Drifting Cinema #3: Takeshi Kitano, Violence, and Defining Liquid Auteurism
Drifting Cinema is an essay series about both underseen films and films that I generally love, or am critically stimulated by. These essays will vary in tone, structure, and purpose. The one constant will be cinema, itself.
Objectivity is a term that has little to no relevance in the world of narrative cinema. Narrative cinema is inherently experiential — every aspect of the filmmaking apparatus informs the finished work, but no piece of the apparatus is as powerful as an assured director. A tenacious and driven director, who also writes and occasionally edits their films, is a singular force fueled by creative purpose. This type of director is often given the title of “auteur”. The term auteur stems from Andrew Sarris’s 1962 text, “Notes on the Auteur Theory”, in which an auteur is defined as a filmmaker with a specific vision, having a distinguishable personality present in their works, and interior meaning. Auteurs exist in every genre of cinema and their presence spans the globe in its entirety. For this paper, I will be focusing on one director who has been deemed an auteur by many — the enigmatic and ever-subversive Takeshi Kitano (or Beat Takeshi). Takeshi Kitano has been a popular face in the world of Japanese television/cinema for decades, but it was not until the late 1980s/early 1990s when he started directing films. Up until then, he was known as a popular comedian and slapstick artist on the zanier Japanese game show circuit. But when he forayed into directing films, his lens was intimately focused on the seedier aspects of Japanese life, vehemently toxic masculinity, and the suffering and dirtiness that comes with the doing of violence unto another human being.
In Takeshi Kitano’s 1993 film Sonatine, Kitano frames and paces his violence in the same way one would pace comedy — there is a buildup and a punchline, but the punchline usually involves bodily harm and/or bloodshed, and the violence (like comedy) upsets the continuity of drab realism that is imbued within every all of Kitano’s films (specifically Sonatine/Hana bi/Violent Cop), and he stretches out the time it takes to do violence in order to portray the bodily harm that comes with violence. Kitano’s prior status as a comedic auteur informs his films and reveals what audiences expect of him, and in turn, he must subvert his prior auteurship in order to prove that he, in fact, is an auteur of dramatic cinema and the doing violence on film.
Takeshi Kitano spent his early years as a comedian, and he mastered the art of zaniness and the timing of slapstick comedy. Upon entering the comedic sphere, Japanese audiences instantly fell in love with him. Eventually, Kitano would seek out a career in dramatic acting — with his foray into the medium being one of the most important (and heartbreaking) roles in the under-appreciated Nagasa Ôshima-directed Merry Christmas Mr. Lawrence. The film was released in 1983 and audiences were not ready to buy Kitano and his personage as anything more than a comedic force. They wrote him off. He pushed on. The year is now 1989 and Kitano bursts back onto the scene with his directorial debut Violent Cop, a film so bleak and so violent that cinema-goers would surely have to buy into Kitano as a dramatic filmmaker and auteur of violent cinema, right? Well, no. Many Japanese media consumers saw Kitano’s film as overly nihilistic to the point of comedy. Life as portrayed in Violent Cop could never be a reality, so instead of being confronted with the bleak facts of existing in a chaotic world, audiences laughed at the film as if it were nothing more than a shock for the sake of spectacle. Still, Kitano would not be deterred. He desperately wanted to leave his comedic auteurhood behind for the sake of acquiring a new auteur status in the world of dramatic cinema, and his answer to that very conundrum would come in the form of 1993’s Sonatine — a film that takes place in almost real-time with a sleepy, relaxed, and melancholic pace that only ever raises above the mundanity of life when shocking moments of violence bring the film to an abrupt and unexpected life basked in the red of human viscera.
