PRINT April 1997


WATCHING “BEAT” TAKESHI KITANO’S sardonically oblique Sonatine, it’s easy to imagine his nickname coming from Elvis Costello’s “The Beat,” where the singer boasted: “I’ll do anything to confuse the enemy.” Kitano—who besides starring in the film also wrote, directed, and edited it—is master of subterfuge, and casual displacement. Sonatine surveys nihilism with a bemused gaze: it turns the gangster film into a still life with blood. Kitano lets the camera linger on figures and spaces, holding shots an extra second or two while his actors (taking their cue from his taciturn manner) move with a stylized awkwardness, as though going through the naturalistic motions under some kind of posthypnotic suggestion. And as violence periodically breaks out in Sonatine, the claustrophobic staging suggests a marionette theater of cruelty. When rival factions come face to face inside an elevator, a gun battle breaks out right in front of a woman passenger who barely reacts. Like the gunmen slumped around her, she might be in a trance—the violence here isn’t “action” but free-floating autism.

This is the comedy of savagery, ennui, and unreason, and indeed Sonatine suggests the touch of Buñuel among the hoodlum class—the discreet charm of the yakuza. Pauline Kael described Buñuel’s attitude toward the bourgeoisie in a phrase that applies equally well to Kitano and his killer buffoons: “He has grown almost fond of their follies—the way one can grow fond of the snarls and the silliness of vicious pets.” The film has been around since 1993, and following several delays is to be released this August; meanwhile Sonatine made Kitano a cult household icon throughout the rest of the world—in England he has attracted the same adulation as Quentin Tarantino. (As it happens, Sonatine is being released under the aegis of Tarantino’s Rolling Thunder Films, and tomake matters more convoluted, Kitano’s company recently produced a Japanese remake of Reservoir Dogs.) Yet weirdly enough he earned his renown in Japan as the beloved “Beat” Takeshi while half of a comedy team, now dissolved, and remains one of the most popular television personalities in Japan. When he made Violent Cop in 1989, it was as if Steve Martin had suddenly set out to become a “termite-art” version of Clint Eastwood. The humor in his films however is expressed indirectly, through visceral, incongruous juxtapositions—sly elisions of the expected. Sonatine taps into the innate absurdity of machismo, that game of phallic chicken where men prove themselves by destroying themselves. Kitano invokes the surreal poetry of that death wish with a knowing grin, the way his character in Sonatine plays a practical joke on his confederates during a friendly game of Russian roulette. (Then he imagines blowing his own brains out in a lyrical reverie, mentally rehearsing his future.) Whether a bullet in the head or an elaborate practical joke—Kitano constructs a whole digressive routine around the old man-steps-into-hole gag Woody Allen revived in Bananas—either way the gangsters here partake of the same dissociated physicality, the same delight in mortification.

Sonatine is hardly concerned with the thrill of bloodshed or the romantic allure of hard-boiled myth, save as typologies to play off of. Instead it imagines the mundane routine of mob life, the everyday rites of a boredom even random brutality and sudden death can’t fully alleviate. Sonatine presents a bunch of goodfellas on what amounts to a summer holiday at Club Dread, a beach party thrown by Godot. (In one great rollover-Sam Beckett moment, however, Kitano throws in a comic fast-motion sequence that could pass for an outtake from Help!.) The flimsy plot is deliberately banal: Tokyo mob lieutenant Murakawa (Kitano) and some feckless yakuza troops are dispatched to Okinawa to restore peace in a budding gang war. Naturally this proves to be a ploy by Murakawa’s boss to get him out of the way and move in on his lucrative turf, stranding him in the midst of a bloody debacle. From there, he and his crew are forced into hiding at a house along a deserted beach, taking the Corleone family’s “going to the mattresses” rather too literally, because that’s about all they have in their grubby, ramshackle hideout. Sonatine proceeds from cursory narrative to a series of puckish, serene variations on waiting and fatality—a minimalist funeral march.

Kitano has said, “For me, film is essentially silent,” which accounts for the contemplative cast of Sonatine. No wonder he made the hero of his 1992 A Scene at the Sea deaf-mute: there’s a little bit of that, or at least a massive stoicism, to most characters in his films. There’s also an enjoyable time-warp quality to his work. Nominally set in the present, Sonatine harks back to the era of such disparate freestyle cinema as Jean-Luc Godard’s Pierrot le fou, Shohei Imamura’s The Pornographers, and Terrence Malick’s Badlands (especially once it introduces the blank waif Murakawa rescues—okay, confiscates—from a rapist). Kitano’s mix of the lyrical and the clinical suggests an envoi from a less media-saturated world, a time when tinny transistor radios were the height of technology. For all the genre elements here, much of the movie’s pleasure lies in how uncontaminated the frame is by the clutter and heavy breathing of ’90s neo-noir, à la The Usual Suspects or the noxious Things to Do in Denver When You’re Dead. The anachronistic elements in Sonatine are refreshing simply because Kitano isn’t trying to overwhelm the audience by pushing every hyperbolic button he can think of. He keeps hisdistance, working out his obsessions with a calm, prickly intelligence, until his asperity seems positively radical.

