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ART IMITATES LIFE: ON TAKESHI KITANO

The best part of any Takeshi Kitano movie is Kitano himself.

Well, for the ones where he casts himself as the main role, at least. Sure, many will

tell you that what really defines his films is the off-beat, fragmented editing and the abruptly

violent subject matter, but these external processes exist only as reflections of the

protagonist’s interiority. And who is this mysterious, stony-faced, painfully cool protagonist

usually played by? That’s right: Takeshi Kitano.

There’s something inexplicably captivating about his performance, time and time

again. Even though he usually has minimal lines, minimal actions, minimal expressions, truly

minimal everything, even though he spends most of his screen time standing stock still,

there’s something so specific about his empty-eyed gaze that it works. And the slightest

twitch of his eye, then, or the smallest amount of inflection in his dialogue, begin to carry

magnitudes, amplifying his understated performance in waves through these tiny, nearly

accidental movements. In the end, he manages to embody both the stereotype of the

hardened, emotionless yakuza and expose the deep fault lines of emotion that lie

underneath, deconstructing the stereotype into the human.

God, I could sing his praises all day. Weird, then, that these main characters are often

also the center of my critique for Kitano’s films; as the make-or-break point, their success or

failure seems to decide the fate of the whole film. And they do break. Quite often, in fact.

Of the four films of his I’ve seen - Boiling Point (1990), Sonatine (1993), Hana-bi (1997), and

Brother (2000) - I’ve only ever been fully satisfied with the mentality in Hana-bi, and perhaps

Brother, to a certain extent. While on the surface all of these Kitano main characters are

roughly the same type, all featuring a fragmented psychology made up of subconscious

suicidality and latent trauma and repressed intimacy, not all of them come together as well

as the others. In Sonatine, for example, Kitano’s character tells us, in reference to his own

mental state, that “When you’re scared all of the time, you reach a point where you wish

that you were dead.” It’s basically the only explicit insight we are given into his character,

yet his demeanor doesn’t show any trace of nervousness at all. A tightly-wound fascination

with death, perhaps, and what it means to be behind the trigger or in front of it, but it’s all

far from making him into the anxiety-ridden husk of a man he’s pretending to be. The rest


of the film is so oblique, too - not that I don’t usually prefer oblique films, because I

absolutely do - that this inconsistency becomes the entirety of his character. Whatever

illumination that dialogue was supposed to offer, it only clouded my view of the character

instead of enhancing it.


It almost feels as if these characters are not as well-rounded or realistic as I would

like to have them be. Perhaps they really are just stereotyped yakuza cut-outs, spitting out

vaguely cool-sounding phrases that only serve to make you wonder at their mental state.

They’re aimless, contextless, and though that kind of barren atmosphere gives Kitano’s films

a unique kind of cool, it also robs the psychology of his characters of a certain depth.


Then, along comes Hana-bi. Already, this film is different for its narrative split

between Nishi, played by Kitano, and Horibe, played by Ren Osugi; you get two depressed

men for the price of one, so to speak. Both are police detectives, and both are processing

the aftermath of a violent altercation that pushed Kitano into retirement and left Horibe

confined to a wheelchair. Just the very presence of this anchoring backstory distinguishes

these two; gone are the days of yakuza members with mysterious pasts defined only by

vague, repeated violence, and here are not one, but two distinct individuals possessing a

distinctive, truly momentous touchstone to refer back to. What follows is a delicate

exploration of the resounding aftershocks any brush with violence causes and how this

experience throws the rest of our life into contrast. For Nishi, this means a reveal of the love

of his terminally-ill wife and the intimacy they share; for Horibe, it’s the absence of his

family and the difficulty of facing his life alone. In this light, Kitano doesn’t even need any

extremely expository dialogue, no “When you’re scared all of the time,” because the simple

existence of these characters in their situation is enough.


The way they handle their respective difficulties, too, is now grounded in

understanding. Nishi goes to increasingly dangerous lengths to pay for his wife’s hospital

bills, as in ‘borrowing from the yakuza’ kind of dangerous, while Horibe creates poignantly

surrealist paintings to stave off his increasingly suicidal state of mind. These mirrored

psychological tensions create the perfect baseline for Kitano’s distinctive performance; you

know, the one I talked about before, all about ‘fault lines of emotion’ painted on a

nonchalant facade and all of that. With the proper narrative context, however, Kitano’s


weighted gaze truly becomes sublime, his already intriguing and fantastic performance

gaining an understanding that defines the effect each of his choices has. In short, his

melancholic stares and his eye twitches/vocal inflections are no longer simply alarming and

effective, they’re alarming and effective with qualified reason.

In explaining where this change comes from, it’s helpful to know that Horibe’s

artwork, which is featured heavily in the imagery of the film, is actually Kitano’s own. It’s

even more helpful to know that Kitano only really picked up painting in 1994, after being in

a motorcycle accident that partially paralyzed the right side of his face.



I hope I don’t have to point out the obvious parallels here, because the fact of the

matter stands that Hana-bi finds many of its treasured details from Kitano’s own life

experience. What I’d argue it really is, in fact, is a self-reflective realization and culmination

of Kitano’s life and career. Kitano has (somewhat) famously described his motorcycle

accident as an “unconscious suicide attempt,” and with that in mind, Hana-bi becomes an


even more personal exploration of his own dormant self-violence. Consider also how Hana-

bi has Kitano switching from a standard, purely yakuza role to that of a private detective


embroiled in yakuza debt, a development that seems to hint at a departure from stereotype

towards a new shade of authenticity: he’s gone from the imitative, unsure Sonatine kind of

character to an authentic, grounded Hana-bi self-story. What earlier he couldn’t quite

explain (literally, see the dialogue I keep referencing above) he now sees in a clearer light.

And as much as I hate dividing things into style and substance, this self-realization, in a way,

gives him the grounding subject matter his atmosphere always needed.



A better way to put it, perhaps, is that with a greater understanding of himself,

Kitano was able to deliver a more holistic, more profound work of art. Even though it’s not

immediately perceivable, those pre-1994 films are secretly shrouded in a type of uncertainty

and confusion, as Kitano was finding himself facing something he couldn’t quite put his

finger on. Only after reaching a critical point - a rock bottom, almost, to put an easily

thrown-around phrase on it all - and gaining that epiphany about himself could his

preceding life be shocked into context, his many years of playing stone-faced killers gaining

a new understanding through the characters of Nishi and Horibe, his art finally finding its

place of origin in his life. It’s a long-awaited unity between art and artist, art and life,


between the Kitano who stands before the camera as actor and the one who extends his

reach behind it as writer and/or director.

BY A_DZH

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