Idiot Savant Japan: Takeshi v. Takashi

No surprise to anyone, Sonatine was a commercial failure.

Idiot Savant Japan: Takeshi v. Takashi

You may be asking yourself: “Where is Vadim Rizov’s glorious self-pleasure music column?” Answer: Suffocating under its’ own pretensions with the rest of Mumblecore (ba-dum-ching!). I kid. Vadim is taking a break this week and graciously allowed me to pinch hit due to my own missed column from last week. So it’s only fitting that I expand on the topic of last week’s “Live” at Grassroots episode, “Big in Japan”: the Yakuza film. With the series at Asia Society kicking off tonight in traditional giri/ninjo fashion, I’d rather skip all that boring historical stuff and focus on two directors who are synonymous with the popular, modern Yakuza flick.

Takeshi Kitano and Takashi Miike would gain international acclaim for their portrayal of the post-modern gangster via their casual violence, sadistic humor and splatter gore. Kitano is best known as a cross-over star who was shunned by the Japanese film industry with his first film, Violent Cop (whose literal translation is basically Warning, This Man is Wild—although for a laugh, plug “?????????” into Google Translate). Kitano stepped into the role as a director-performer after Kinji Fukasaku dropped out. At this point in his career, he was best known for his manzai duo (The Two Beat), variety shows, and appearing on talk shows as the “Dennis Miller” character, who would harp on someone for a good laugh.

Professor Casio Abe’s Beat Takeshi vs. Takeshi Kitano examines the concept that Kitano’s entire performance and style is directly influenced by the differences found in the mediums of television and film. Kitano—who “acts” under his stage name Beat Takeshi, but directs using his full name—may run a surreal TV game show with no prizes awarded, but he can then ignore that and craft a film like Sonatine, which relishes in its violence.

Quickly boiling the plot down: Murakawa (Kitano) is the sub-boss of a local gang who is dispatched to Okinawa to mediate a turf war. Upon finding that nothing is really happening, his headquarters in Tokyo is blown up and his group is ambushed. The survivors drive out to the seaside and take up residence in a shanty, opting to now spend their time playing games along the beach. In the scene above, Murakawa decides to have his underlings fool around with a gun, quickly turning playful adolescence into a suicidal fantasy after the game turns to Russian Roulette. The gun isn’t loaded, but he later dreams about shooting himself—this time “winning”—and keeps a massive smile on his face as he does so. (In his book, Abe writes that Sonatine is a spiritual and intentional sequel to the same themes explored in Violent Cop.)

No surprise to anyone, Sonatine was a commercial failure. Most of Kitano’s films were until 1997’s Hana-Bi (marketed internationally as Fireworks, though the title may be more literally translated as Flower-Fire). The why and how of this being his “break-out” is curious, since you really find nothing different than you would in his previous films—aside from the slapstick heavy Getting Any?, but that is in itself too “Japanese” for any distribution to a foreign audience.

But at least he wasn’t Miike, who toiled in the bowels of V(ideo)-Cinema for years. Starting later than Kitano, Miike made a name for himself producing cheap, under-budget films for the insanely successful VHS/Home Video craze. Between 1991 and 1996, he unleashed 20 films, three of which were sequels. His work is known mainly for the quirks he puts into it— Shinjuku Triad Society focuses on a gay love triangle among Yakuza and the police; Rainy Dog explores being an outcast by reversing the perspective of Japanese immigrant racism; Full Metal Yakuza is like a slap-stick Tetsuo: The Iron Man by way of Robocop.

Of course, Miike too found real success in the foreign film festival market—namely, the Midnight brands. Fudoh: The Next Generation, Visitor Q and Ichi the Killer all propelled him into the realm of splatter-shock which grossed audiences out, but also had them marvel at the intentional genius of hand-held footage and seeing the “superhero” Ichi save a woman from her pimp, only to confess he wants to be the only one who rapes her.

Miike and Kitano take their Yakuza in the disillusioned sense. Best seen in the remake of Fukasaku’s Graveyard of Honor (given the Shin or “New” adjective in the original title), Miike paints a bitter and destructive picture of a folk tale that was considered honorable in the sixties.

But it is fitting that these two directors have such similar views portrayed through drastically different styles (Kitano, reserved and sudden; Miike, lavish and self-indulgent—dare I break out the “disgustingly decadent” too? I shall.) The best examples of their own fascination with the genre have to be Miike’s Dead or Alive: Hanzaishia/Dead or Alive: Birds and Kitano’s Takeshis’.

Miike’s film explores all the angles one expects of the director now, especially after Mes’ “Agitator”: the concept of being foreign despite looking similar, lack of family, societal breakdown, corruption, gore, inventive hand-held tracking shots and the “no one gets out of here alive” vibe. But in this prelude to Ichi, Miike creates an incredible character driven plot between the ten minute opening and world-destroying ending. His seedy underworld is populated with the kinds of characters Fukasaku made infamous in his Battles Without Honor series.

As for Takeshis’, there is a similar parallel I find here to the concept of “Yakuza cool”. Kitano’s self-referential style, especially after Zatoichi and Brother, is brought to a full-tilt boogie. While many are turned off by the notions of duality that he has inevitably started hammering into his films, it is fascinating—especially prefaced with Abe’s essays—on how Kitano’s Beat and Takeshi personas interact. In Takeshis’, nearly every Kitano staple is involved, playing different roles and acting out little inside jokes—Kitano’s personal love of tap dancing, the Japanese studio system, how most “period” films shoot inside using blue screen instead of sets. But it is the role of “Beat” Kitano in the film, the struggling actor with bleached hair who works at a convenience store and happily plays the part of ultra-stylish gangster. He openly gets into gun battles, robs banks, and never seems to have any fun. He desperately wants to—even during the hilarious “final battle” (on a beach straight from Sonatine) as he fires a semi-automatic into a progressing line of Edo-period Yakuza and modern riot squads.

But in order to fully appreciate them, you do need to know your history—so get to the Asia Society tonight or to Japan Society for their continuing No Borders, No Limits series, especially next Friday’s screening of Plains Wanderer.

It may not have existential, new wave concepts—but it’s got a horse! And a theme song! (Thankfully, the Yakuza film theme song trend has died.)

John Lichman

John Lichman's writing has appeared in IndieWire.

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