The Beat Generation

The big heat: Takeshi Kitano (right) in Boiling Point

We now join Takeshi Kitano's career, already in progress. Two years ago at Cannes, the Japanese author, comedian, filmmaker, and TV superstar, a.k.a. "Beat" Takeshi, caused a sensation with his elegiac yakuza drama Hana-Bi (Fireworks). When released here last year, it introduced an audience outside the film-fest circuit to Kitano's serene long takes, elliptical editing, jarring use of bloodshed, and odd, Tati-like bursts of conceptual and spatial humor. It also forced Miramax to cough up his equally striking 1993 gangster meditation Sonatine. Still, Kitano's earlier films languished in limbo.

Thanks to Oak Street Cinema, though, Kitano completists can move through the director's past with a chronology-defying double feature of his first two movies, 1989's Violent Cop and 1990's Boiling Point. Seen in light of Hana-Bi and Sonatine--which is, of course, the only way most of us will see them--Violent Cop and Boiling Point are most interesting for their early peeks at an auteur in the making.

"I personally do not find much difference between violence and comedy," Kitano said in Film Comment last year. "An event can be regarded as violence by a participant, but for the spectator it can be comedy." Without the explicit humanism of his later films, that lack of distinction makes Violent Cop and Boiling Point distinctly unsettling. Kitano's stylized mayhem--assaultive, imagistic, and disruptive of form--keeps us wondering which one we are: the battered participant or the laughing spectator.

Violent Cop introduces a brutish early model of Kitano's Hana-Bi/Sonatine antihero: a vigilante cop, Azuma, who's not above running over crooks or slapping suspects into submission. When Azuma discovers that his cop buddy Iwaki (Shigeru Hiraizumi) is on the take, and that Iwaki's drug connections have brutalized Azuma's brain-damaged sister, he becomes the quintessentially divided Kitano protagonist: split between family and work, between being a lone wolf or a corporate team player, between the roles of warm-hearted protector and cold-blooded killer.

An outlandishly vicious pulp melodrama, Violent Cop (like Boiling Point) is among the few of Kitano's eight features that he didn't write; in fact, he might not have directed it if the original director hadn't left. That's probably why it's more yoked to crummy genre conventions than his later crime-drama reveries. Yet its Dirty Harry theatrics are served up in a merciless deadpan style that's perversely amusing. His frame is a window surrounded on all sides by unruly life, which crashes in unbidden with consequences that are ambiguously, and disturbingly, comic--as when a meek bicyclist is accosted by swarming teen thugs who spring into view like demon jack-in-the-boxes.

His second and much more accomplished film, Boiling Point, extends that disruption to narrative form itself: It's the first film in which Kitano scrambles shopworn notions of time and structure. Kitano doesn't play the protagonist, but his hero--Masaki (Masahiko Ono), a teenage grease monkey and all-thumbs baseball player--is no less conflicted or alienated. When he snaps out of mopey passivity to punch a local gangster, he's thrust into an adventure that leads to the doorstep of Uehara, a mercurial underworld screw-up played by Kitano.

What makes Boiling Point so much of an advance from Violent Cop is its break with Western cop clichés and storytelling conventions. Its structure doubles back on itself in a way that makes the entire movie either an apocalyptic flash-forward or a nihilistic daydream; its violent unpredictability reflects a developing worldview rather than a gun-for-hire's attempt to impose personality on impersonal material. The volatility of the whole Uehara sequence--which veers from knockabout misogyny to slapstick to gruesome macho brinkmanship involving a severed finger--anticipates his later films' schizoid mood shifts, which mirror the inner turmoil of their taciturn leading man.

Unfortunately, thanks to the whims of international distribution, we now see Kitano's first two movies strictly in the shadow of his later works. What would overseas audiences think of Martin Scorsese if they'd seen The King of Comedy first, and then Boxcar Bertha? Or of Jonathan Demme, if they'd been shown Melvin and Howard before Caged Heat? But that's pretty much how anybody who cares about foreign films in the United States learns about today's giants of world cinema, from Benoît Jacquot and Abbas Kiarostami to John Woo and Wong Kar-Wai. Until they make a movie that's palatable to a domestic distributor, they're essentially invisible--with the added misfortune that their entire career, backward and forward, is subsequently seen in light of that one film.

Thus, if you first got hooked on Takeshi Kitano's movies after Hana-Bi and Sonatine, you won't have the pleasure of seeing a great director's promise develop from film to film. But if you haven't yet seen his late masterpieces, start instead with these two fascinating artifacts, which will allow you to catch every surprising twist in what is shaping up as a major directorial career. With any luck, the next film you'll see is his third, 1992's A Scene at the synopsized by one critic as "a deaf-mute trashman teaches himself to surf."


Violent Cop and Boiling Point screen Friday through Thursday, September 30 at Oak Street Cinema; (612) 331-3134.

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