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Before There Was Tony Soprano, There Were Takeshi Kitano’s Depressed Mobsters

The legendary Japanese filmmaker’s yakuza may be hypermasculine tough guys, but they’re also big-time sad bois

Sky blue shores juxtaposed with dense concrete cityscapes. Cops and yakuza committing brutal acts of violence before getting lost in childish games. Admiring the beach, loving your bros and kind of wanting to die. Long still takes and transcendent scores by Joe Hisaishi (famously associated with Studio Ghibli). These are the recurring motifs of filmmaker Takeshi Kitano. And though he’s mostly known in the West for appearing in violent, dramatic genre films like Battle Royale, Ghost in the Shell and Johnny Mnemonic, he came to fame as one of Japan’s most famous comedians and television presenters under the pseudonym Beat Takeshi.

To that end, imagine David Letterman in the 1990s suddenly deciding he wanted to be Clint Eastwood, acting in and directing bloody action movies. That’s about the closest American parallel to the career of the ultimate multi-hyphenate Kitano, who on top of editing, writing, directing and starring in his own films, is also an accomplished painter, author and tap dancer. The transition into becoming one of Japan’s most esteemed filmmakers didn’t happen overnight though, with fans in his home country refusing to take his efforts as both an actor and director seriously for many years and treating it as “nothing more than a comedian superstar’s hobby,” in Kitano’s own words.

To wit: When Japanese audiences first saw Kitano play a serious role in the 1983 World War II film Merry Christmas, Mr. Lawrence (where he starred alongside David Bowie in what was also his first introduction to Western audiences), they laughed whenever he came on screen. Though he was playing a brutal guard in a POW camp, viewers were unable to separate Takeshi Kitano the actor from Beat Takeshi the comedian. Witnessing this reaction embarrassed Kitano and majorly impacted the course of his directing career. For the first decade of it, Takeshi would only cast himself as villains and violent anti-heroes until Japanese audiences eventually started taking him as seriously as the Western world did.

When asked why he makes films about cops and yakuza so often, Kitano has said they’re the only people in Japan whose professions involve guns, making them the only people in his homeland that deal with death and violence on a daily basis. And though so much of his work focuses on these hypermasculine figures, Kitano does little to glamorize them, instead using them to deconstruct power, to focus on man’s internal conflicts and to explore the impermanence of life with his own mixture of whimsy and depression. 

Here are a few of the most essential examples of Kitano’s explorations of masculinity…

Violent Cop (1989)

Takeshi made the jump to directing when the director of a police comedy he was set to star in dropped out, after which the distributor offered him the chance to get behind the camera. He entirely rewrote the script, removing many comedic elements to make it a gritty crime thriller about a Dirty Harry-esque detective named Azuma who often resorts to violence to get results. When Azuma’s partner turns up dead while investigating drug pushers’ connection with the police force and his sister is kidnapped by the same gang, he goes berserk, using any and all means necessary to find the truth.

Violent Cop (though I much prefer the literal translation of the Japanese title — That Man, Being Violent) is the urtext of Kitano movies. In it, you can see all the prototypical techniques and motifs he would become attached to as his career went on — e.g., his seaside settings, deadpan humor, long takes and editing past violence to its bloody aftermath. Kitano crafts an incredibly bleak depiction of masculinity gone awry, and in an effort to differentiate himself from his comedic persona, he places himself squarely at the heart of it. As Azuma, he embodies unchecked male rage, carrying with him a reckless brutality that’s less concerned with justice than it is with aggression, leaving nothing in its wake. “My philosophy is that one shall not resort to violence unless one is resolved to become the subject of violence at any time,“ said Kitano in a 2004 interview with The A.V. Club.

Sonatine (1993)

After Violent Cop, Kitano went on to make two films that couldn’t be more tonally disparate. Boiling Point was another uncomfortable crime drama that I can only describe as The Bad News Bears if the Joker showed up partway through and started sexually assaulting people as a comedy bit. On the other end of the spectrum was A Scene at the Sea, a tender story of a young deaf man who finds a broken surfboard on his garbage route, repairs it with his similarly deaf girlfriend and quickly falls in love with surfing. With each, Kitano honed his artistic skills in different areas, but this mix of desolation and romanticism were just what he needed to craft his first real masterpiece — Sonatine.

