The opening of Violent Cop
To begin at the
beginning, and Violent Cop tells us a lot about Kitano's techniques. As
I've noted in the films section of my site, it is a genre gangster film but, somehow, feels unique. Why is
The answer lies in Kitano's shooting and editing techniques and the way that
the whole film has been put together. The opening scene contains a cruel mixture
of deadpan humour and sadistic violence and it is these two elements that
underpin all of his films. On a simple level, his style stems from long takes
and frequently static shots; most of his scenes are viewed from one angle
(usually high up) and are played out without cutting. For example, during the
opening scene the homeless man is beaten up in one long take and the effect of
this is to make it less graphic. We can tell that it is not real because it is
played out as if on stage and the absence of cutting reinforces this. As a
modern, aware audience we know that what we are watching is fake and this works
to subtly temper the violence of the scene. Hence, the scene still remains
nastily violent but there is a degree of cruel comedy to it; we have already
laughed at the homeless man's lack of expression at the beginning and so we find
it difficult not to laugh at him now. The next scene, wherein Azuma beats up one
of the youths, is played even more for laughs. This time, we don't even see the
kid until halfway through the sequence; just Azuma slapping someone out of shot.
Kitano's weary expression aligns us with him and we feel no sympathy for the
kid. Like the original Japanese audience did, we want to laugh at this
ridiculous man slapping a no-good, deserving punk.
Throughout his work Kitano shoots violence in different ways depending on the
situation. The youth above finds violence quick and easy and the scene when
Azuma beats him is played for laughs to underline this. When the hit man
Kiyohiro (Haku Ryo) stabs a drug pusher at the dock, however, we actually see a
close-up shot of the knife being pulled out of the victim's chest, blood
dripping from the wound. It makes clear the point that violence can be graphic
and it almost always hurts.
Violence as ritual
Violence in Kitano's films is
often played out as some sort of ritual. It is a necessary part of his
characters' lives but they do not necessarily enjoy it. Violence that does not
form a part of this ritual is often comic because it stems from the characters'
hearts; they feel a need to lash out because of their emotions and, hence, they
are simply acting out who they are. The ritualistic violence, however, always
brings to the fore one of Kitano' main themes: the conflict between duty and
The scene in Violent Cop where the police chase another drug pusher
through Tokyo is like this and Kitano makes the point clear by shooting the
whole thing like a baseball run. We start in the apartment of the criminal as
Kikuchi barges in and is shrugged off. The other two detectives then have a go,
each one waiting their turn as if they were baseball pitchers on a bloody field.
As a result of this they end up being overpowered and the pusher escapes. Azuma,
who has been hanging back, then gives chase. When we get outside we run into a
group of kids actually playing baseball and the criminal steals their bat and
hits the final police officer in the head, killing him. At this point the game
stops for a while and we can tell because Kitano films the scuffle in slow
motion, shorthand for 'serious' violence. It is also shot like a baseball action
replay. We see the full impact of the blow, blood splattering from the cop's
head. After hitting the 'ball', of course, the next step is to run and the
criminal does this, still keeping tight hold of his bat.
Baseball is a common motif in Kitano's films and it is used for a variety of
reasons. When Azuma's sister is gang raped in Violent Cop the sequence is
intercut with shots of him practising baseball, unaware of her fate. It is used
to highlight the closeness of modern life to violence and depravity; violence
can erupt at any moment in Kitano's work and when it is compared to something
banal like baseball we know it will be bloody. The chase scene above also showed
how baseball turned comedy into tragedy and the same device is used in
Hana-Bi. When Nichi's partner Horibe is shot and paralysed it is after we
have seen more kids playing baseball on the street. Nichi even throws their ball
away and the shot of them looking dejected makes the moment funny - a clear sign
that something bad is going to happen. Another conflict is set-up in his films
by this: banal normality and politeness versus sudden and brutal violence.
