Actor Spotlight: Takeshi Kitano – Existential Gangster and Goofball Comedian

I decided to write this Spotlight after posting GIFs of Takeshi Kitano movies in the “Identify That GIF” thread and having them go misidentified on multiple occasions. I’ve seen six of Kitano’s movies and read a bunch of articles, but I’m no expert. If you know more, please leap in via the comments to and let’s make this a true Disqus discussion.

Kitano’s first film as a director was Violent Cop, which came out in 1989. That’s the same year as The Killer, directed by John Woo, whom I mention as a sort of foil, at least as seen from out here in Los Angeles. It was Woo, after all, who caught Hollywood’s eye, with his balletic, overtly stylized take on gun violence and the people behind it. Kitano’s style is the opposite: instead of spinning, his camera is mostly static; instead of slow-motion doves flying and fast-paced bloodless shootouts, he gives us sudden, mundane bursts of violence, like a cop walking up to a yakuza and shooting him midsentence. You see a lot of symmetrically framed shots, or characters in the middle of the frame staring straight ahead, as if Wes Anderson was a nihilist.

This is the movie that Colin Farrell and Sam Rockwell are watching in the movie theater during the first half of Seven Psychopaths, apparently to show their art-film bona fides and foreshadow the violence to come in that film. Be advised the following scene is the end of Violent Cop, so spoilers, but I include it because I don’t think the trailer does it justice. The only dialogue you need to know is the first guy tells his crew that the cop is coming to kill them all.

The U.S. film industry could only fathom one Asian filmmaker doing gangster shootout films at a time, and Woo lapped up all that attention. Kitano’s movies mostly confused Japanese audiences, too. His got his start as a manzai comic in the ’70s, which is a form of standup in Japan that involves two people—a goofball and a straight man—who exchange puns and misunderstandings at a rapidfire pace. At least, that’s what I read on Wikipedia.

He grew from that role into a man-about-TV, appearing on all sorts of variety, game, and competition shows as both host and guest. These GIFs are from Takeshi’s Castle, a game show so brutal that there are Internet rumors people died during its filming.


It was weird for the Japanese to see this Jean-Ralphio type of performer play a stone-faced cop who murders pimps, yakuza, and even family members. Kitano had already faced derision over his attempts to do serious work; he told our friends at The A.V. Club that in 1983, he snuck into a movie theater to see how Japanese audiences would respond to his performance as a prison guard in Merry Christmas, Mr. Lawrence. “At the moment I appeared on the screen, every single person in the theater burst out laughing,” he recalls.

Humiliated, he carried on, writing and directing Boiling Point, about two regular guys whose local baseball team’s coach is killed by yakuza; and A Scene at the Sea, about a deaf man learning to surf. Neither film is among his best, but worth watching if you’re a fan.

His breakout work, Sonatine, came out in 1993. This tale of yakuza on vacation combined all of Kitano’s trademarks: a bleak, nihilistic outlook; jarring violence; deadpan actors in long, silent shots; and an infusion of humor from a handful of performers like Susumu Terajima, typically cast for comic relief. Minor spoiler in this video:

This film was a commercial failure in Japan. But its screening at the 1993 Cannes Film Festival gave it, and Kitano, new life. Jean-Pierre Dionnet of Studio Canal saw the movie, loved it, and even took Alain Delon, star of Le Samouraiand Le Cercle Rouge to see it. Delon did not react well, despite the fact that Kitano was clearly influenced by those French New Wave/neo-noir films. The movie’s Japanese distributor at first refused Dionnet’s efforts to buy its foreign rights, assuming it would do just as poorly in Europe as it had in Japan.

Meanwhile, Kitano kept working, including an appearance in 1995’s crummy Johnny Mnemonic. He also wrote and directed the sex comedy Getting Any?which, again, barely registered at the Japanese box office. He’d been in a motorcycle accident in 1994, causing a partial paralysis of the right side of his face. Kitano has referred to it as an “unconscious suicide attempt.” The accident also left him with a habitual tic on the other side of his face.

Hana-Bi, translated as Fireworks may be Kitano’s most personal work. On the surface, it’s about a police officer with a dying wife, a dead child, and a suicidal partner. He tries to make everything right, through crime and violence, and not surprisingly, it all ends in tragedy. It’s a rare combination of his violent gangster/cop films and actual, human sentiment, and composer Joe Hisaishi (a frequent collaborator) got to do the kind of lush score he excels at.