In the film, Kitano plays Murakawa, a Tokyo yakuza who is sick of being a Tokyo yakuza and is considering retiring. He and his subordinates are sent to Okinawa to supposedly mediate a war between clans, but upon arrival, they discover the conflict is inconsequential. When Murakawa and his men are ambushed on the trip, they’re left with no choice but to bury their dead and take refuge in a small seaside beach house until they receive further information.

Now, the plot point you’re expecting next probably isn’t “the yakuza dudes spend half the movie playing children’s games at the beach and just have fun hanging out,” but that’s exactly what happens. Murakawa and his men begin to enjoy the reprieve from their responsibilities, treating it more as a vacation than an emergency. They goof around, having fun in the sun and trying to forget their troubles.

The true magic of Sonatine is how it allows us to experience their joy while always keeping us aware of the brutality just on the periphery of this idyllic beach life. Many of the games they play have violent motifs, with Murakawa turning a game of rock, paper, scissors into a round of Russian roulette where he gleefully points the barrel at his own head and pulls the trigger. With Murakawa, Kitano deconstructs the gangster tough guy not as admirable but pitiable, with him outright stating, “When you’re scared all the time, you almost wish you were dead.” 

These men can’t escape the fate of the violent lives they’ve chosen, they can only hope to postpone it.

Kids Return (1996)

Sonatine brought critical acclaim to Kitano, but the suicidal undercurrents of its story also spoke to Kitano’s own mindset. In 1994, he was in a motorscooter accident (which he would later characterize as an “unconscious suicide attempt”) that paralyzed half of his body. Many questioned whether the filmmaker could come back or if his career was over. When he returned to directing two years later, it was with Kids Return, a coming-of-age story that addresses that very question.

Masaru and Shinji are teenage delinquents and best friends who feel constrained by their environment and uncomfortable with the path set before them, much happier committing practical jokes, robbing other students and setting their teacher’s car on fire. However, as one gets into professional boxing and the other joins up with the local yakuza, the path they share begins to separate.

Shifting to a younger perspective, Kids Return is about young men trying to find purpose and meaning in their lives. Though a large amount of the movie can seem like it’s about the soul-crushing nature of adulthood, Kitano comes to perhaps his most optimistic conclusion — insisting that with the right kind of friends at our side, we can always try something new and get back up after being beaten.

Hana-bi (1997) 

Hana-bi is full of tranquil nature and explosive violence. Its title translates to “fireworks,” even if the two kanji it’s made up of mean more like “fire flowers.” In his on-screen return from the crash that nearly killed him, Kitano plays Nishi, a stoic ex-cop who left the force after a dangerous case left his partner Horibe paralyzed and got a rookie officer killed. Tragedy seems to follow Nishi, with his daughter having died a few years prior. Nishi’s wife is also terminally ill, and he’s started borrowing money from the yakuza to pay for her medication. Wanting to set things right while his wife is still living, Nishi decides to rob a bank.

Here again, Kitano explores his own feelings about life through his character. His history with suicide comes up again when Horibe attempts to kill himself after his injury and takes up painting as a way to cope, a direct mirror of Kitano’s own recovery. Moreover, as Nishi, Kitano personifies the film’s duality, rarely saying a word to anyone and quick to brutalize any punk who starts shit with him, yet using the stolen money to take care of his loved ones and to dote upon his spouse.

What I’d consider a “vibes film,” Hana-bi isn’t so much concerned with moving a plot along. Rather, it exists to feel itself, develop characters and embody, well, vibes. It’s also contradictory in that it does require attention to appreciate the little that’s actually happening — e.g., the narrative goes back-and-forth between past and present with little to no indicators. It’s sparse with dialogue as well, and in Kitano’s typical style, he skips past violent action to the bloody aftermath of it, allowing the performances and visuals (long still takes of beaches and snowy mountains juxtaposed with blood splatters) to speak for themselves. 

