Takeshi Kitano on video: Kids Return and A Scene at the Sea
by Dave Heaton
So far, American film fans mostly know Japanese director/writer/actor Takeshi Kitano, a.k.a. "Beat" Takeshi, from his alternately brutal and comedic gangster films about the yakuza; particularly Sonatine (1993), which was released in the U.S. with help from Quentin Tarentino, and Hanna-Bi (Fireworks) (1997), which earned rave reviews from critics, in the U.S. and worldwide. Earlier this year, two of his earlier "yakuza" films were released on video: Violent Cop (1989), his directorial debut (which, unlike all of his other films, he did not write), and Boiling Point (1990).
All four of these films follow plotlines familiar to fans of gangster and crime films, yet have elements and attitudes which differ them substantially from the usual crime fare. In Fireworks, Kitano plays a detective whose wife is dying; the as the film goes on, it deals more with the relationship he has with his wife than with his police activities; the latter portion of the film depicts a vacation he takes his wife on. In Sonatine he is an old-school gangster becoming disillusioned with the life; partway through the film he takes a half-hour vacation where he shoots off fireworks on the beach, falls in love with a young woman, and in general frolics and has a good time. And though on the surface Boiling Point is harsher and tells a more violent tale (that of two young baseball players who slowly get wrapped up in the criminal underworld), the film not only includes some bizarrely beautiful scenes concerning the kids' involvement with the eccentric (if not insane) gangster played by Kitano, but also spends much of its early scenes on a baseball team and their games. In all of these films, the life of violent, yakuza-types is depicted, yet in all of them it is not the whole story; there are storylines and scenes of beauty and complexity, both in and outside of the "gangster" story lines associated with Takeshi and his films.
Still, despite the inclusion of scenes and themes unique to the "gangster film," Takeshi Kitano's films are mostly described in terms of the crime/mobster genre. For example, the cover of the video box for Sonatine proclaims that it is "strongly reminiscent of Goodfellas." But as Kitano's films slowly get released in the U.S., audiences and critics here broaden their view of what his films are about.
His most recent film, Kikujiro (1999), is a delightful, hilarious road movie about an older, cynical man who helps a young boy find his mother; along the way they run into and befriend several unique and interesting people. Given the four previously available Kitano films, Kikujiro seemed like a sharp turn to most critics here. Though the film's atmosphere is similar to, say, the beach scenes in Sonatine or the vacation scenes in Fireworks, in both of those films there is a constant sense of impending doom and destruction, even when the characters are goofing around. Here there is no such dark or cynical underside. This is, as Kitano has referred to it, his own Wizard of Oz, a creative, fun movie about people on a journey, both internally and externally. The film struck critics as a sharp turn away from his usual terrain, violent crime films. This reaction has more to do with which Kitano films U.S. audiences have been exposed to than with what his career has actually been like. This becomes clearer and clearer as more of his films become available.
Now, with the release on video of Kids Return (1996) and A Scene At the Sea (1992), it'll be harder to say that Kitano mostly makes gangster movies. These films are quiet, close-up examinations of people's lives. They differ from each other, but they also stand in stark contrast to the common critical perception of Kitano films.
Kids Return was made after Sonatine and before Fireworks, though not right between those films, since its immediate predecessor was the one Kitano film still unavailable in the U.S., the sex comedy Getting Any? (1994). Kids Return is the tale of two teenage "slackers," Shinji and Massani, and the paths they choose in life. Through flashbacks, the film tells the story of how the two became friends in high school, as the two boys failing academically. Through a series of detailed, realistic scenes which also include a strong dose of Kitano's trademark dark humor (he initially became known in Japan as a stand-up comic, one of the "Two Beats"), the film establishes not only their friendship and their attitude toward life but also the attitudes of others toward them, including the teachers, who have already given up hope on the two and have a decidedly unaltruistic demeanor toward them. At one point, a teacher tells them, "We don't expect you two to study, all that we ask is you don't disturb the others." Through scenes like this, the film depicts the boy's situation in a way that we understand their motivations and feel for them, without hitting us over the head with sentimentality.
The bulk of the film deals with the kids' choices concerning what to do with their lives. Both excel at comedy, and dream of one becoming famous comics, yet receive no support for these dreams from family, friends or teachers. Thus each eventually finds a route which will allow them to succeed without education, one boxing and the other working as a lackey for a well-known gangster. The film also follows the life of a third boy, who takes a more conventional job as a salesman. In the film's juxtapositions and stories are a multitude of thought-provoking moments and developments, involving many ethical and relevant social questions and issues, themes that transcend the boundaries of setting, time or age. Kids Return alone showcases multiple dimensions of Kitano's filmmaking that are often ignored. In many ways it tells a more mainstream, familiar story, yet it does so in an inventive, emotional way.
A Scene At the Sea is similar to Kids Return in how closely it looks at and understands a few individuals and in its understated, unassuming style, though its content is much different. The two main characters are a deaf-mute teenage boy, who works with his father as a garbage man, and the boy's deaf-mute teenage girlfriend. The film opens with the boy staring out at the sea, entirely captivated. As the film proceeds, this interest in the sea leads him to take up surfing. This hobby, laughable at first given his inexperience, slowly consumes his life, as he becomes obsessed with learning how to surf. He receives constant support from the girl, who every day comes to the beach, picks up the clothes he has left in the sand and folds them, then sitting down to gleefully watch him try to surf. Her happy laughter is contrasted with the reactions of the other surfers and their girlfriends, who laugh in the more malicious way of snobby youth looking down at the new, weird kid. As the film proceeds the boy does get better, and good things slowly begin to happen for him.
The complete silence of the two main characters not only forces the actors to use their faces and bodies in ways they might not otherwise, but sets up a certain dynamic for the whole film; in many ways, A Scene At the Sea is Kitano's version of a silent film; the music is sparse, and a majority of the film takes place in silence or near silence. Yet this matches the film's mood perfectly, since its main themes include not only human with the natural world, but also humility, kindness and unconditional love. A Scene At the Sea might not be as accessible to mainstream U.S. audiences as his other films; its subtle, relaxed style is more reminiscent of directors like Satyijat Ray and Wim Wenders than Tarentino or Scorsese. Still, viewers that have some patience will be rewarded a hundred times over; as the film unfolds it becomes not only emotional involving but also touching, poetic and absolutely gorgeous.
What Kids Return and A Scene At the Sea share with Kitano's other films, besides merely the high level of talent involved in the acting, directing, writing and cinematography, is both a welcome habit of using images to communicate feelings instead of cinematically shouting messages at us and loving, understanding depictions of people considered by mainstream society to be outcasts. Each of his films has a social hierarchy that is understood and then rejected, both by the characters themselves and the films themselves. These are just a few of the reasons his films are so pleasurable; others include the beautiful cinematography, inventive camera techniques and masterful musical scores by composer Joe Hisaishi (who has also contributed brilliant scores to Hiyao Miyazaki's animated epics).
These two recent video releases (on Kimstim video, which means you might have to look past your local Blockbuster for these) are just more proof of Kitano's immense talent as a writer and director. In 2001, he should get his first real introduction to American audiences (depending on how wide a release it gets) with Brother, a joint British-Japanese production shot in Los Angeles, starring Kitano and Omar Epps in a tale of the crosscultural interaction between gangsters from opposite sides of the world. I can't wait.