Another quality that makes Kitano’s work distinctively pungent is the absence of the self-censorship that we almost take for granted among filmmakers now. What redeemed Violent Cop was its refusal of any socially redeeming values: it unsparingly followed the rogue-policeman idea to its logical, messy conclusion, without tough guy sentimentality or ideological hedged bets. The detective Azuma was Dirty Harry not as sacred cow but sacred monster, as demented as he is incorruptible. He was finally so blindly implacable—a kamikaze Quixote—that he sought to bring the whole dirty system down around him. But corruption being as pervasive as the weather or the civil service, no amount of cleansing bloodshed could interfere with the well—oiled crime machine. (A new mob boss just recruits a new bag man—Azuma’s young partner—and the process continues.) Such cynicism is a commonplace of Japanese cinema from Kurasawa on down, but Kitano refines it. There’s no despair, no rage, underneath his misanthropy, no pulpy self-righteousness in showing life “as it really is”; he’s the most clear-eyed of directors (and actors). In Boiling Point, 1990, the second half of which is something of a rough draft for Sonatine, Kitano is a terrifying flake, an ebullient one-man Rat Pack. He tries to wheedle a pal into cutting off a finger for him, comes onto a squirming male he meets in a bar (smashing a nearby patron over the head with beer bottles for no particular reason), later pulling the buddy off the girl he’s fucking and mounting him. In the crazed culmination of the debauch, Kitano’s gangster gets that finger he was after too—you could say his acting specialty is characters suffering from poor impulse management. (Actually, they seem to quite enjoy themselves.) In Boiling Point as well as Sonatine, Kitano gives us an unaffected version of Joe Pesci’s rampaging ham in Goodfellas, one that goes much further into murderous instability yet without the bombast. Kitano treats sociopathy and disorder as natural outgrowths of the yakuza mentality, but as a director he juggles human hand-grenades with a certain delicacy, attentive to the rules of even the craziest games.

As an actor, Kitano has a very narrow range, but within it he has a more profound audience rapport than almost anyone in movies today. As he demonstrated in Nagisa Oshima’s groggy Merry Christmas, Mr. Lawrence (Kitano’s 1983 film debut), he’s got a wonderfully open face, as guileless as a head butt. With a slight hitch in his step—like a crab that’s learned to walk upright—and cheerfully ruthless demeanor, Kitano burrows into the infantile crevices of masculinity with an impish, visceral relish. In his more sadistic screen moments, he retains a disconcertingly elfin quality; in his more wryly melancholy ones, Kitano can suggest Bogart if he’d been cast adrift in the polluted surf of The Long Goodbye. But he never solicits audience sympathy or, worse, identification. He isn’t our surrogate or guide, but rather the eyes of an otherness that quietly gnaws its way through our conditioned responses.

Kitano doesn’t act in his latest work, Kid’s Return (1996), and his centrifugal presence is missed. He hasn’t found other actors who can impart the same sensibility to the material, which after a pleasantly shambling opening settles into a fairly predictable mélange of gangster, boxing, and coming-of-age movie elements. There is a tantalizing glimpse in Kid’s Return of a different, far more interesting milieu: If the film had followed the pair of young comics through the ranks of Japanese showbiz, it might have found a much more personal tone (perhaps Kitano could have played a mentor—antagonist and explored his roots in comedy, always a great breeding ground for hostility). As it is, Kid’s Return is a polite, well-made, rather boring elegy of a film (having premiered at Cannes, it has the hothouse air of a film tailored for the international festival circuit).

Kitano injects more of his own idiosyncratic aura into his brief supporting role in Takashi Ishii’s elegant splatterfest Gonin, almost to the verge of self-parody. As a killer who again forces himself on his partner, the role’s a far cry from his straitlaced cameo opposite a dim Keanu Reeves in Johnny Mnemonic (imagine what a perverse coupling that might have been). Though his turn in Gonin (a standard crime thriller taken to baroque, horror-show extremes) underscores some of his own latent conventionality, it also serves to link him with the largely unknown tradition of the Japanese avant-pulp underground: films like the cockeyed master Seijun Suzuki’s breathtaking Branded to Kill and Atsuchi Yamatoya’s free-jazz skullfuck Inflatable Sex Doll of the Wastelands, both of which anticipated David Lynch’s Lost Highway by a good thirty years. Sonatine, Boiling Point, and Violent Cop may be seen as the exquisitely unlikely terminus of that tendency (sadism as epistemology), abstracted and recollected in dispassion. So while Sonatine is a magnificent summing up, it also feels like the end of the road. Kitano’s future greatness won’t be in small films like Kid’s Return or, I suspect, in going back to gangland, but in bringing the sweet unreason of Sonatine to bear on mainstream institutions like those of politics, finance, and entertainment—the places where the real bodies are buried.

Howard Hampton is a regular contributor to Artforum and Film Comment.