Hana-bi is inarguably Kitano’s masterpiece. It starts as a film dealing with depression from past losses, before slowly, seamlessly and gorgeously transitioning into a meditation on the inevitability of death and a reminder to steal what moments of beauty and joy you can with the people you love while you have them with you. At one point, a man by the shore spots Nishi’s wife, seeing her scooping water with her hand and pouring it on uprooted flowers. He yells at her and calls her stupid. “It’s no use watering dead flowers,” he screams. Nishi, of course, kicks the absolute shit out of him for talking to his queen like that.

Kikujiro (1999)

Masao is a little boy who lives with his grandma and wants to take a trip to the beach to finally meet his mom. Kikujiro is a crotchety, irresponsible middle-aged man whose wife demands he escort the young boy. He is also almost definitely an ex-yakuza. The two subsequently go on a summer adventure of hitchhiking and getting into trouble, making memories and friends along the way

Kikujiro is a sickly sweet surrealist road movie that’s kind of for children but also doesn’t pull punches about how life can fucking suck. It’s a buddy comedy that, like the rest of Kitano’s other work, is absolutely doused in the concept of mono no aware, an understanding of the transient nature of life. It tends to meander, but it fits the very nature of the plot of two strangers wandering through the summer attempting to enjoy the adventure along the way. None of this is permanent, so you might as well get weird, have fun with it and enjoy every little dream tableau while it lasts. 

Kikujiro, who Kitano based on his own father, is among Takeshi’s best performances as an actor and one of his most beautifully crafted characters as a writer — he’s full of an earnestness he doesn’t usually project. Over the course of the film, we watch him slowly shift from his juvenile behaviors to become a more tender-hearted guardian to Masao. He never completely drops his mischievous tendencies, always being a bit of a rascal and a nuisance, but when he sees the painful truths of life start to bear down on the young boy, he does everything in his power to make him smile.

Brother (2000)

After the head of his family is assassinated, seasoned and ruthless yakuza enforcer Yamamoto (Kitano) is given the choice to either join the enemy clan or die. Dissatisfied with both options, Yamamoto instead leaves for America to meet his half-brother Ken in L.A. who he learns has a gang of his own. Soon enough, he’s leading an interracial crew of yakuza taking over the City of Angels.

Brother is Kitano’s one and only American film, and possibly his most well-balanced crime movie. The plot is a lot more straightforward than Takeshi’s other yakuza stories, and while the role he’s given himself is nothing new for him (violent man who is equal parts stoic and playful), the variety of personalities he interacts with as compared to the medley of different Japanese tough guys in his other films adds a new layer to his standard off-beat formula for crime stories (sudden violence followed by lengthy hangouts and then more violence).

Of particular note is the friendship Yamamoto sparks with Denny, a member of the gang played by Omar Epps (Juice, Love & Basketball). Though they’re adversarial at the start of the film, Yamamoto and Denny’s friendship quickly becomes the heart of the proceedings and the thing that keeps it going in its iffy second act. It’s the closest one of Kitano’s yakuza films has come to embodying the concept of chosen family among outsiders (something he captured gracefully in Kikujiro), and like with all his violent movies, the best parts are when everyone is just goofing off and being bros.

Kitano has plenty of other films that don’t involve organized crime — many of which are remarkable and masterful in their own ways — but it feels like he’s returned to it so many times because he recognizes rich possibilities for examining men’s psyche through this violent milieu. In his more recent movies, he’s turned to outright satirizing these tough guys — such as in Ryuzo and the Seven Henchmen, where Kitano follows a group of grumpy elderly yakuza disillusioned with the state of the criminal world when they come out of retirement. Meanwhile, in his Outrage trilogy, a bunch of yakuzas commit horror movie levels of violence against each other to get ahead in the organization. 

Though these later films are less expressive than his early work, it’s heartening to see his work feel so much less pained than his earlier output. It’s equally heartening to see that despite all the depression he so masterfully captured on film, he never lost his sense of humor along the way either: