and now he is trying to say that everything is a joke to cover up the emotional trail he has left behind him. As accomplished as both of his last two films are, they are not as moving or provocative as his earlier work. That work finds itself collected in this six disc set, the first six Kitano movies, released by Second Sight. Seeing them again made me realise what Kitano has denied his audience in recent years and I humbly hope that this phase of his career ends soon with a return to the contemplative studies of existence and belonging that he used to hide in a gangster movie.
Clearly strongly influenced by the bare and simple methods of Ozu, Kitano's early movies share much thematically with that director's work as well. Both directors are concerned with growing up, rebellion, and life's disappointments. In the latter regard Kitano's view of existence is a less sanguine one and far darker, Kitano seems to believe that principled men don't prosper and that youthful talent is squashed by the world. Visually both share an uncluttered aesthetic and a simple use of tableaux to create a scene with Kitano less interested in words but consumed by gestures and actions in his work.
This collection confirms that he made five excellent early films with two, A Scene At The Sea and Sonatine, being truly special for their daring of ideas and execution. One film proves the director's unpredictable nature, and the final entry in the set, Kids Return, shows the film-maker adopting a more optimistic outlook for his future work. I have considered the individual films in detail on the following pages of this review.
Transfers and sound
The six films are presented anamorphically, three(Violent Cop, Boiling Point and Sonatine) at 1.78:1 and the remaining three at 1.85:1 which is close to the original aspect ratios in every case. As Dave mentioned in his news item, three of the films have been given standards conversions and sadly it is probably the three that genre fans have most interest in - Violent Cop, Boiling Point and Sonatine. These three have been available on R2 before with underwhelming non-anamorphic transfers so the bar isn't particularly high here, but these are again a disappointment with the dullness and lack of vibrancy associated with conversions very obvious. Below you will find a screenshot comparing the previous MIA release of Sonatine with this new release.
First the old non-anamorphic MIA disc:
And now the new Second Sight transfer:
Well I think the comparison is very clear that the new transfer is substantially better in terms of colours, contrast and edges. This comparison probably applies to the other MIA discs of Violent Cop and Boiling Point as well but I don't have those discs to compare with. I would characterise these three transfers in the new set as good despite the standards issue, edges are still a slight concern and contrast is not as reliable as you would like but these images are very sharp and genuinely pleasing. All three transfers have some combing, compression artefacts and aliasing to report. Violent Cop has a "visual glitch" which Second Sight say will not be present in the retail version
With respect to the other three films, the best transfer, ironically, is for Getting Any. I have only seen reviews of the previous Artsmagic disc but that seemed to suffer from discolouration and a less than clean look, here the disc is sharp, detailed and with very good black levels. Kids Return is the weakest transfer with pale skin tones, bleeding reds and looking much too dark. Finally, A Scene At The Sea is again too dark with a little bit of aliasing but colours are stronger than the R1 disc(see below).
First the R1 disc:
And now the new transfer:
In terms of sound, the split is again between the genre films and the rest of the collection with 5.1 mixes given to the gangster flicks and sole stereo tracks for the other films. The 5.1 mixes are all very good if you want some coverage or a bit more reverb with your gunfire, but these films were not shot with that in mind and given Kitano's unfailingly front-on approach to film I thought they were quite redundant. Comparing the stereo tracks with the 5.1 mixes, they do bring the bass out more in the soundtracks and in the case of Sonatine they help to emphasise Hisaishi's terrific score, but in terms of 3-D sound I was less convinced at the directional and spatial effects.
In terms of clarity, both Sonatine and Kids Return are subject to distortion. The latter track all but ruins the score and dialogue carries plenty of hiss with it as well. The bass on the Sonatine track is quite muddy, but overall the stereo tracks on most of the discs are quite strong and the English subs, which are optional, translate effectively and sensibly, although the radio is not translated during Violent Cop which is a pity.
Special FeaturesThe extra features on this set are two commentaries from Chris D and the inclusion of a 68 minute documentary on Kitano on the Violent Cop disc. The documentary seems to come from the French series Cineastes de Notre Temps, and part of the reason for its duration is the necessity to translate from French to Japanese for all the questions put to Kitano. The conversation is wide ranging and even enters the world of politics and Kitano's famous accident which he seems to believe was suicidal. He puts his rebelliousness down to his relationship with his mother and talks about Yukio Mishima's death in the context of his own political writings. The camera follows him to make his TV programs and even into his own house at the end. It is the most interesting of Kitano documentaries that I have seen with the director open and self reflective rather than closed and mocking.
