|Takeshi Kitano (1947- ) made his name as a wacky comedian in his native Japan, but had always wanted to be a movie star, not a television celebrity, and in 1989 he started to establish himself as exactly that. For British audiences, this would have been like comedian Joe Pasquale trying to reinvent himself as Clint Eastwood by playing Dirty Harry, and indeed when Violent Cop, his first film in that vein, was released, Japanese audiences laughed all the way through it, expecting a comedy. Though dismayed, Kitano, known by his nickname Beat Takeshi, was not discouraged, it merely drove him forward to try harder.
Violent Cop is released on a three-disc Blu-ray set from The British Film Institute, along with his next crime movies Boiling Point and Sonatine, and they make for engrossing viewing if you bear in mind this was a clown not exactly yearning to play Hamlet, but nevertheless determined to change his image in the public's minds to the point of creating the most objectionable characters he could. Yet though he was trying to leave that humorous persona behind, there was something about him that even Westerners who had never heard of him before found oddly amusing. It was as if the humour he was famous for remained inseparable from him.
Certainly that first game changer for his career was a purposefully grim affair, with bloody deaths by blade and gunshot abounding, watching the short, bow-legged Kitano marching around Tokyo and beating up anyone who pisses him off (pissing off the cop is very easy to do on this evidence) was strangely entertaining. If you did not know of his past, you would not have pegged him as a comedian, but he may well have made you chuckle almost despite yourself and that could have been as much down to his directing technique on the set and on location as it would be the stylings he brought to his belligerent character.
Legend has it Kitano threw away the script very early on, keeping only the settings and the names, and basically made his movie up as he went, shooting in sequence to keep it straight in his mind. This extreme eccentricity did not make him many friends, and the antics continued with his out of the ordinary notions of how to shoot a movie, but somehow this tale of a maverick lawman all came together in the edit, with its diversions into a mentally damaged sister or a haphazard criminal pursuit contrasting with the enthusiasm he went about the short, brutal scenes of bloodshed. It quickly made his name internationally and a cult followed.
He continued with the equally idiosyncratic Boiling Point, which in its way was a gangster movie as well, though even more reluctant to stick with the conventions of the genre than Violent Cop had been, beginning as it did with a focus on a young baseball player and car wash attendant who is depicted as being a little slow-witted. When his coach is threatened by yakuza, he and his friends decide to take matters into their own hands, which is where they embark on a journey into the criminal underworld, meeting Takeshi as a gang boss so out there he is patently insane in light of the demands he places on his underlings.
Stuff like ordering one to have sex with the gang boss's moll, then when he does so under huge coercion, Takeshi proceeds to climb on top of him and rape him, then later as punishment for the sex with the moll, the underling has to cut his little finger off. This appeared to be humorous, but you would be forgiven for not laughing. Again, a cult formed overseas, but Japanese audiences were getting restless for the comedian of old, so when he released Sonatine in 1993, the effect was even more amplified. Another gangster saga, it told of yakuza having to lie low after a gang war erupts (thanks to Takeshi's overinsistent methods).
Sonatine was proclaimed the auteur’s masterpiece by critics abroad, its rich mixture of comedy and tragedy striking a chord, though of the audiences outside of Japan, now taking notice, many were baffled. The soulful quality to the film was not what you would anticipate to a gangster flick generally, and its obsession with self-destruction took the edge off some surprisingly sweet humour as the previously rough and uncouth Takeshi character softens up, gets a girlfriend, and decides he needs out of the life, by force if necessary. The director would make an attempt on his own life after completing it, whereupon having survived, he continued his career with a mixture of comedy and thrillers ploughing his own particular furrow. If you like films like this, you're going to love Takeshi Kitano.
[These three films are released by the BFI on Blu-ray in one set with these features:
High Definition transfers of all three films
Feature-length audio commentaries on Violent Cop and Sonatine by Chris D, punk poet, singer, actor, film historian and author of Outlaw Masters of Japanese Film
Newly recorded audio commentary on Boiling Point by David Jenkins
That Man is Dangerous: The Birth of Takeshi Kitano (2016, 20 mins): a documentary examining the emergence, establishment and popularity of Takeshi Kitano's cinematic image
Okinawa Days: Kitano's Second Debut (2016, 20 mins): a look back at Kitano's Boiling Point featuring interviews with producer Masayuki Mori and actor Yurei Yanagi
Violent Cop trailer
Boiling Point trailers
44-page book with new writing on the films and their director by Japanese film experts Tom Mes, Jasper Sharp, Mark Schilling and film critic James-Masaki Ryan.
Click here for a Boiling Point review.
Click here for a Sonatine review.