As a popular figure in Japan, Takeshi Kitano started out as a manzai comedian before becoming a TV regular, with him appearing on a variety of shows. But when the opportunity came for him to start directing his own films, he broke away from his comedic roots to make both gritty gangster films and quiet dramatic pieces. With this sudden change, his work struggled to gain recognition in Japan, despite being critically acclaimed internationally, and during this time he created his own unique and recognisable style.
Here we will look at 10 signs that you are watching a Takeshi Kitano film.
1. The Sound of Silence
As a comedian who appears on TV regularly, you would expect Kitano to have a lot to say, and his characters the same. But a common theme throughout his films is the lack of dialogue that takes place on the screen. Sometimes there is a reason behind this, like the deaf leads in A Scene at the Sea, or his character’s ill wife in Hana-bi, but even in his more gangster and action-oriented films, he chooses to not fill the scenes with needless dialogue.
He prefers to tell his story through pacing or the actions of his characters, with the audience gaining the information they need through how the characters interact with each other, rather than it being explained to them. Takeshi Kitano films allow the audience to see the more personal connections between the characters, like in Hana-bi, where the couple barely say a word to each other, but through their facial expressions and actions, we can see that they enjoy spending time together.
2. Making Waves
A common setting throughout Takeshi Kitano films, especially in the early part of his career, is the seaside and the escape that it brings. While films like A Scene at the Sea and Sonatine use the beach as the primary setting, whether it be learning how to surf or hiding away playing childish games.
The sea features in his films even if they are more city-based, with the bumbling teens in Boiling Point joining an unhinged gangster in a game of baseball. He often uses the beach for a film’s most impactful scenes, such as the dramatic climax to Hana-bi, with the beach being the end point of their road trip through Japan.
Despite being a difficult place to film with the crashing waves, direct sunlight and unstable environment, Kitano clearly has a love for it, with his characters choosing the beach as a means of escape whether physically or mentally.
3. The Likable Villain
When he first started to move into making films and being the star, it was hard for the Japanese audience to separate him for his comedic persona, expecting him to be playing similar characters on screen. When he witnessed an audience laughing at parts of his films that were not meant to be comedic, he decided that he would start playing exclusively dark characters, so that he could be seen as both a serious actor and filmmaker. He would then go on to play abusive gangsters throughout the majority of his early work.
Despite his onscreen characters doing abhorrent things, like beating his girlfriend, murdering innocent people and commiting a range of crimes, Kitano’s charm still ended up sneaking through. His characters would do something silly or outrageous that would draw smiles, and then moments later do something that proves that his character is not someone you should be connecting with. It’s a fine line that often has the audience crossing either side, with his charm leading people to like characters that are clearly a villain.
4. The Artist
After a near-fatal motorcycle incident that left him with partial paralysis of the right side of his face, Kitano took up painting during his recovery. His work has since both influenced and featured in a number of his films, most prominently in Hana-bi.
In this film, after detective Horibe is paralysed after being shot on the job, he turns to pointillism painting to fill his now free time, reflecting what Kitano also went through. However, the artwork in the film, which includes a series of flowers being turned into animals, were all painted by Kitano himself, with most of the artwork painted during his recovery.
His artwork is also featured in the surrealist autobiographical film Achilles and the Tortoise, where Kitano plays an art student who develops an obsession with contemporary art that controls his whole life. Like Hana-bi, all of the artwork was painted by Kitano, but in a completely different style.
5. Takeshi’s Army
Whilst appearing on TV most nights, Kitano worked with a number of comedians whether it be in sketches or stand-up, and with this, he created his “Gundan”, a group of comedians and actors that he regularly collaborated with. The Gundan also formed his emerald guards on the cult classic TV show Takeshi’s Castle, putting the competitors through a range of bizarre challenges, before facing the man himself.
