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.