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Violence and Comedy - Takeshi Kitano

Written by Deni Stoner Tell a Friend

In one form or another, Takeshi Kitano has always had a tendency towards being confrontational, in a way that both disturbs and charms. Beginning his television career during the mid 1970's as the bawdy, straight-faced comedian "Beat" Takeshi, Kitano was known for offensive, outrageous, reactionary and largely popular entertainment. A decade later, his first successful film role as the sadistic Sergeant Hara in Nagisa Oshima's Merry Christmas Mr Lawrence was remarkable and chilling in its contrast to the Kitano the Japanese public knew. For a man so widely known for making people laugh, moving from success in television to success in film was by no means an easy feat, but it was acting, serious or not, that gave Kitano the opportunity in 1989 to get behind the camera rather than in front of it.

When director Kinji Fukasaku withdrew from the production of a fast-tracked, somewhat slapstick Dirty Harry-esque film called Violent Cop, Kitano was chosen to pick up where Fukasaku left off. Up until that point, it had by all accounts just been another job where all Kitano had to do was "act silly." But given this new power, the film was reshaped by Kitano's desire to be taken more seriously as an actor, and Violent Cop became more black comedy than slapstick action.

Kitano's familiarity with the comic pentameter and lack of formal directing experience produced something which, while amateurish, demonstrated a natural stylistic tension; watching a Kitano film is like waiting for the punchline and knowing it's going to hurt. With overlong takes, little dialogue, less camera movement and composition based almost totally on visual aesthetic, Violent Cop seemed to be describing objects through definition of the space around them. Using extended takes and long silences, Kitano generated tension not through the direct act of comedy or brutality, but in the spaces between them. With no narrative certainty for the audience to use as a crutch, suddenly the inner world of the character became more visible, and in those spaces, between the acceptable and the outrageous, the brutal and the touching, and the alarming and the entertaining, Kitano's characters took breath.

After Violent Cop, Kitano moved rapidly towards the kind of recognition he can today be confident of. Boiling Point and Sonatine took the tension between contrasts he first developed in Violent Cop to austere - and in the case of Sonatine particularly - bleak extremes, with increasing success. Sonatine, an interpretation of Jean Luc Godard's Pierrot Le Feu made with unknown actors, was Kitano's first critical success and exemplifies this tendency towards the brutal, laconic and minimalist humour that has now come to be understood as the director's trademark. In Sonatine, Kitano's character, a too successful yakuza, is sent to Okinawa under some pretence, only to find himself a target. Escaping, he and his men spend listless days at a deserted beach house, playing children's games on the beach in a morbidly symbolic rehearsal of the story's looming conclusion. It's a bleak vision reflecting a bleak period in the director's life, however following that period, Kitano really started to come into his own. His comeback film, Kid's Return, was less sparse, more alive, with a freer camera and more relaxed, natural characters. But it wasn't until Kitano delivered the superb Hana-bi, winner of the Golden Lion at the 54th Venice International Film Festival, that it became obvious Kitano was finally mastering both his medium and his content.

Perhaps appropriately in that case, Hana-bi was something of a return to the original themes and motivations Kitano attempted to express in Violent Cop. But this time he had more control, and the film had a new maturity and grace, a mastery over timing, and an understanding of the precise amount of pressure to apply to achieve the desired result. Kitano's technique of humour through timing and repetition is used to fine effect here, adding an aspect of tenderness between the main characters - Kitano's Nishi and his ailing, quiet wife - that is deeply expressive yet oddly void of expression. And perhaps for an audience not familiar with his previous films, Hana-bi also exemplified the latent, explosive qualities of Kitano's cinema - the stillness punctuated by violence like gunshot. Such an approach to storytelling was perhaps not original in application, but had certainly never been presented with such a Zen-like philosophy before, and it shocked people awake in a way that action films rarely do; it made them feel.