Chris D's commentaries do well to place the gangster films in their genre and his role is really to fill in and familiarise the new viewer with a lot of Yakuza movie convention and Kitano's background. He rarely attempts to read the films apart from the interesting statement that Kitano's film started to be more transcendent and optimistic since his accident. Chris D talks well and genre fans will add to their knowledge, even if those more familiar with Kitano want more about the themes behind the films.
There are no trailers and all the menus are very simple static affairs with plain options.
Six of Kitano's films for a little more than £6 each with improved transfers compared to previous R2 and R1 releases. If you look real hard you may find the 13 disc Korean set which has English subs and all his films up to Zatoichi for £50 or so, but this Second Sight Set is no bad substitute for that if you want to pick the films up more easily.
Read more about the films on the next pages
Kitano's début as a film-maker left him with an image that his later career has been spent disavowing. The anti-heroic Azuma gave him an opportunity to be seen far away from his more recognisable comic persona, but started a stereotyping of the actor and director as the man who makes violent and Zen-like crime films. Truth be told, Kitano has succeeded in too many walks of life to ever be considered limited to one, and as a confirmed maverick he has never settled for being limited by other's perceptions.
Unlike his later films, Violent Cop was a pre-existing project that Kitano may have rejigged or placed in a wider oeuvre than had been the original intention. Consequently, the film is far easier to compare to a lot of Yakuza genre cinema than his later self penned, edited and produced films would eventually prove. Kitano plays a rebellious cop who finds himself caught in a battle to the death with a similarly rebellious gangster. His situation is further complicated by having a sister with a learning disability who becomes the bait for his opponent's trap.
In Kitano's hands, the character he plays is a chancer and unconventional. He rubs his bosses up the wrong way but he eventually upholds law and justice. Kitano the director makes the generic stand-off story reach for more than a straight action treatment. The two protagonists are compared as doppelgängers, Azuma endlessly trudges from place to place both literally and metaphorically, and the young cops who ask for guidance end up learning to play the corrupt game that Azuma never has. The material is lifted to humanist and poetic levels because Kitano revels in the simplicity of each shot, sequence, and composition. He allows what sounds like genre cliché to become poignant, and the story of cop versus crook to become a fable of two rebels. There is a freshness to his work that means we get a crime flick, but also a deeper tale of corruption and consequence.
Where this genre is often convoluted in plot, frantic in pace, and cluttered in terms of the use of the frame, Kitano does the opposite. Simple, far from elaborate shooting, plenty of time to breathe and think and amazing pared down images. Rather than lose himself in the intrigue, Kitano tells a tale of two rebels in a corrupt and seedy world.
Violent Cop does not have the level of authorial control that the director would later use in his films, but it still stands as one of the better directorial debuts. As genre film it delivers stylised violence and an involving struggle between two unconventional opponents, in addition it offers the beginning of Kitano's anatomy of a world of corrupt compromises, thwarted youth and beaten down rebels.
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His second job as a director would rely less on his recognition as an actor and more on his interests as a film-maker. Kitano's role in Boiling Point is little more than an extended cameo that plays on the hardman persona, but the film itself swims in much more interesting waters. Looking back it is easy to see this film as the creative turning point in his career that would eventually lead to more contemplative projects such as A Scene At The Sea and Hana-bi.
After his dark début, Boiling Point would build on the fatalism but expand greatly on the comic use of cutting that allows the director to milk conflict for comedy. Throughout this film, situations are about to come to a head, someone says the wrong thing to the wrong person, the shot ends and it is succeeded with a shot of a fall guy with a bloody nose. This economy and simplistic juxtaposition of cause and effect is the very quality that the director has strove for throughout his career.
The story is that a waster kid who is becoming a man finds himself in the middle of a Yakuza dispute. Things escalate and the ensuing turf war takes victims prompting a trip to Okinawa to buy a gun to settle the matter.
The film is a simple three act structure with our waster growing up in Tokyo in the first part, going to Okinawa in the second part, and returning to settle the dispute in the capital at the end. Kitano's cameo appears in the second part as an example of rebellion which is initially glorious but ultimately fatal, and our young man finds himself discouraged by the example and then ashamed of his own fear. The film finishes with a literally pyrrhic act of rebellion, only to suggest that perhaps it hasn't as time loops back on itself.
