Rediscovering Kitano

Back, long, long ago, in a time before streaming, in an age when Covid wasn’t a word any of us knew, I became a fan of Beat Takeshi a.k.a. Takeshi Kitano. As someone into crime films, it was hard not to.

This was the 90s and I was in film school. Hong Kong had already lost John Woo to his misguided attempt to make Hollywood films. Scorsese’s CASINO was wrongly being mocked for being GOODFELLAS light. And FORREST GUMP was a box office smash. FORREST GUMP!!!

Yet, while all this was going on, Beat Takeshi was on a mind-bending roll. In a very short amount of time he cranked out the films VIOLENT COP, BOILING POINT, SONATINE and HANA-BI. Not bad for anyone. Even more impressive for a guy who had just started directing.

Takeshi had been an actor forever. Since 1969, to be exact. But it was when he was cast in VIOLENT COP in 1989, that things took a major turn for him. The movie was to star Takeshi but be directed by Kinji Fukasaku. Fukasaku was known for helming many of the BATTLES WITHOUT HONOR AND HUMANITY yakuza films. At the last minute, Fukasaku had to drop out and leave the project. Takeshi took the reins.

Compared to some of the other changes in Beat Takeshi’s life, this was incredibly logical and normal. Let me backtrack a second. If any of you have seen a typical Beat Takeshi/Kitano film, he’s usually in them. And he’s a super-scary guy. You have no doubt that this very quiet man would easily kill you, your family, your cat and your cat’s family if he felt he was honor bound to do so.

What’s so strange about that, is that for decades Takeshi wasn’t known by anyone as a scary sort of guy in the least. In fact, he had made his name as one of Japanese most famous comedians.

Before the 1970s, Beat Takeshi actually used his real name, Takeshi Kitano. Then he joined with his friend Niro Kineko to form a comedy duo which called themselves THE BEATS. In honor, they became, respectively, Beat Kineko and Beat Takeshi. Hence, the name confusion ever since.

The duo was highly successful and by the end of the decade, THE BEATS were huge and Kitano, I mean Beat Takeshi, was considered one of Japan’s leading comic talents. Compared to the transition from comedy star to one of the world’s most frightening men, directing VIOLENT COP must have seemed like nothing. And the result speaks for itself.

The film’s slow-burn intensity is incredible. Although violent and a little like DIRTY HARRY on the surface, it’s not an action film. In fact, its most similar American counterpart might be Abel Ferrara’s THE BAD LIEUTENANT which came out four years later. Dark. Grim. Totally worth watching.

Just one year later, Takeshi followed up VIOLENT COP with one of my personal favorites, BOILING POINT. It’s equally as unsettling. Takeshi’s character is not the star of the film. The star is an awkward young guy who goes from being the loser on the baseball team to naively getting involved with the Okinawa yakuza. He ends up committing an act of violence that, in the context of the film, is both truly shocking, yet almost predestined. A trait which would be found in many of Kitano’s best films.

BOILING POINT is all Kitano. He stared in it, directed it, wrote it and had a huge say in the editing. The days of playing the funny man were already far behind him. He had become a true auteur putting his stamp on every aspect of his films.

Takeshi, I mean Kitano, followed this up with A SCENE AT THE SEA. It’s far too romantic a film for me but it has its followers and won Kitano the Tokyo Film Journalist’s award for Best Film.

Then, in 1993, Kitano made SONATINE. It’s a fantastic film. Violent as hell. Body count beyond belief. But, more important than any of that, it has a main character that is mesmerizing. The character’s name is Murakawa. He is a very, very, efficient enforcer for the Tokyo yakuza. And it seems to be eating him up alive. Something which is shown with gut-wrenching clarity in the final, tragic scene.

Kitano would keep going. He managed to put out a new film every year or two for the better part of the decade. Among them is 1997’s exceptional HANNA-BI/FIREWORKS. It’s about a man who borrows money from the yakuza to pay for his wife’s cancer treatments and has trouble finding ways to pay it back. It won the Golden Lion for Best Film at the Venice Film Festival.

During the 2000s, Kitano kept working with the same amount of productivity. He kept acting in both film and TV projects including a memorable role in teen-violence epic, BATTLE ROYALE. But things started to go just a little off.

BROTHERS kicked off the new decade. It was a project designed to be commercially viable in the in the US market featuring Omar Epps as its costar. The result is a fun but completely forgettable movie. A far cry from the subtlety and depth of Kitano’s earlier works.

Two years later, Kitano made the very stylized and weird DOLLS. He didn’t star in it and it had nothing to do with crime. Some critics loved it but audiences generally hated it. Especially audiences that liked BROTHERS. It’s just a theory, but my guess is that the experience of BROTHERS is exactly what drove Kitano to make it.

In 2003 there was Kitano’s take on the Samurai classic ZATOICHI. It was financially successful and won Kitano the Silver Lion for Best Director at the Venice Film Festival. It still has its fans for sure but, for the most part, has also been forgotten.

And so the decade kept going. More films. Some of them not too bad. Some winning big awards and the raves of critics. But, at least in my opinion, these films never regained the emotional power and intensity of his earlier ones.

The closest he came may have been OUTRAGE, released in 2010. This is the first of three yakuza movies in a trilogy consisting of OUTRAGE, BEYOND OUTRAGE and OUTRAGE CODA. They stared Kitano as an aging yakuza member struggling to survive the turmoil of life in a crime family. As usual, he wrote, directed and edited all three.

The plotting of the three OUTRAGE movies is all very top-level Machiavellian stuff about pitting members of criminal organizations against one another. In some ways, the films are very similar to the BATTLES WITHOUT HUMANITY films of the man Kitano replaced as director on VIOLENT COP. They are worth watching to be sure. But they are still not truly great. At least not great in the way some of Kitano’s earlier works had been.

If you want great, go all the way back to those early ones. Go back to VIOLENT COP, BOILING POINT, SONATINE and HANNA-BI. The violence can be unsettling. But the characters are what really make them so unique. As you watch the death of a violent yakuza, you might even find yourself tearing up. That’s the power of early Kitano.

Now, if only I could convince Kitano to do a remake of FORREST GUMP where Forrest learns that life isn’t about a box of chocolates but a bullet to his stupid, little, annoying head. Now, that would really be something.