Takeshi Kitano’s prior entertainment life as a comedic force has imbued his serious and dramatically violent cinema with an essence of comedy, not through direct humor, but how violence and bodily harm is framed. He directs the violence in Sonatine (and his later films) in the same cinematic style that one would frame a moment of surprise or slapstick comedy — there is usually a buildup (sometimes comedy, like violence, can burst from nowhere into unexpected life) followed by a moment of catharsis or a punchline. It just so happens that this punchline in the works of Kitano is usually punctuated with gunshots, leaking bodies in a state of flux between life and the finality of death, and the aftermath of violence. Anti-catharsis, if you will. For example, in a scene midway through Sonatine, Kitano’s Murakawa and his yakuza-cohorts are seen drinking in a dimly lit Okinawa bar. Patrons come in — some are students who decide to have beer over hard liquor. “No hard liquor!”, they say. But before those students enter, another group of young men enters and find a seat at a table in the back corner of the bar, directly behind Murakawa. Throughout these parties entering and finding seats, the camera hangs on Kitano and his gang in a static wide shot that showcases the relaxed normality of the current moment. This reality is fractured as each party enters the bar, as Kitano and his gang cast side-eyed glances at those who enter. This builds some tension, but nothing comes of it. The yakuza members just keep drinking in silence. The buildup of tension should have had a pay-off by now, and thus the tension washes away as reality sets back in. Then out of nowhere, violence erupts. Gunshots ring out through the bar, as the party in the back of the bar opens fire on Murakawa and his men. Some die, others live. The camera hangs in another static wide shot as Murakawa stands stoically in center-frame rapidly firing his handgun — no remorse, no sense of panic, no fear. This is all just normal, another bump in the road of the yakuza lifestyle. But the previous buildup of tension had little to do with the violence on display, and as the camera lingers over the leaking bodies as their fluids mix in with the bar’s carpet, it becomes quite obvious how similar this whole moment is with random outbursts of slapstick comedies that color so many Japanese films — from Toshiro Mifune’s wannabe samurai in Akira Kurosawa’s Seven Samurai to the random crises that pop up in Juzo Itami’s The Funeral. Kitano portraying violence as analogous to comedy directly ties to Kitano’s human experience, directly playing into his status as a dramatic auteur: “Interior meaning is extrapolated from the tension between a director’s personality and his material…It is not quite the vision of the world a director projects nor quite his attitude toward life. It is ambiguous, in any literary sense, because part of it is embedded in the stuff of the cinema and cannot be rendered in non-cinematic terms.” (Sarris 453). Takeshi Kitano’s auteur status is in a state of constant flux, of the push and pull between his past as a comedian and his present as a foremost director in the Japanese New Wave. His films have earned him the title of dramatic auteur, but his prior comedic auteur status will always inform every aspect of his works. That is where the interior meaning of the actions on display in his films come from. His experience of always being pulled in two directions informs how he portrays violence — there is the pull to see it as comedy and the direct, unmistakable push of the stomach-churning fact that what the viewer is seeing is an astoundingly graphic portrayal of violence. Once again, it is easy to turn to a specific scene from another one of his post-Violent Cop films, Hana-bi, which is a rumination on grief and guilt. Kitano once again stars in the film and seeing his body weave between moments of violence and comedy further exemplifies how he, beyond his auteur status, is in a constant state of bodily/metaphysical flux between his doing of comedy and violence. Roughly a third of the way through the film, Kitano’s lead character — Yoshitaka Nishi — sits silently at the bar of a sushi restaurant. The camera faces him in a medium-wide shot that keeps his upper body and head in full-frame. Once again, the camera remains unmoved. Two low-level Yakuza thugs enter and flank him on either side. They hassle him for owed money. He remains, like the camera, alarmingly still. They threaten him with physical violence, and then he bursts into violent life. He sticks a chopstick in the eyeball of the man to his right and kicks the other man in the face, who gazes confusedly at Kitano as he violently coughs up bloody bile. Kitano’s stillness and emotional distance in the face of chaos are what builds this scene to play for comedy, and his un-reaction to the gangsters hassling him is quite funny, but the explosion of violence yanks the viewer right back into Kitano’s new field of play — serious drama imbued with shocking violence. In this, he subverts audience expectations, but more importantly, he subverts himself and finds his directorial essence flung into a state of liquid auteurhood, a term which I will endeavor to define and ground within Sonatine, while also allowing the phrase to drip into Kitano’s entire oeuvre.