Playing at being gangsters
than his other films, shows this ritual nature of violence extremely well. The
conflict between duty and personality is clear in this tale of a Yakuza
who is sick of his violent life. Being a genre movie, we know that he will be
unable to escape the cycle of violence and will have to succumb to it to stay
alive. The ritual begins with the murder of the owner of a mah-jong parlour who
is drowned in the bay. The scene is edited at a very slow pace and Kitano cuts
from the guy being plunged into the water to shots of Murakawa and his men
watching impassively from the side. No emotion is shown (except that of the
victim) and we know that this is just part of their job. Murakawa's words at the
end, 'We killed him, but never mind' show his lack of concern and the nature of
his world. The gangsters even talk about the upcoming Okinawa trip while the
victim is underwater and, therefore, forget about him for too long.
Humour is brought into the film when we meet Murakawa's 'new boys', arrived
to help with the Okinawa trip. A tracking shot introduces them as they say their
names in turn but the last man, Itoh, is too big and, hence, his head is out of
frame. The situation descends into slapstick when more new recruits arrive and a
scuffle breaks out. One of them is stabbed but it is not serious and is
signified as funny due to a number of factors:
- The onlookers (all older men) watch impassively and don't react at all.
- The stabbing is accomplished as part of the same shot and no editing is
involved (we also see no blood).
- The soundtrack is full of the shouts and arguments of the fighters, showing
that it is all just young male bluff and, thus, not serious.
The combination of these factors works here to undermine the sudden violence
and turn it into something else. The scene is funny while we are watching it,
but not all of Kitano's sequences are like this. The shootout that occurs later
in the film in an Okinawan bar is initially played out very realistically with,
by necessity, rapid cutting between the two sides. It is violence as ritual
because of the way each participant stands their ground and never moves from
their spot, as if everyone is aware of their assigned positions. After the brief
battle we cut to a shot of three men watching, all of them wide-eyed. It is the
contrast between the onlookers' expressions and the violence of the gangsters
that provides unexpected humour in this scene, laughter that only comes after
the act. Kitano then, of course, shows images of the corpses, just so we don't
begin to get used to the violence.
Sounds like murder
The way Kitano uses the
soundtrack to highlight humour is a key identifying factor in his films. The
scene mentioned earlier in Violent Cop (the murder of the drug pusher by
Kiyohiro) takes place in near silence, just the sound of the water breaking the
stillness. It gives us time to reflect on what is happening and on the awfulness
of the act and it also marks it as ritual and, therefore, unfunny. The fight and
stabbing between the new recruits of Sonatine, however, is played out to
a soundtrack of shouting and squabbling, deflating the tension and seriousness
of what has happened. Kitano makes it even more clear when the victim says to
his attacker later in the film, 'It still hurts where you stabbed me.'
The opening of Hana-Bi
probably Kitano's most accomplished film in terms of shooting style and
complexity, and the opening scene tells us a lot about his techniques as a
We start with a shot of the sky before cutting to a mid-shot of two car-park
attendants staring at us. We then see Nishi staring at the two men. Shots of
food dirtying the bonnet of a car are cut with more shots of Nishi staring until
we suddenly see him reach into his pocket. Nothing happens, however, and we then
cut back to the two attendants staring and then to a shot of one of them washing
a windscreen. Something has happened here and the connection of Nishi's movement
to the windscreen washing suggests ... something - we are not sure what. As the
guy cleans the glass, Nishi kicks him on the backside, knocking him over. It is
a humorous scene, due mainly to the fact that nothing is revealed and we are
forced to make our own inferences. We haven't actually seen any violence yet so
we can't take the scene seriously; the only significant image we are left with
is that of Nishi and the two guys staring at each other, suggesting power games
beneath the surface. They are a part of Kitano's technique of including
spectators in his violent scenes, innocent bystanders whose lack of reaction
inflects what is happening. We notice that time is being played with here, in
the same way as the rest of the film. Kitano is setting us up, preparing us for
his temporal jump cuts, flashbacks and flashforwards. We can infer from this
that Nishi is a man living in the past and much of the film will, indeed, be
borne from his memories.