Rebellion and destruction of the self figure prominently in the director's work, and here they are properly explored for the first time. The setting for these acts is nearly always male dominated - the police force in Violent Cop, the Yakuza in Sonatine and even the gyms of the amateur boxing in Kids Return. The director will use these settings to look at honour and individuality and Boiling Point is his first mature approach to themes that he would later examine with a seriousness and art that normally this kind of film would not merit.
Boiling Point is an unhappy and misanthropic movie which never seems like it could end well despite its accomplishments and extreme competence. It manages its ideas well and leaves an ambiguity in its conclusion that suggests that all we have seen may be the dream of a bored young man stuck in a toilet. This is of course partly comic, but dream or not what we have seen is a miserable state of affairs that would echo in following works.
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A Scene At The Sea
After relegating himself to a cameo in his previous film, Kitano excused himself completely from acting in his next one. Gone also was crime as a backdrop, and what little dialogue that existed in his first two films was further minimised here. Once again the central character is an outsider who rather than gain the status through his acts of rebellion is simply born different - a deaf mute.
Our outsider has a similarly challenged girlfriend and this allows the director to abandon words and embrace their perspective visually as the dominant style of the film. Music dominates and the dialogu of the non-mute world is frequently stupid and pointless. Constant reference is made to the ordinary world's lack of care for these two outsiders from sound. They are bullied, ignored and laughed at, and they merely shake this treatment off through being both oblivious to it, and persevering in spite of it.
The young man dreams of the sea and eventually of riding its waves. At first he salvages and repairs a surfboard and learns to surf in a T-shirt and shorts. When the board kaputs he saves for a new one, and he inherits a wetsuit from an admiring shop manager. His talent grows and he is entered into his first competition only to not be told of his call to complete, but in his second contest he competes creditably.
His commitment to his new hobby is single minded, and his effort wins the cool kids on the beach over. He does, though, lose sight of his work and a senior worker has to plead for him to keep his job. The film finishes in a surprisingly quick montage which shows that this determined, hard-working man is very replaceable everywhere other than in his girl's heart. The conclusion retains a wonderful ambiguity that considers the girlfriend and leaves her fate unclear.
This closing leaves the movie with a certain fragile beauty and, again, a very pessimistic quality. With Boiling Point and A Scene At The Sea, it's as if Kitano suggests that all human endeavour is inevitably shamed because it must end. Here that is a case of being beaten down by the natural world, and in the previous film that involved destruction because of the desire to be a honorable and free man. This sadness attains a quality that pleads pity for fragile humanity and Kitano shows that he has exceeded his comic roots to become a serious artist because of it.
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SonatineThe maturation of an art house film-maker may have been the effect of the two previous Kitano projects, but Sonatine attempts to be a hybrid of the gangster genre that made his name as an actor and of the sensitivities which had come to the fore in his work. The film is split into a three parts that recognise this blend; the opening as Yakuza story, the middle part is a near surreal regression into childhood, and the final part is the, by now, expected rebellion and glorious oblivion of a man with spirit.
Kitano leads the acting as Murakawa, a Yakuza lieutenant who realises that he is becoming a patsy in a gang war in Okinawa. The opening shows him being sent on this fool's errand from his Tokyo stronghold and starting to lose men and faith. Soon he is hiding by the sea after a bloody shoot-out and the blissful second act follows the juvenile games, the camaraderie and escapism of his gang. Finally the real world must be faced and Murakawa plans fireworks of his own.
This is a film of great darkness and surreal light. Sonatine explicitly considers self-destruction with Murakwa's own dreams of blowing his brains out with a gun and a finale which is all about fatal affirmation. Love, affection and loyalty are fleeting, and despite the period of reverie and games the end is inevitable.
The escapist middle segment is notable for how it seems to reflect a return to childhood and an idealised state. Murakawa's practical jokes replace his orders to his men, his men take part in traditional dances, and the games by the sea almost cause the men to forget the fight for their own survival. they are in fact rudely awakened and the peace of the idyll is shattered and made surreal by the violence that enters it. The dream of escape is cut short and the nihilism and doomed nobility of the finale succeeds it.
