Tag Archives: Kitano Takeshi

“Outrage”: Boring, ultraviolent Kitano yakusa movie

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there was practically no chacterization in 2010 “Autoreiji” (Outrage: Way of the Yakusa), written, directed and edited by Kitano Takeshi, who also plays a leading role in it. For the first hour and a quarter yakusa scheme and get beaten. For the last half hour yakusas get shot. The only novelty is coercing the ambassador or a small African country to front a casino at an embassy. Kitano is his usual affectless self.

I don’t understand how there can be a sequel, since nearly all the characters have been killed off. IMDB lists Kitano’s character in it as Otomo, who is knifed in prison just before the final bloodbath in “Outrage.” I guess it will turn out that he was mistakenly reported as dead. It is reportedly as convoluted and boring as “Outrage.” For violent Kitano, I’d recommend his earlier “Sonatine.”

 

©2016, Stephen O. Murray

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Kitano & Co. Coming to America, Spreading Mayhem

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“Aniki,”(Brother, 2000) the movie written by, directed by, and starring Kitano Takeshi begins in Japan and invades America. Although Yamamoto is a common Japanese name, I suspect that the yakusa  protagonist is named Yamamoto, to evokethe name of the admiral who planned and executed the attack on Pearl Harbor.

Yamamoto does not go to America planning to ravage it or take it over, After he foils one murder of his boss and his boss then ignores his advice and is gunned down, he needs to leave Japan for a while. After a few days of boredom in a Los Angeles hotel, he goes in search of his half-brother Ken (Kuroudo Maki), who is in one of LA’s myriad rough neighborhoods. Denny, a homeboy played superbly by Omar Epps (“Love and Basketball”), makes the mistake of trying to shake down the apparent tourist who has wandered where he does not belong.

It turns out that Ken is a low-level drug dealer and that Denny hangs out with him. Denny is not sure this “aniki” (brother) is the same man who nearly killed him. The development of their relationship beyond the point where Denny is calling Yamamoto “brother,” too, is the most interesting and original part of this exceedingly violent movie.

Yamamoto quickly dispatches to hell the cholos who are giving Ken and his friends trouble. The ad hoc gang with the very experienced gangster calling the shots — and doing much of the shooting — then massacres the cholos‘ bosses, the next higher echelons. With greater difficulty, they merge with the existing LA Japanese-American gangsters, and finally have to deal with the Italian-American Mafia. As in many recent gangster movies, the mafiosi are aging and tired, but they still command a lot of firepower. Like Admiral Yamamoto, yakuza Yamamoto’s initial successes are great, but fearless warriors eventually are overwhelmed by opponents with greater numbers and more armaments.

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Early on, at least some of the violence is cartoonish and funny, but as the body count rises, the incessant killings are grim, and the only humor that remains is in Denny’s awed by admiring fealty to the mostly silent and very alien gangster who is not a “brother” in the sense of being black, but is an older brother in many ways. (It’s hard for me to believe that Kitano wrote Denny’s dialogue and suspect that Epps improvised it around the plotting Kitano supplied. Wherever the words came from, Epps sells them convincingly.) Similarly, the basketball scenes in the gang headquarters seem likely to have been suggested and developed by the actors (Royale Watkins and Kuroudo Maki),

Although fewer than half of the slayings occur on-screen, the violence in “Brother” is very brutal, not done in the John Woo or Jerry Bruckheimer cartoon style. And some of it stays with one a long time . The movie is definitely not for the squeamish.

Moreover, those not accustomed to the long takes and limited camera movement that is common in Taiwanese and Japanese movies may find some scenes static. There are fairly many calm talky scenes but so many erupt with violence that the viewer must not let his or her guard down. I think that 20-30 minutes could have been pruned.

Kitano is the best-known stand-up comic in Japan, though one would never guess that from “Aniki” or “Gohatto.” In the English-speaking world, he is frequently considered a Japanese Clint Eastwood. Kitano says that all they have in common is that they are actors who also sometimes direct, but the way Kitano has himself filmed as an impassive mask is similar to how Sergio Leone filmed Eastwood in the 1960s, and speaking with his gun and minimal dialogue seems very Dirty Harry. The humor in “Aniki” is like that of Eastwood, too: deadpan or delayed slow, malicious smiles.