Liquid authorship, as I’ve come to define it, is an artist’s ability to treat auteur status like a body of moving, flowing water, where their auteurhood is always moving forward in a new direction, but like how water a mile down a river is the same as the water a mile back in the river, is always informed by and in conversation with that person’s prior auteur status and/or their essence as one who partakes in the metaphysical habits of the human experience. Takeshi Kitano emboldens and is easily defined as a liquid auteur because his past, in both filmmaking and in life, is always informing his present and his future works. There would be no Violent Cop without his past as a comedian and his desire to change and radicalize himself from being a comedic auteur. And there would be no Sonatine without the realization that Violent Cop was too nihilistic — its seriousness diminished by unwieldy pessimism. Fluid auteurhood is akin to walking a tight rope where on one side there is the past and on the other, there is the future of limitless, malleable possibilities. Sean Redmond, in the scholarly book Flowering Blood: The Cinema of Takeshi Kitano, sees Kitano as a filmmaker whose ideas and themes are ‘liquid’: “That his own authorial persona is itself a body-without-organs, that he is a self-reflexive liquid celebrity complicates the experience further…In a more direct academic sense, Kitano is an assemblage, a network or nodule through which these texts and images emerge.” (Redmond 13). Kitano’s filmography is imbued with a through-line of violence (or the implied threat of violence/its effects), but his films are also vastly different in the themes and worlds they explore. Yet, Kitano’s essence and authorial voice ties them all together. Redmond sees this as being due to Kitano being the node or nexus point in which all of Kitano’s filmic images stem from and return to — he is the terminus of his own work because he retains control over almost every aspect of his texts.
Kitano’s focal point of where his terminus lies is always changing — it will move closer to comedy (as in his 1995 comedy Getting Any) or it will plunge into the murky, red-hued depths of bleak violence (as in his 2012 yakuza revenge film Beyond Outrage). Thus, the whole idea of him being “a body-without-organs” shows that his frame (his body/personage) cannot be changed, but the essence within is ever-malleable. Apply this line of thought to his filmic structure and style, and his resonance as a liquid auteur is directly defined. His films follow similar structures, pacing(s), and styles that grant the viewer the knowledge that they are viewing a Kitano film, but it becomes liquid/subversive when themes are applied to his structure — the fluctuation between comedy, violence, and the space between the two both subverts viewer expectations and Kitano’s expectations of himself. He may seek to craft a violent and hyper-serious tale, but he’ll end up with a jet-black comedy in the vein of Outrage or Violent Cop. He subverts typically defined auteur theory at almost every step, whether it be what audiences expect of him or how he frames and portrays violence, but he can still be defined as a liquid auteur of the portrayal of violence in cinema. This is most easily seen in how he lingers on the aftermath of violence, and it is in the moments after violence where his dramatic prowess fully reveals itself.