After the above we cut to the title itself and the music fades in before we
then see a shot of an empty parking space with the words 'DROP DEAD' painted on
the floor. Nishi's car drives down a seafront road and the camera tilts up to
the sky to be back where we started. The elliptical nature of this gives us no
clues as to when this scene has happened. We also know now that Nishi is casual
towards violence and a great deal of his power is expressed in his silence, a
threat of what is to come.
We return to this scene later in the film and the rest is revealed. Nishi
walks to his car and meets the two men, one of them holding up a knife. Nishi
stakes a step forward and then we cut to the third guy, who watches something
happening - a fight, evidently, as this is what we can hear. It is funny because
of Kitano's focus on the spectator, whose weary non-reaction makes us laugh. We
then see a shot of the knife clattering away before cutting to a shot of Nishi
and his opponent's shadows as they fight. The scene gradually becomes less funny
as we assume the violence to be more 'real'. The sound dies away and we are left
with Nishi holding a knife above the other man, who is on the ground. In silence
he lets the knife drop but the other man catches it, a tense moment because it
takes place in silence and the victim is seen to tense and squint before it
drops. The seriousness is also achieved by montage, hence it cannot be funny.
When Nishi is driving away we notice that his hand has been cut. He apparently
considered it unimportant while fighting and, supposedly, so should we. Finally,
the two punks are seen relaxing after their encounter, 'DROP DEAD' in the
foreground, and it is clear they are both alive and well. We can finally relax
as we realise the scene is meant to be taken humorously, something we were
unsure of before. Kitano has undermined our expectations with his editing and
has mixed his opposites of humorous and serious violence. Tony Rayns, in
Sight and Sound, also notes how this scene is made humorous by the final
[The last] shot defines [the attendants], like the other peripheral
characters, as on-lookers, spectators of everything that happens at the core of
the film. They are ... losers defined by their inability to dent Nishi or to
penetrate the central drama. As such ... they are also figures of fun.
Compare them to the woman accidentally shot by Kiyohiro in Violent
Cop, who exists only to be killed. And the spectators at the shootout in
Sonatine, who are there just to make the scene funny.
Themes explored in Hana-Bi
- Life versus death (Horibe's failed suicide leaves him to find new meaning in
his life while Nishi kills himself after organising his life).
- Family versus loneliness (Horibe's family leaves him when he is shot and he
lives alone while Nishi takes his wife (Kayoko Kishimoto) on a second honeymoon
after they have lost their daughter. This theme is also contrasted in Horibe's
paintings: families in front of fireworks. When Nishi's real firework fails to
go off we are reminded of his dead daughter.)
- Privacy versus society (Kitano's own paintings are predominant throughout
the film; in the bank, the Yakuza HQ, etc).
The theme of duty versus individualism has already been mentioned.
A recurrent theme in these three films is that of youthful innocence and
idealism versus corruption and resignation. It comes to a fore right at the
beginning of Violent Cop, when Azuma is assigned Kikuchi as a partner. It
is a generic convention, although Kitano upsets this by making Azuma the worst
mentor imaginable, corrupting the boy by taking him to gambling establishments
and making him an accessory to his violent methods. At the end of the film
Kikuchi is seen becoming a criminal, taking the place of Azuma's old partner.
There is no explanation given for this change of character, just an acceptance
that the rules of the establishment will always prevail. In Sonatine we
also have the recruit who follows Murakawa to the end and is the only survivor
of the film. When Murakawa says to him, 'You've had enough [violence], haven't
you?' he doesn't answer. We know that he hasn't and will become the next
Murakawa in the same way Nakamura (Terajima Susumu) is seen in the process of
becoming another Nishi in Hana-Bi.
Rayns also comments on this:
It's their matching eagerness to break ... taboos that makes both
Azuma and Kiyohiro characters worth celebrating, and pits both of them against
the 'systems' they work for ... It is the 'systems' that prevail. [Violent
Cop's] closing credits roll over a freeze-frame of [Nito's] secretary ... an
exemplar of the very mindless conformity and complicity that 'hero' and
'villain' both stood against.
Azuma and Kiyohiro fight the system in two entirely different ways: one by
being a 'violent cop', the other by being gay.
Essay originally posted here