Film Club: Takeshi Kitano

With the new yesterday that Takeshi Kitano would be directing his final film, “Neck”, I thought it’d be a good time to discuss his films for a bit. 

Before going on to write, star, produce, and direct his own films, Kitano was a well know comedian in Japan, known as “Beat” Takeshi. Most would probably know him for Takeshi’s Castle which was brought here, dubbed over, and called “Most Extreme Elimination Challenge”. Some might know him for his small roles in other films like “Battle Royale”, Merry Christmas, Mr. Lawrence”, “Johnny Mnemonic”, and the live-action remake of “Ghost in the Shell”. But those who are familiar with his work will know that he is a director with a unique and singular style and one of the most prolific Japanese cinematic auteurs. 

His movies are artistic and poetic. The unique rhythm of his films play out like visual haikus. They’re unrealistic by design. They’re painterly, efficient, sharp, and say exactly what they need to with as little as possible. And this is no exaggeration. Whole sequences in his films will play out with extreme stillness and little to no dialogue only to be punctuated with sudden bursts of violence. A fight sequence will generally play out like this: you’ll see a character stand motionless for a while, preparing to throw a punch, then there’ll be an abrupt cut to the character on the receiving end already with a bloody nose. You don’t see the connection or the most “important” parts of dramatic beats but you never need to. Through Kitano’s framing, editing, and minimal directing style, you get the full impact of what he’s trying to convey.

It's these contrasting elements in his work that make Kitano such an interesting director. On one end you’ll have quiet contemplation which abruptly turns into something violent. You’ll have the criminal-tough guy-loner (either a cop or yakuza) but you’ll also have broad elements of slapstick comedy. It’s with this use of juxtaposition that he reminds me of another filmmaker: Quentin Tarantino. In addition to the dissection of the crime genre, to me, they’re also exploring something similar in their work through the exploration of contrast. But where Tarantino uses scenes of casual conversation and needle drops that ramp up the energy with suspenseful build up into its inevitable violent conclusion, Kitano’s much more of a minimalist as lets his scenes play out as more of a slow burn, flatlining for what seems like forever, only to suddenly spike up and erupt in massacre. Violence in Kitano’s world is sudden. And random.

I’ve compiled a list of Kitano’s films that standout among his work and are great entry points into his filmography if you’ve never seen any of his films before. 


Violent Cop (1989)

In his directorial debut, Kitano plays detective Azuma, a Dirty Harry-type cop who uses violent methods when confronting criminals. After the suicide of his friend and colleague Iwaki (a vice cop who was involved with drug trafficking), and the kidnapping of his sister by yakuza gangsters Azuma breaks all the rules of ethical conduct. He responds to every situation with violence, and resorts to unethical methods if they produce results. 

Originally meant to be directed by Kinji Fukasaku, famous for the ‘Battles Without Honor or Humanity” series, directing duties fell to Kitano once Fukasaku dropped out. This allowed Kitano to lay out the foundations of his style, which are surprisingly well-defined despite this being his first film, for his future films to come.


Sonatine (1993)

Kitano stars as Murakawa, a middle-aged world-weary yakuza in Tokyo assigned to take his clan to Okinawa to help settle a dispute between two factions. He’s suspicious of the assignment but follows along, and as the war then escalates and the Tokyo drifters decide to lay low at the beach. Over time, it becomes clear they’ve been setup, and Murakawa attempts to even the score when he realizes he and his lackeys have been pawns in a lethal game. 

Unlike his other films up to this point, he ditches the urban backdrop for a more peaceful and idyllic one. The colorful beach setting has a very relaxing effect and sets the scene for some fun vignettes as you watch the gangsters play around and kill time. This results in one of my favorite shots of the entire film when the yakuza start a fireworks fight against the night sky. It’s beautifully composed and even more delightful to see it in motion with the sparks flying back and forth across the screen. The setting is not the traditional choice for the gangster genre but it becomes clear why it was designed that way. By the time you reach the violent ending, you’ve already been completely disarmed by all the laid back fun of what came before. 

I’d say this is easily one of his best films he’s done.


Hana-bi (1997)

Kitano plays Nishi, a violent former police officer. His wife, Miyuki, is suffering from leukemia, and his partner, Horrible, is paralyzed after gangsters violently attacked him. Nishi is fed up, and wants to give up his job in order to be with Miyuki. To do so, he is forced to borrow money from the Yakuza, and then, to clear his dept, he robs a bank. The Yakuza, however, are no pleased so easily, and they continue to hound Nishi for more money. 

This film was the first of Kitano’s films I ever saw. One of my favorite sequences is the scene where he buys a second-hand taxi cab, repaints it to look like a police car, and robs a bank dressed as a policeman. In addition to directing, Kitano also painted the pointillist style paintings that Horibe paints in the film. But maybe the most memorable aspect of the film is the beautiful score by Joe Hisaishi, specifically the title track. 


Kikujiro (1999)

Masao is a lonely 9-year old boy who decides to spend his summer vacation looking for his estranged mother, whom he has never met. Kikujiro is an immature man who has never had any serious responsibilities. When his wife gives him 50,000 yen to travel with Masao, the journey begins.

This one might be my personal favorite of Kitano’s work. It a simple story and has a fun road trip feel. This movie is something of a departure from his previous films as it’s not a crime film and only makes small references to yakuza. It’s also has a more light-hearted atmosphere, despite the sad events that occur throughout the film. Like “Hana-bi”, the film features a soundtrack composed by Joe Hisaishi and is equally as incredible as the previous. 


Brother (2000)

Abandoned by the brotherhood of his yakuza clan, Yamamoto is forced to leave Tokyo. He goes to Los Angeles in search of Ken, his younger half-brother. Alone and with a new identity, Yamamoto finds himself frustrated by his foreign surroundings, especially since he doesn’t speak the language. 

This one is easily the weakest film on this list but I thought it was worth mentioning because of its place in his filmography. To this day it is his only movie to be made outside of Japan. He was also in a unique position for a foreign director making a Hollywood production in that he was able to retain full creative control. Instead of trying to make an “American” movie, he sticks strictly to his style, basically taking the “gangster” archetype from his previous films and dropping him in the middle of a LA. However, I feel like this film isn’t as successful in its attempts as his other work. It still retains his dark humor and some creative sequences (like the chopstick scene) but other aspects like the awkward dialogue and American actors, who definitely don’t seem comfortable with his unique filmmaking style, fail to capture the magic that made his other films so great. 

Fun fact: this movie was styled by the famous Japanese designer, Yohji Yamamoto. 


Zatōichi (2003)

Blind traveler Zatoichi is a master swordsman and a masseur with a fondness for gambling on dice games. When he arrives in a village torn apart by warring gangs, he sets out to protect the townspeople. He is also enlisted to help two sibling geisha, Okinu and Osei, avenge the murder of their parents, who were slaughtered in a massacre. Zatoichi must fight his way through numerous enemies before finally clashing with a heartless crime boss. 

I’m a bit fan of the original Shintaro Katsu series but I must admit there’s a lot to like about this installment. What’s great about this reboot is how Kitano is still able to fit in his specific quirks within such an established series. But it also adds some new tricks to his repertoire. His usual stillness and deadpan is traded in favor of fast cuts and a moving camera. One of the more amusing parts of the film are these brief musical interludes sprinkled throughout the film. The final dance sequence at the end is fine but my favorite musical scene has to be the builders dancing in the mud that show up at one point in the movie. This is one definitely worth checking out.