by Jason Suzuki
Starting in June and finishing up early July, the Alamo Drafthouse Denver presented five films from Takeshi Kitano. The program was entitled "The Beat Goes On" and it consisted of Violent Cop, Boiling Point, Sonatine, Hana-bi, and Zatoichi shown on a weekly basis in chronological order. These would coincide with Film Movement's new restorations of Kitano's first two films as a director: 1989's Violent Cop and 1990's Boiling Point which was his first to have also written.The series was very "shooty" as seen in the trailer made for it:
The series was a labor of love for the programmers, who made custom pins for each screening and for anyone went to all five screenings a custom T-shirt will be made. It's amazing that for a filmmaking career that started in the 80s, and with seventeen films under his directorial belt, that a series like this could emerge to spark renewed interest in Kitano. The timing is in line with new restorations of his work, the two first films from Film Movement and Third Window Films' releases of some of his best work: Hana-bi, Kikujiro, and Dolls already out with A Scene at the Sea and Kids Return later this year. With the presentation of these five films from an established, taste making movie theater such as the Drafthouse, a narrative is created and it does not necessarily do the man justice.
Film Movement's new restorations of Violent Cop and Boiling Point looked great. His sophomore film features elaborate and idiosyncratically put together sequences that show he is on the verge of taking over editing duties as well which he would do from his third movie A Scene at the Sea and onward. The film's biggest fault is it was made in the period of Kitano's career where he desperately wanted to be taken seriously as an artist, when just the appearance of him would create laughter in the audience. His role in Boiling Point, while minor and late into the film, at times goes overboard in an attempt to make you despise Kitano rather than laugh at him. Kitano's natural charisma works against this goal.
If Violent Cop was a test run, a gig he landed by chance, where he could finally start taking the training Nagisa Oshima let him in on, then Boiling Point is Kitano's true debut feature. From there he would expand on these themes from unchecked aggression and false idolization of masculinity to the ebb and flow between the mundane and the violent in a self destructive life. His work only gets better from here but there is a lot of heart to be found in the film. Choosing these two films allows the viewer to embark on the Kitano journey and get a feel for a man struggling to be seen as more than a comedian, a constant through his work.
I've read it before that Sonatine is the first "true" Kitano movie since his main crew is finally assembled by this film: Hisaishi doing the score, Mori producing, Yanagishima doing the cinematography, and Terajima and Osugi in key supporting roles. I would argue his previous film also fits the "first true Kitano film" description as he is now directing, writing, and editing. Still this film has the fantastic middle section, the hang out portion of the film that would later be expanded in the last third of Kikujiro. Kitano finds beauty and sorrow in the life of a criminal. The bursts of light from a machine gun reflected on the tops of three cars evokes Ozu but what has become so very Kitano. A long distant shot of him alone on the beach throwing a Frisbee against the wind speaks just as much to his character as to Kitano on himself. This type of self reflection is where the title comes from. As far as his work that focuses on crime goes in which Kitano plays a gangster, which has proven to be his most popular endeavor, Sonatine is a true high point. Unfortunately the sound has been altered on the Miramax Blu-ray, causing a noticeably amateurish whirling sound through most of the film. This film is in need of a restoration, and given how accessible the film is it is surprising this has not happened yet.
For being called "The Beat Goes On" no real mention was made of what Kitano did after Zatoichi or what he is currently up to was ever made. Usually his other work that wasn't programmed was diminished and dismissed. The two films he made after Sonatine before he did Hana-bi were referred to as "a sex comedy and a movie about a kid." These descriptions relating to Getting Any? and Kids Returns. You could argue, and it has by the Midnight Eye guys, that Getting Any? is Kitano's most personal work, where "along with the later Kukujiro, Getting Any? is the cinematic manifestation of all his interests and obsessions" (Mes/Sharp, 171). It even foreshadows his Zatoichi remake. And Kids Return, just from looking at the title let alone seeing the film, is clearly about more than one kid. For wanting to present Kitano as a man who wanted to be taken seriously as an artist, hardly any of the spotlight went towards his more personal, less commercial work.
By incorporating his manzai name, the difference between Beat Takeshi and Takeshi Kitano was not brought up, despite Kitano himself making a distinction in his credits (usually starring Beat Takeshi while written, directed, and edited by Takeshi Kitano). Hana-bi, a film essentially about this duality, two sides to the artist being portrayed by Kitano and Ren Osugi, is the perfect opportunity to delve into this, something that the man has been obsessed with over the years.
Kitano's work after Zatoichi is some of his most vulnerable when taken as a whole. You have his "Creator Trilogy" consisting of Takeshis (2005), Glory to the Filmmaker! (2007), and Achilles and the Tortoise (2008) which is immediately followed by what can be deemed his "Post-Creator Trilogy Gangster Trilogy" which consists of the two Outrage films (2010/2012) and last year's Ryuzo and the Seven Henchman. With the three films in the Creator Trilogy Kitano focuses on what it means to be himself, a filmmaker, and then an artist. These three films show a man unconfident in his work and trying to juggle critical/commercial success with personal works met with failure. They were seen as indulgent and were not well received. Following these films he came back to what he is known and loved for: the gangster film. And in an incredibly cynical turn, it was the right move. Cold, formulaic, and boringly brutal, Outrage is a man pandering to his fans after creating three films that were brushed off as minor-Kitano. It was well received but when he tried to do it a second time with Beyond Outrage people were already tired of it. Thankfully he followed it up with Ryuzo, starring Tatsuya Fuji as a retired yakuza who decides to take on some modern gangsters by getting his geriatric gang back together again. While not as great as previous work, it harkens back to a more playful Kitano, his singularity emerging every now and then. The film also sports what must be the most gleefully bizarre moments in his entire career. The beat goes on more than ever in this film which sadly did not receive a US release.
In the spirit of fairness, it is impossible to tell the full story of a man who proved himself to be one of the most singular artists of the past few decades in only five films. But it is undeniable that a narrative is formed through the selection. Hopefully these films captured enough people's interests for individuals to seek out more on their own, which would be the true success of the program, or to warrant a second part to feature some deeper, more idiosyncratic cuts, staying true to the spirit of Kitano.
Jason Suzuki is co-editor of Cinema Adrift.
Mes, Tom & Jasper Sharp; "The Midnight Eye Guide to New Japanese Film;"Stone Bridge Press, 2005.