Sonatine is a superb attempt to move Kitano's established audience into his more explicitly artistic territory. It succeeds greatly to work as arthouse meditation and Yakuza thriller. Some of the former area's stylistic touches are superbly integrated, such as the equation of gunfire and fireworks, but just occasionally the size of the ideas is too large for the director's work. An example would be the sumo on the beach sequence which is a magnificent conceit but is let down by the visual execution, lending itself to parody rather too much.
In total though Sonatine is magnificent, a work that Kitano would have to work hard to surpass.
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After watching the dark conclusions of the first four of Kitano's films, it is perhaps easy to see why Getting Any was his next project. Perhaps he needed a laugh or perhaps after securing his arthouse credentials Kitano the kidder re-surfaces in a film that is really a series of gags presented as a stream of consciousness.
The idea that kicks things off is motivated by the horniness of a feckless idiot determined to get some sex. The journey of thoughts continues with the pulling power of cars and travels various roads of erotic failure as our "hero" attempts to add to his desirability. He tries to become rich to buy the right car and fails at robbing a bank, he tries to become an actor and he even becomes a Yakuza hitman. Each novel thought results in failure and the end point is rather predictably the biggest turd in history.
What had proved successful in his earlier work had been an almost cartoon strip approach to story and composition. Kitano's method means that his films deliver punchlines all the time often without the need for the punch. This mixture of simplicity and sophistication is wholly absent from Getting Any which simply follows lame gags down innumerable blind alleys and comedic dead ends. With so many punchlines and broken thoughts it feels rather like the movie is struggling to finish and simply repeating the same failure again and again.
The craven approach to making people laugh means no pretext is too false, no notion too flawed and no build up too convoluted in the search for a pay-off. Where earlier films worked by finding the economy crucial to the comedy, here jokes are laboured and flabby. What the director may have thought he was doing is signalled by his late cameo as a mad scientist with a Three Stooges haircut and perhaps as a series of pratfalls and base slapstick Getting Any has some value.
Or perhaps not, as the nihilism of Sonatine gives way to humour which is about poop, sex and violence delivered with an underlying misanthropy. This mean spiritedness and the stupid ethics seem to negate some of his more insightful earlier work and this film, this intended light relief, strikes me as a very unhappy comedy.
Some jokes work - the Zatoichi sequence is good fun and the sequence with the idiot Yakuzas occasionally raise a smile. The overall project feels too loose, like a collection of sketches and like the director was following incoherent notions rather than a proper plan. Kitano would favour this looseness again in his two most recent flicks, but there he would be much more in control and keen to project a governing intelligence to his flights of fancy. Here though, he doesn't.
Ironically for a slapstick movie, Getting Any falls flat on it's face.
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Thankfully, this collection concludes with a much better movie. Kids Return is a purely directorial effort which echoes the concerns of A Scene At The Sea and Boiling Point but does not quite end as badly as either. Kitano concentrates on the paths in life of two failing students whose dull soulless education spurs them on in other directions. Pranks and hi-jinx lead the two into bullying other pupils and conflict with their teachers, and when they find themselves bullied and excluded they set off to make themselves stronger.
Both young men try boxing but only one truly has the aptitude for it and his friend disappears from the gym and his life when he recognises this. The failed boxer is soon becoming a junior gangster, and his friend eventually falls prey to the cynicism of an old lag at the gym who teaches him the bad habits that lead to wasting his talent. The junior Yakuza climbs the greasy pole in the world of crime but he finds himself thrown out of the gang when his loyalty to his murdered boss becomes a threat to new leaders.
Intriguingly, Kids Return resolves itself by revisiting the playground of the boy's youth. Both friends are re-united in failure, but unlike the tone of his first films Kitano allows the youths to live with only a strong sense of spiritual discouragement. The big bad world has screwed the ebullience of youth and rebellion has been put down and punished, but rather than adopt a fatalist tone Kitano chooses celebration of the rekindled friendship and their outsider spirit.
This means that the final film in the collection is a less miserable beast than those that preceded it, and perhaps this is a nostalgic change of heart as the director sees their youthful rebellion as not entirely wasted or defeated. Hana-bi would follow this change of tone and more optimistic outcomes became possible out of the dire circumstances of Kitano's dramas.
I would also argue that the director would achieve the best work of his career by being less keen to anatomise destruction, but by becoming more interested in the spirit of survival and hard fought affirmation. Kids Return allowed Kitano to turn this spiritual corner and as such an important stage in Kitano's work it is possibly the most important, if not the best, film in his career.