The man is violent: Takeshi Kitano’s reinvention on screen

As Takeshi Kitano’s yakuza trilogy arrives on Blu-ray, Kaori Shoji probes the appeal of Kitano’s brutish film persona, a startling left turn from the comedy that made him a Japanese TV superstar.

10 July 2020

By Kaori Shoji

Sonatine (1993)

At home, audiences love Kitano’s particular brand of humour – brutal, intelligent and going for the jugular at every opportunity. His entire persona is a tribute to pre-Second World War Japan, when toxic masculinity was the highest virtue and women were expected to serve and pleasure men, often at the same time. Takeshi Kitano is a man with many hats: filmmaker, author, actor, painter, university lecturer – and yet his most ardent Japanese fans tend to focus on Kitano’s identity as TV comedian ‘Beat Takeshi’.

Never mind the many accolades showered upon him in international film festivals over his 30-year filmmaking career. Or that none other than Quentin Tarantino was so taken with Kitano’s 1993 masterpiece Sonatine that he engineered its distribution in North America. The Japanese are often never quite comfortable with compatriots who make it overseas, and many of Kitano’s fans would still much prefer to see him on TV, in the comfort of their homes, taking in his signature style of averted gaze and deadpan face, as he spews impeccably timed zingers at himself and the rest of the world.

Sonatine (1993)

We’ve also understood that the man was scary, in a way that riding in an otherwise empty elevator with a strange man can be scary. That way he has of never making eye contact with the camera, those frequent, spastic movements in his neck and shoulders, as if he was about to punch someone in the face. His own busted-up visage, sustained from injuries following a road accident in 1994. Put them altogether and there you have it: scary. To echo a line from Kitano’s debut feature film, Violent Cop: “The man is violent and must be handled accordingly.”

Violent Cop came out in 1989 and, back then, many fans were taken aback by the sheer brute force of his storytelling. Few were prepared for this side of Kitano – after all, in the early 1980s, studio audiences laughed so hard at his jokes it was often impossible to catch what he was saying at all. All of a sudden, it seemed he had shed all congeniality to morph into a filmmaker.

Violent Cop (1989)

According to various interviews, Kitano said he was bitten by the cinema bug when he co-starred in Nagisa Oshima’s Merry Christmas Mr. Lawrence (1983) alongside Ryuichi Sakamoto and David Bowie. In this, Kitano played a sergeant in the Japanese Imperial Army during the Second World War – already he was becoming associated with violence on screen. In 1986 Kitano was arrested for attacking the office of a paparazzi publication with a team of young henchmen, but got off with a suspended sentence. Kitano spent a few months out of the public eye, then went back to work. Three years later, Violent Cop opened in theatres across Japan.

Violent Cop is the first of Kitano’s ‘yakuza trilogy’, followed by Boiling Point (1990) and Sonatine (1993). Not a few critics have described the triumvirate as the best of Kitano’s filmography, with the exception of Hana-bi in 1997. In all of these, Kitano explores the deep, inexplicable bond shared by some men and their violent urges – Kitano’s characters are extremely casual about throwing their lives away, just for the pleasure of watching their opponents thrash about in their own blood.

Boiling Point (1990)

Kitano stars in all three of the yakuza trilogy, and though the stories and settings are completely different, his roles blend into the portrait of a single man whose views on life are so bleak and nihilistic, he may as well have been transported from feudal Japan.

It’s a portrait that all Japanese, to some extent, are familiar with. This is the man who has no idea how to conduct himself in a slick, modernised Japan where men are expected to take women out to dinner, even if at the end of the evening she turns him down for sex. It’s a world where disputes are settled in conference rooms, among MBA holders in expensive suits.

Kitano’s own upbringing happened in a working-class district in downtown Tokyo. He chose to throw a spitball on that glittering, democratised Japan, instead focusing on death, violence and revenge – concepts that are as outdated as the samurai but nonetheless stir an aching nostalgia. It’s the way we were, after all, and Kitano for one isn’t ready to let go of the ghost.

Violent Cop (1989)

In an interview given in 2001, Kitano recalls that on the opening day of Violent Cop, he snuck into a theatre to check out the audience’s reaction. To his dismay, every time his character – an incorrigibly brutal cop named Azuma – walked on to the screen, giggles and chuckles erupted in the dark. Violent Cop isn’t remotely funny; from beginning to end it’s a blood bath punctuated with yakuza drug wars and a tragic gang rape. Azuma is heading for a tragic end, but not before slaughtering a yakuza boss and killing his younger sister, who is broken and meth-addicted.

“For 10 years, I made movies about violence and played serial killers and rapists,” he said. “I think I’ve finally made some headway in being perceived as a serious actor by the Japanese public.”