Better known as a comedian and game show host in his native Japan, actor and director Kitano Takeshi’s films have gained a substantial international art house and gangster aficionado following. He has cultivated a style unique among his contemporary directors, oscillating between playful, childlike innocence and explosive scenes of realistic violence. The result is an offbeat, life affirming atmosphere heavy with pathos, usually driven by the laconic performance of Kitano himself. The downbeat counterpart to the Miike Takashi’s gratuitous magical realist yakuza pictures, Kitano’s films offer a slower experience heavy with tension, and rich with emotions often lost in his contemporaries’ gunbattle epics. These are some of my favorites:
Violent Cop (1989): Kitano’s stripped to basics directorial debut. Stillness, misanthropy, and an odd naiveté explode periodically from Kitano’s detective Azuma. His personality bruises the people around him, police and criminal, like a blunt weapon. The world he occupies is a real-life Tokyo, complete with consequences and repercussions, far removed from the fantastic cinematic realms of Die Hard or John Woo’s Hard Boiled. Essential.
Sonatine (1993): Available as the second disk on Zatoichi (2006). A mid level yakuza boss travels to Okinawa to settle a dispute, but it soon becomes apparent that he has been sent there to die. The yakuza retreat to an abandoned beach house, passing the hours as pleasantly as they can under the unspoken knowledge of their inevitable deaths. The film is saturated with Kitano’s bittersweet atheistic nihilism, more powerful than in his other films as evidenced by his suicide attempt immediately after its release.
Brother (2000): His first release for American audiences. Kitano is an exiled yakuza who casually transforms his brother’s small time Los Angeles gang into an organized crime powerhouse. The translated-to-English dialog can seem stilted, its delivery cumbersome, but the oddness fades as the story gains momentum. Omar Epps’ friendship to Kitano’s “big brother” figure drives the second half of the film, lending a poignant weight to the unavoidable conclusion.