The thrill of cinematic violence comes in how the doing of violence is framed, paced, and executed. The recent John Wick films’ whole raison d’être is to show how fluid and quick cinematic violence can be. The aftermath is rarely lingered on because once the viewer sees the aftermath of violence — the smoking bullet holes in mangled corpses, for example — the violence becomes less ‘fun’ and, in turn, it becomes more damning. But the films of Takeshi Kitano almost portray violence just to show the aftermath of such volatile acts — almost as if to show how pointless and ugly and random violence often is. For example, in Sonatine, Kitano lingers on almost every moment of violence. The most effective outcome of this specific directorial intent comes in a scene when rival yakuza bosses confront each other on a small dirt road that lies between two poppy fields. A man, his female partner, and bodyguards are shot in a static semi-overhead wide shot, as they converse with the rival party of yakuzas. What follows is a cut to a medium-wide shot as the yakuza boss and his bodyguards are killed. It happens in semi-slow-motion, as if in order to emphasize the impact of each gunshot. Lead punctures each body as they writhe in pain and crumble to the dirt. Where most directors would move on to the next scene knowing that the conversation of violence with the audience has reached its end, Kitano holds. In another semi-overhead wide shot, Kitano holds his camera over the dead bodies in the dirt and the surviving female character just stares at the bodies in shock or fear — her reaction is not conveyed to the audience, but it need not be. She is our surrogate. We, like she, are survivors of the outburst of violence and all we can do, all we must do, is look and grapple with the grisly aftermath. This structure of violence, this malleability of the image and of the aftermath is a necessary part of understanding Takeshi Kitano as a liquid auteur of comedic violence: “So film is a very versatile form of expression. That is why film making is the most exciting and enjoyable medium for me right now.” (Hamid 33). Kitano expresses violence through its aftermath. The portrayal of violent acts is just a means to an end — the end being bloody bodies in variable states of disrepair and undoing. Violence in the cinema of Takeshi Kitano does not end after the last punch is thrown or the last shot is fired. It lingers for minutes after, and it never goes away within the universe of his films. The malleability of cinema affords Kitano the ability to be expressive through cinematic violence, how he portrays it, and by emphasizing the fact that he is far more interested in the psychological violence and bodily ruin then in just the sheer kinetic act of doing violence. That is why the violence in his films is not thrilling, it is just a matter of fact. And like comedy, what matters is what comes before and after the punchline — how it is affected in the cinematic sense and how it affects viewers, characters therein, and the status of Kitano’s liquid auteurhood. Through his expression of violence, Kitano’s will is, too, expressed.
Takeshi Kitano embodies the essence of an anti auteur theory because his life is constantly in conversation with his cinema, and his style of framing violence akin to comedy acts as a means of subverting cinematic styles, and auteur theory itself because he is his work but he, like his work, is always changing, never defined. Furthermore, his subversion of cinematic styles extends to the fact that Kitano is self-reflexive and aware of his status of liquid auteur. This affords him the ability to both subvert audience expectations and his own expectations of himself in how he portrays the filmic and thematic conversation between violence and comedy. Both Sonatine and Hana-bi exemplify the varying range of aspects that make up the metaphysical body of Kitano as a filmmaker. His films constantly engage in the means and doings of violence, but he knows that violence is more than just an act. It is a world-altering event, and he allows his cinematic worlds to be molded, fractured, and annihilated by violence and the carnal aftermath(s). Yet, he does with a subtle smirk because his violent and comedic tool kits are, in fact, one and the same.
I, personally, do not buy into auteur theory as it is defined. I find it to be a toxic concept that has emboldened many (predominantly male) directors to be assholes, cruel, and monstrous in order to “assert their auteur status and achieve their vision.” If we are to find any power and purpose in the term and its origins, we must redefine it—which I have tried to do in a way that makes sense for the overall essay, but as a whole, I genuinely believe that auteur theory has been detrimental to the making and consumption of cinema, as well as the teaching and doing of film theory. It is a crutch.
Hamid, Rahul. “‘Beat’ Comes to America: An Interview with Takeshi Kitano.” Cineaste, vol. 26, no. 3, Summer 2001, p. 32.
Kitano, Takeshi. “Sonatine.” 1993.
Kitano, Takeshi. “Hana-bi.” 1997.
“Introduction: Becoming Lost in Tokyo.” The Cinema of Takeshi Kitano: Flowering Blood, by Sean Redmond, Wallflower Press, 2013, pp. 1–15.
Sarris, Andrew. “Notes on the Auteur Theory from 1962.” Film Culture, pp. 452–454.