The links between this film and Kitano’s own life are stronger than in most of his other works. The paintings that his paralyzed ex-partner produces in the movie are actually Kitano’s own, which he painted during his own recovery. The filmmaker’s daughter, Shoko, appears in a scene near the end, flying a kite. And rather than shoot multiple takes to avoid his facial tics or find drugs that could temporarily block them, Kitano leans into them, using his twitching face as a broken canvas to paint the rage and helplessness his character lives through.

Hana-bi came out in 1997 and won the Golden Lion at the Venice Film Festival. The following year, Sonatine was released theatrically in the United States to solid reviews. Kitano was suddenly an auteur, and he earned newfound respect in Japan, which he credits to several, mostly negative perceptions of the Japanese public: that they mostly like artists who stick to one style or expertise, and that they obsess over the perceptions of foreigners—meaning, now that Kitano was accepted by the Western critical establishment, he must be good.

I don’t know anything about that. Kitano wrote and directed 1999’s Kikujiro, a picaresque, Up-like story of a boy searching for his mother with a grumpy old man in tow. In 2000, he appeared in the blockbuster Battle Royale as the headmaster, and also wrote, directed, and starred in the American-British-Japanese production Brother, his attempt to break into the western market.

Brother is another troubled movie. Plotwise, it recalls other “crossover” movies, like Rumble in the Bronx: Kitano plays a yakuza who leaves Japan and ends up taking over his younger brother’s gang of L.A. corner boys, turning them into a ruthless crew who challenge the other criminal syndicates, eventually running afoul of the Mafia (despite there being no mafia in Los Angeles IRL). I apologize in advance for the ethnic slur in this clip.

Even with strong performances from Kitano and his usual collaborators Terajima and Ren Osugi, as well as Omar Epps and even “Cousin Ashley” Tatyana M. Ali, the film is fun but not Kitano’s best. It wasn’t the breakthrough he expected, and he decided not to direct any movies outside of Japan again.

Not a problem for him, though. After the 2002 art film Dolls, he turned his attention to Zatoichi, an existing fictional character akin to Zorro here in the west. Zatoichi is a blind swordsman from the late Edo period (mid-1800s), who was the subject of more than two dozen novels, films, and television series starting in the 1960s. He was also the inspiration for the 1990 Rutger Hauer movie Blind Fury.

He didn’t disappoint, but the final product is an outlier in his filmography. Because he was approached by others to make the movie, Kitano shot in a more traditional blockbuster style, avoiding his usual long takes and oppressive silences. But he also subverts the typical samurai movie fare with a subplot about geishas and transgender people, and ends up closing the film with a literal show-stopping tap dance number. He also dyed his hair blond.

Don’t worry, though, it’s still a samurai movie. For instance, this YouTube clip is titled “Zatoichi Kills Everyone.”

I haven’t watched much of Kitano’s output since then, but reviewing it online, it seems to be more of the same. I read something once that compared him to Christopher Walken, which seems apt; he’s equally at home in a dead-serious take on life-or-death situations, or a gleefully wacky misadventure. His 2007 film Glory to the Filmmaker is a surrealist parody of his own career, in which he plays a director suffering multiple career failures as he tries out one movie genre after another. That film’s style is in keeping with his comedic television work, as was his voice appearance in the 2008 kaiju parody The Monster X Strikes Back/Attack the G-8 Summit.

Meanwhile, he continued to churn out yakuza movies, with 2010’s Outrage and its 2012 sequel, Beyond Outrage. These films hewed more conventional than Kitano’s earlier work, by including more dialogue. They also amped up the violence, lingering over images like razor-slashed faces and dental drill torture. Not surprisingly, the Outrage movies are less elegant and existential than, say, Violent Cop.

At 70, Kitano shows no sign of slowing down. He’s still writing and directing films, though they now lean more on how older people deal with things like gang warfare. He writes newspaper columns and appears regularly on Japanese television shows, and continues acting in films he hasn’t created, like Wayne Wang’s While the Women are Sleeping or the upcoming controversial-yet-likely-blockbuster Ghost in the Shell.


Look for him at a movieplex near you. And watch your back.