©2001, Stephen O. Murray

Kitano’s”Fireworks” (Hana-bi)

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“Hana-bi” (Fireworks, 1997, written directed by, edited by and starring Kitano Takeshi, 4 stars) has its longeurs, punctuated by savage outbursts of violence with a bass line of anguish as Yoshitaka Nishi (Kitano), still mourning the death of his daughter, leaves the police force to spend time with his wife (Kishimoto Kayoko), who is dying of leukemia and with his police partner, Horibe (Osugi Ren), who, paralyzed by a bullet wound, takes up painting animals with floral eyes (the painting, too, are Kitano’s; he is also a published poet, writes a weekly column, and is all over Japanese television).

Kitano has coiled power (charisma), but generally looks affect less, even when he seems to have strong feelings (as, for instance, in “Brother”). (His face was partially paralyzed in a near-fatal motorcycle accident in 1994, but it is more that his eyes are dead than that his face is immobile.)

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Kitano’s sense of humor is IMO offbeat (though he calls himself “Beat”), particularly in “Tokyo Eyes“. The rhythm of his movies, and what he intercuts, are very alien even to someone like me who has seen and admired many Japanese movies. The unmarked switches from the present to past events are disorienting (though doing this has become more common since 1997).

The mixture of melodrama about longing and crime drama and pop-art colors has some affinity to Wong Kar-Wai’s movies of the 1990s, though Kitano is not above telling a story (or more than one at the same time.) Visual style is more important than story-telling to both, and beneath the bravura stylization, deep melancholy about the human condition throbs in the movies of both.

The New Yorker DVD of “Fireworks”” has cropped the images, cut bits, and jiggered the colors. It includes a bonus “making-of” featurette.

©2016, Stephen O. Murray

Oshima’s “Merry Christmas, Mr. Lawrence”

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South African-born (Afrikaner) Sir Laurens Van der Post (1906-1996) was a British Army officer who surrendered to Japanese forces on Java in April of 1942 and was imprisoned at Bandung. He later wrote three books about his prison experience — A Bar of Shadow (1954), The Seed and the Sower (1963) and The Night of the New Moon (1970). — and another on the two years following Japanese surrender during with the Dutch attempted to re-establish their colony in the East Indies before an independence struggle forced them to leave.

The kinky (In the Realm of the Senses, Empire of Passion) Japanese director Ôshima Nagasi (1932-) adapted The Seed and the Sower (1963) into “Merry Christmas, Mr. Lawrence,” a movie mostly in English and mostly focusing on the Anglophone (British, Australian, New Zealander, and a traumatized Dutch soldier) suffering under the rule of an arbitrary, sometimes sadistic sergeant (Kitano Takeshi  in the first role in which he was seen outside Japan) who pays some heed to a bilingual (Japanese-English) physician, Col. Lawrence (Scottish actor Tom Conti), who is the sanest man around (echoing the physician in “Bridge on the River Kwai”).

The camp is commanded by a young, very elegant and very authoritarian Captain Yonoi (played by Japanese composer and singer Sakamoto Ryûichi , who also wrote the synthesizer-heavy soundtrack for the movie). Capt. Yonoi has nothing but contempt—well, some frustration mixed with contempt for the stubborn prison leader, Group Captain Hicksley (Jack Thompson), who is as obdurate but less elegant and personally brave than Alec Guiness’s commander in “Bridge on the River Kwai”. (Both were stuffed with racist views, but Hicksley is considerably more cloddish.)

Lawrence knows enough about Japanese culture to know the contempt the Japanese soldiers hold for anyone who would surrender, and, unlike Hicksley, knows that Japan was not a signatory of the Geneva Conventions either for the treatment of prisoners or war or against torture. The mysterious new prisoner, Jack Celliers. (David Bowie) intrigues Capt. Yonoi (and Col. Lawrence, who knew him when both were in North Africa). Playing another man who fell to earth, Celliers is a South African paratrooper who was dropped behind Japanese lines to sabotage things. He surrendered to save a Javanese village from being slaughtered, and was set to be executed as a criminal rather than a soldier.

Capt. Yonoi is one of the three judges on the tribunal and makes the case that Celliers is a soldier and should, therefore, be incarcerated with POWS… under Yonoi’s command. There is something erotic but suppressed in Yonoi’s interest in Celliers, as Lawrence does not fail to note. Yonoi’s adjutant considers Celliers an evil spirit and attempts to kill him.

