Rating *** A must see

Directed and written by Takeshi Kitano

With Kitano, Ren Ohsugi, Tetsu Watanabe, Aya Kokumai, Masanobu Katsumura, Susumu Terashima, Tonbo Zushi, Kenichi Yajima, and Eiji Minakata.

By Patrick Z. McGavin

For an art form that’s barely a century old, film has a lot of tradition behind it. Despite extraordinary technological advances, movies continue to rely on the same formulas and devices–it’s difficult to watch an action picture, say, without the feeling that you’ve seen it before. That’s why Japanese director Takeshi Kitano is so remarkable. His films seem novel and invigorating because his often hackneyed plots are renewed by a simple disregard of the past. Kitano’s fearless in his mixing of styles and genres–apparently no one has told him he can’t do that.

I’ve only seen three of his last four films–Sonatine (1993), Kids Return (1996), and Fireworks (1997), which played at the Music Box for two weeks last month–yet all three share an almost primitive quality, wholly unconcerned with the conventional rules of narrative structure. This seems entirely appropriate for a filmmaker who claims to shape his stories around compelling images. “When I’m working on the script,” Kitano has said, “the visuals come first, before the dialogue.”

Born in Tokyo in 1947, Kitano is a hugely popular figure in Japan as a result of his work as a stand-up comedian, television personality, poet, essayist, novelist, cartoonist, newspaper columnist, musician, and painter. Since 1989’s Violent Cop, Kitano has directed, written, and edited six more films. He’s starred in all but two of these under his stage name, Beat Takeshi (derived from his start in show business: he was half of a comedy team known as the Two Beats). Despite his popularity, his films have been commercial failures in Japan, something Kitano attributes to overexposure (he appears on seven different weekly TV programs). But more likely his lack of commercial success comes in reaction to his sharp and often angry critiques, if not outright denunciations, of Japanese culture, in particular its emphasis on social conformity. Kitano’s artistic breakthrough, Fireworks, received rapturous reviews in Europe and America and won the Golden Lion at the Venice film festival, but apparently made no impression at home.

In a recent interview, Kitano recalled that his rigid, demanding mother forbade him to see movies when he was a young man. As a consequence, he explained, he was unaware of film culture and history, and so had no significant cinematic influences when he started out. Perhaps it’s this absence of historical context that allows Kitano to effectively pursue the shopworn genre of cops and robbers. When he stumbles into its cliches–a reliance on such gimmicks as freeze-frames and flashbacks–his fearlessness makes them fresh. He’s more than willing to court failure. Recently, when critic Makoto Shinozaki observed that each subsequent film is a critique of the previous work, Kitano said, “Others consider their bad films failures. I pick up on the faults of the film and I criticize myself, but I would not call the film a failure. If there are three things about a film that are good, those are the three souvenirs the film left me, and I don’t need anything else. Then in the next film I collect a couple more, and they add up.”

In that context, Sonatine clearly functions as a rough draft for Fireworks. Sonatine marks the point where Kitano broke free of narrative limitations and exploited his background and training as a comedian for serious ends, especially in his deadpan arrangements and cutting, where the violent juxtaposition of images and sound is both surprising and emotionally devastating. Kitano plays Murakama, a skilled and highly efficient yakuza who is ordered by his superiors to intercede in a dispute among rival clans in Okinawa. In an early fight scene, the camera focuses on the yakuza crime boss, who keeps a poker face while the action swirls around him. Kitano’s work revels in such absurdity, a slapstick that’s almost shocking in its shifts of tone. Later in the film, Murakama interrupts a man sexually assaulting a woman. The predator calls the yakuza a pervert and puts a knife to his neck. When Murakama shoots him twice in the stomach, the man utters: “This is a sick joke.”

Kitano’s formal daring extends beyond his experimentation with visual styles. The structure of Sonatine is fairly radical, too. Arriving in Okinawa with a group of raw recruits and older, experienced gangsters, Murakama discovers he is being set up, as members of his gang are killed off–in an office bombing and a frenetic, daring restaurant shoot-out; when Kitano’s camera is still and silent, the outburst of violence is at once solemn and devastating. In the film’s final hour, the surviving members of Murakama’s gang repair to a beach house. Here the film turns inward and becomes more contemplative (echoing the narrative movement of Fireworks).

Kitano, an inventive and compelling visualist, essentially stops the story and creates a series of spellbinding images and set pieces that are so poetic one hardly notices the dangling narrative. For instance, in order to relieve their boredom, the men invent a game using paper figures crafted in the form of sumo wrestlers, which move like pawns across a board when the ground is struck. Moments later, on the beach, the men repeat the stylized gestures; their movements parallel the sumo wrestlers’ ritualized actions, except the manner is theatrical, artificial, closer to No theater. In another sequence, the men form lines on a darkened beach and stage a fake war, launching Roman candles at each other. The succession of ecstatic images is broken up by the playful and ironic Murakama, who insists on firing his gun.

These scenes are basically irrelevant; their effect on the story line is inconsequential. Yet they subtly impart the idea that whatever follows is impossible to predict. With Kitano, narrative and plot become wholly secondary to the emotions, moods, and associations his images conjure. Texture is more important than story. These sequences illustrate Kitano’s method of shifting between engagement and detachment, and his resolve to confound our own sense of anticipation. Kitano invites his audience’s willful surrender to the experiences and the uncommon depth of feeling his movies are predicated on. Sonatine doesn’t encourage a straight reading, where logic dictates meaning and importance. When our normal responses are broken down, we relate more directly to the film.

A director like John Woo will use violence to express his characters’ inner conflicts, but Kitano designs violent, horrifying images to explore their emotional aftermath. In a 1995 essay in Film Comment, Chuck Stephens pointed out, “Each of Kitano’s films embrace death as a form of self-determination, and yet each offers an underlying concern for victims, outsiders and children, and for the consequences of violence, both on the body and in society.” Like Wong Kar-wai, Kitano seems drawn to themes of loneliness and isolation (a car runs along a desolate stretch of road; a man in a wheelchair serenely stares out at a vast sea). This melancholia–the frustration between what one desires and what is available–runs throughout his work. Suicide is also a recurring theme. It’s the culmination not of sorrow or despair or a political statement against state oppression but the logical conclusion of the warrior code.

Significantly Sonatine, released here under Quentin Tarantino’s Miramax imprint, Rolling Thunder, was made before Kitano’s near fatal August 1994 motorcycle accident, which rendered the right side of his face partially paralyzed. His performance here is both more animated and expressive than in Fireworks. There’s also a far more explicit sense of personal failure and vulnerability. (“I’m not tough,” he tells a female admirer, “I learned to shoot fast, because I get scared very quickly.”) During his recovery, Kitano took up drawing; his pointillist works, done in felt-tip pen, are effectively deployed in Fireworks to comment on the action, or to foreshadow it. Sonatine lacks the concentration and intensity of Fireworks, but it anticipates the later film.

Kitano has his problems; for instance, he hasn’t quite figured out how to create fully dimensional, interesting women. But at a time when action movies typically hand us a canned experience, his pictures carry a charge of originality. He’s fully attuned to the emotional consequences of his choices, and his films impart something quite free, daring, and beautiful. He seems to have no real equivalent in the American cinema, or indeed in popular culture.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): Sonatine film still.