With him regularly working with these talents, it was unsurprising when they started to be cast in his films, with Dankan starring as the car sex-obsessed lead in Getting Any? Yurei Yanagi as the bumbling wannabe gangster in Boiling Point or Rakkyo Ide as the biker turned octopus in Kikujiro. With their comedy roots, they were often used as comedic relief throughout the films, whether it be the slapstick comedy in Getting Any? or the more childish humor in Kikujiro where they are being used to cheer up a troubled young boy.
6. Keep It Steady
While most gangster films might use quick cuts to generate action and deliver fast-paced fight sequences, Kitano likes to keep his shots long and steady. There is very little movement throughout his films, with his cameras usually being locked off and allowing the action to take place in the shot, with it not being uncommon for his shots to last minutes, as we see the action take place in real-time. Whether that be a showdown between warring gangsters or a couple sitting enjoying their time together.
This often leads to his films having a slower, more natural pace, which is a polar opposite to his roots as a manzai comedian where a double act will trade jokes at great speed, showing that in Takeshi Kitano films, there is no letting on the comedic side of his work influence his cinematic style.
7. The Police
Like a lot of gangster films, they are often both clashing with and being helped by the police force as they go about their criminal ways. And in Kitano’s films, the police never come off looking good. They are either so by the book that they stop the detectives from doing their jobs and become more of a hindrance, or they are corrupt and assisting the gangsters either to protect themselves or for financial gains.
In Violent Cop, Kitano’s character is old school, using violence and intimidation to keep the streets clean and to capture criminals, while his colleague and friend have been helping the very yakuza they are trying to apprehend. When a new police chief disapproves of his old school ways, he finds it more difficult to do his job which eventually leads to far more trouble down the line.
8. Joe Hisashi Score
Having been associated with animator Hayao Miyazaki & Studio Ghibli since 1984, Joe Hisaishi started working on the 1991 Takeshi Kitano Film A Scene at the Sea, which was the first film that had a tonal shift from Kitano’s previous work of violent gangsters, to a dramatic film sparse with dialogue. Due to the lack of dialogue, the score really stood out and is instantly recognisable when you compare it to Hisaishi’s other work, especially with Studio Ghibli, in which he has scored all the films that Hayao Miyazaki has created.
Dolls, however, would be the last film that the pair worked on together before parting ways, with Kitano claiming that it was becoming too expensive to hire Hisaishi, and Hisaishi stating that it was his dislike for the script. The arguments during the film production led to them never working together again. This parting of ways also coincided with a change in the works Kitano was producing, with his films being less critically acclaimed from here on out as he switched away from his recognisable style, to his surrealist autobiographical trilogy.
9. On the road
The characters in Takeshi Kitano films rarely stay in one location, with them often traveling around, either by their own choice or being on the run. But rather than just moving the characters through locations for no particular reason, they always have an end goal for their journey that is driving them on their quest.
In Kikujiro, the young boy is searching for the mother who he hasn’t seen in years, meeting a range of characters along the way that help him grow, and in Dolls they are heading north to search for a place that is meaningful to them to invoke memories of their earlier lives.
However, the journeys aren’t always planned, such as in Hana-bi when the former detective and his ill wife are traveling across the country hiding from both the authorities and the gangsters to who he owes money to. The characters in his films regularly go on a journey, whether it be physical or metaphorical.
10. Top Billing
Despite being a prominent star in Japan, Kitano rarely found himself in any leading roles, most likely due to his comedic persona and people not being able to look past him as only a comedian. That was until he was cast in Violent Cop, a film that would eventually become his directorial debut after Kinji Fukasaku dropped out of the role. Since becoming a writer/director, he has cast himself in the leading role in the majority of the films, with the few that he does not appear in, including A Scene at the Sea and Dolls, being some of his more dramatic and honest films.
In most of his films, he receives top billing, even if his character is not the most prominent, such as in Boiling Point, when he does not appear until halfway through its runtime. In his earlier works, Kitano usually played either a corrupt cop or a gangster, aiming to separate himself from the comedian he was recognised as, and be treated as a fully-fledged filmmaker, which he was known for internationally, but not in Japan.