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Celliers gets a variant on the punishment Col. Nicholson received after maddening the Japanese commander of the Kwai camp. Not least in being ultra-blond, Bowie’s Celliers also recalls the masochistic component of Peter O’Toole’s Lawrence of Arabia, while the acquiescence in being sodomized by the enemy (a Korean guard rather than a commander such as José Ferrer Ottomoan officer) is farmed off to the Dutchman (Alistair Browning) in the opening sequence.

“Merry Christmas, Mr. Lawrence” is unlike the Lean epics “Bridge on the River Kwai” and “Lawrence of Arabia” lacks explosions or other sorts of action scenes… and the American’s romance and derring-do grafted onto “Kwai” for William Holden; Celliers was leading native rebels, but this was before the start of the movie and is entirely offscreen. But like T. E. Lawrence, Celliers cares about the natives (there Arab, here Javanese) and is unconventional if not openly suspicious about His Majesty’s Army’s ambiguous colonizer role in a struggle against one colonizer (Japan_.

I skipped over the first botched seppuku (hara-kiri) by the Korean guard caught in flagrante delicto. There are two more, none of which goes smoothly (I think the blades are thrust in too deeply, so that the body pitches forward, interfering with the clean sword thrust of decapitation). Interracial sex, contempt for it, and ritual suicide all pop up at the start, though the movie is told from the point of view of Col. Lawrence, who attempts to avert disaster both for the Japanese he somewhat likes and respects and for the terminally stubborn Hicksley and Celliers.

A lot of Ôshima movies end with cutting (Gohatto/Taboo, In the Realm of the Senses), and so does this one, though there is a regret-expressing humanist epilogue.

Ôshima set up many shots Ozu-style and there was little camera movement, though there were more close-ups than there would be in an Ozu movie. There are surrealist sequences, reminding the viewer that this is an Ôshima movie. I think the movie drags in a lengthy colloquy between Celliers and Lawrence when they are caged together and Celliers drifts back to a lengthy guilty memory of failing his younger brother.

The Japanese director provides practically no back-story for the Japanese characters, but an elaborate one for Celliers. (We do learn that Yonoi was a supporter of the ultranationalist 26 February 1936 failed coup, but survived its suppression because he was away from Tokyo.)

Though eroticized violence is leitmotif in Oshim’s oeuvre (along with recurrent focus on the mistreatment of Koreans in Japan (Three Resurrected Drunkards, Death by Hanging), and as a lower caste in the Imperial Army in this movie), neither war nor intercultural misunderstanding is. A Japanese director taking an English memoir of captivity by the Japanese during WWII is at least as surprising, and perhaps a bit more than Clint Eastwood making “Letters from Iwo Jima” (distinct from “Flag of Our Fathers,” but still a look at the other side in a battle that provided the iconic image of the US Marines.

The pop singers, David Bowie (1947-2016) and Sakamoto Ryûichi (1952-), both look their parts as elegant loners and play their complicated roles as antagonists with great aplomb (with Sakamoto doing all the visible longing and frustrated erotic aching). Tom Conti (1941-) and Takeshi Kitano (1947-, who was billed simply as “Takeshi”) have less rigid honor-code-dictated roles and greater emotional ranges. Bowie sings “Rock of Ages” off-key and regrets that he cannot sing (which leads the troops to sing the 23rd Psalm). Sakamoto practices kendo and makes no music within the movie, though supplying an interesting soundtrack for it.

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(Kitano and Conti)

BTW, the camp filled with scrawny white people playing POWs was filmed on Rarotonga, not on Java, and  the city (Batavia then, Jakarta now) scenes were shot on New Zealand.

The movie received the full-scale Criterion treatment, with a fine video and audio transfer and a second disc of special features, including the original 4-minute theatrical trailer, a 28-miunte one of co-scenarist (Paul Mayersberg, who also wrote the other great Bowie movie, “The Man Who Fell to Earth” for Nicholas Roeg) 40 minutes of reminiscences about the shooting by Tom Conti, Sakamoto Ryûichi —who also scored ˆÔshima’s last film “Gohatto”and picked up an Oscar for the score of Bertolucci’s “The Last Emperor” in which he also appeared onscreen —,and producer Jeremy Thomas (but not Bowie), 18 minutes by Ryûichi on the soundtrack, a 1995 documentary about van der Post (godfather to Prince William, btw) and a 29-minute 1983 making-of featurette.

 

© 2016, Stephen O. Murray