The feeling of Hana-bi seemed to be what Kitano had been aiming for all along - and he was getting better and better at expressing it. Kikujiro, Kitano's eighth film, was perhaps the next natural step in the evolution in Kitano's yakuza figures, and something of a return to innocence. The film is more light-hearted than any of his works to date; Kitano's usual tough yakuza type is transformed into a criminal a little past his prime, forced to accompany an eight year-old boy across the country to visit his mother. Rather than evoking pathos in his main characters through overt violence and the humanity of hopeless situations, Kitano creates a charming road movie - traveled by foot. By contrasting his failed, corrupt adult against an innocent child, through the comedy of the characters' unintentional errors and the pang of finding both the known and the unknown, a bond is formed where adult vices slowly disintegrate under childlike joy. By the end of the film, the two companions are no less brothers than any code of loyalty or honour ever dictated to any other of Kitano's characters.

It is this subject of loyalty, of brotherhood, that is intrinsic to the motivations and conflicts of Kitano's characters of choice, and in a return to the themes he knew best the director's next film was couched in such language. A partly American production, Brother was a little more accessible, and it might be more of a "movie" than a film, but Kitano certainly did not lose sight of the things that mattered to him. In fact, he references some of his own work; one scene on a beach harkens back to Sonatine, yet lacks the gloom of unrepenting hopelessness present the first time around. In Brother the characters are not biding their time, they are racing against it, and in many respects, Kitano's yakuza archetype is almost peripheral. In the role of a big brother, Kitano guides, he sets example and expectation, he protects and in the end he turns the next generation from the dead-end path he himself is already on. In this film, the destination, and its potential to redeem, rather than the journey to get there is definitely the point.

In Dolls, however, this destination point is obscured, but then the film seems so much of a departure from Kitano's usual fare that it's difficult to describe this film in relation to any of his others. There is still the same interpretive space - possibly so much that most people might find the film a little aimless - and there's also Kitano's trademark: quirky peripheral activity. Lush scenery featured in long, still shots abound, but despite this - or perhaps because of it - the emotional landscape Kitano likes to encourage his viewers to provide is perhaps even more pronounced. It's this sense that lends the film its true magic, and harks directly to the Bunraku puppetry that is heavily referenced in Dolls.

Perhaps it even describes Kitano's feelings about filmmaking. In Bunraku, there are three main elements - the puppeteers (3 each to one puppet, as each puppet is half human-size), the joururi narrator, and the shamisen accompanist. It is the puppets upon which the audience focuses, but it is the combined efforts of these three manipulators that allow the audience to see and feel the emotive qualities of the stories. The parallels between these craftsmen and the film director are clear; Kitano provides space into which meaning and value can be invested by the people who peer into them, and, like the characters he creates, he might not have always had the answers, but perhaps that was never the point anyway.

Zatoichi, in contrast, is not so much another shift in Kitano's filmmaking approach as it is a fond ode to the past. The chambara film, or period action film, is something that Kitano had never done, but was perhaps the perfect foil for the director's idiosyncrasies. In his treatment of a well-loved figure, that of the blind super-swordsman, as well as the well-loved populist genre that created him, much of the director's usual style has been significantly toned down, yet the film retains all of his charm and humour and comic timing. Kitano himself as the lead character is much less a 'presence' on the screen, his comparatively muted energy thoroughly suiting the awkward, quiet, travelling masseur. Kitano's tendency towards abrupt spurts of violence easily translates into the both the character's swordplay and the genre in general. And, in Kitano's unconventional way, he also translates the senses of the blind into delightful musical pieces. Farmers till their fields with a percussionist's cadence, graceful geisha dances shift just as gracefully into murder, and everything ends in a grand celebratory song-and-dance number that's more suited to a Golden Era Hollywood musical, but leaves the viewer on a happy high as the swordsman stumbles off into the night.

Zatoichi doesn't sound much like the films Kitano started making, but then Kitano, as both a personality and a performer has been nothing if not inventive. He always looks for new ways to challenge, yet is deeply attached to his comic roots. His ability to look into the mundane and ugly and find the touching and powerful, his confidence in letting his audience fill in the blanks - and thereby leaving more blanks than most filmmakers do - has an undeniable charm that is hard to ignore, even if you want to.

Published April 1, 2005

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  • Region & Language: Hong Kong United States - English
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