Beat Takeshi

Louis Proyect lnp3 at
Wed Nov 24 10:51:54 MST 1999

Beat Takeshi has written, directed and starred in a string of gangster
movies that have developed a cult following in American art houses. This
article will consider the four that are generally available in video:
"Violent Cop," "Fireworks," "Boiling Point," and "Sonatine." It will also
discuss Takeshi's ties to real-life gangsters--the yakuza--and their
considerable role in Japanese business and politics.

Takeshi Kitano got the nickname Beat from his days as a standup comedian,
when he performed as one of the two Beats. He has also had a prolific
career as novelist, poet and television talk-show host. All this combined
with his extensive movie-making career make him something of a one man
industry, a combination of Stephen King, Woody Allen and David Letterman.
Throughout his career, he has been closely associated with yakuza, whom he
has never attempted to distance himself from in public, but at the same
time who receive less than flattering portrayals in his various films. His
ability to elude retribution would seem to be connected to his distinctive
ability to insult people in an entertaining manner. Furthermore, it is
Japanese society as a whole that ultimately serves as his satirical target
rather than the gangsters, who ultimately serve only as pawns in a dirty game.

I personally find "Violent Cop" the most satisfying of the four films
considered here. It is "Dirty Harry" transposed to Japanese society. Unlike
the "Dirty Harry" series, Takeshi shows no interest in elevating his cop
into some kind of reformer forced to break rules in order to restore
ethical norms. Playing the violent cop in his customary deadpan fashion,
Kitano is no moral paragon. He is a deadbeat who borrows money from his
partner with no intention of repaying, a gambler, heavy drinker and chain
smoker. Professionally, he is not above planting evidence, especially
against the yakuza hit-man who has become his nemesis in a case involving
drugs and corruption in his own precinct house. After a long-time partner
and friend, who has been supplying the yakuza with drugs, is murdered, he
goes on a crusade to wipe them out. It is revenge rather than morality that
fuels his quest.

The final scenes of "Violent Cop" culminate in a showdown between the
avenging violent cop and the hit-man and his gang, who have kidnapped his
mentally ill sister. Dialog is kept to a minimum and the violently
choreographed shootout is accompanied by a sweetly melancholy Satie-like
melody that is in absurd contrast to the bloodletting. In essence, this is
the esthetic of a Takeshi movie. It conjoins ultraviolence with a highly
refined cinematography that owes much to the formal elegance of Ozu,
creator of "Tokyo Story" and a host of other sensitive masterpieces.

Another key ingredient of a Takeshi film is the dry sense of humor that
permeates every scene. Unlike American movies, Takeshi sees no need for
italicizing a joke because he respects his audience's intelligence. At a
bar with his new greenhorn partner, he is asked by the female bartender
what he does for a living. Answering in his customary expressionless
manner, Takeshi says that he sells mail order guns. She looks aghast. An
essential part of this scene and in Takeshi's performances in general is
his laconic delivery. The lines delivered from an expressionless
face--almost a ritual mask--are richly anti-melodramatic gestures that
allow the audience to "read into" his performance. While Takeshi has always
played roles in this manner, in recent years it has become something of a
necessity. A motorcycle accident that caused extensive skull injuries
incapacitated muscles in his face as well.

"Fireworks" is closely related thematically to "Violent Cop." Again Takeshi
plays a cop who bends rules while being drawn into a confrontation with the
yakuza. This time instead of having the burden of caring for a mentally ill
sister, he is put in the position of caring for his terminally ill wife. He
also provides companionship and moral support to a paraplegic cop, who lost
the use of his legs in a shootout in which Takeshi, playing a cop named
Nishi, is characteristically out of control. In a bid to pay off debts owed
to the yakuza and finance a vacation trip with his dying wife, Nishi stages
a daring bank robbery. When the yakuza discover that he is the robber, they
send out a crew to steal his money and kill him. At the same time, his
fellow cops try to apprehend him. The finale of the film is set in the
snowy mountains of northern Japan, where Nishi and his wife are enjoying
their final days together. The contrast between their innocent pleasure and
the impending showdown with armed men from either camp provides high
tension and drama.

"Boiling Point" is the only four of the films that does not feature Takeshi
in a starring role. The star is an underachieving youth who works in a
garage. The opening scene of the film dramatizes his ineptitude. When it is
his turn to bat for a local baseball team, he is in an outhouse taking a
crap. He regards his turn at bat as a chore and does not seem to understand
the euphoria surrounding the game. Back at the gas station, he gets into a
confrontation with a gangster who everybody else has been kowtowing to, in
fear of their lives. After breaking the gangster's arm, the youth, named
Masaki, is forced to defend his life, which means above all getting his
hands on a firearm.

This leads him to Okinawa, which is depicted as a sort of Wild West outlaw
state. There he meets Uehara, a repulsive gangster and gun merchant played
by Takeshi in a role which dares the audience to hate the popular actor and
director. Uehara is a psychopath so compulsively cruel that he has been
ostracized by the yakuza itself. Uehara rapes, murders and tortures in such
a detached fashion that he might as well be landscaping. But it is Masaki
that provides the dramatic focus of the film. Even though Masaki is an
unemotional cipher, his underachiever status in a society driven by codes
of consensus and politeness, even among the gangsters, serves as perfect
satiric counterpoint. It is Takeshi's way of saying that such an outsider
has a more authentic existence than the phony world he inhabits.

"Sonatine" is also set in a lawless Okinawa. Takeshi is the head of a
yakuza gang that is sent to the island to settle a score with rival
gangsters. It is also the most self-consciously "arty" of the four films
and, therefore from my perspective, least successful. In one scene, the
gangsters romp on the sand in a manner that evokes Richard Lester's work
with the Beatles. I prefer the more deadpan style of the other films. The
most memorable scenes in the film for me are not the fancy cinematography,
but the exchanges between Takeshi and a local girl he has started an affair
with. "You must be brave to carry a gun" she says. "No," he replies, in a
rare departure from his terse style, "to carry a gun you must be a coward."

A July 9, 1998 Independent profile on Takeshi fills in some useful
biographical detail:

"Takeshi, who was born in 1948, had an abusive father, but his hard-working
mother helped him to study engineering at Meiji University - only for him
to drop out in his fourth year and squander the money on drinking, too
ashamed to admit that Honda would not recruit him. He accumulated a
gambling debt of pounds 17,000 and ran away from home in 1971, sleeping
rough and crashing on friends' floors. It was here that he 'mentored'
himself to the stand-up comic Sensaburo Tanu, and a year later was employed
as resident comedian at the Franzu-za strip-joint in Tokyo. He went on to
form a double act, 'The Two Beats' (the nickname has stuck ever since), and
successfully secured a slot with the Japanese TV station NHK in the
mid-Seventies. He spent the rest of the decade developing his unique brand
of contentious, scathing and scatological humour, which poked fun at
politicians and yakuza alike."

There is probably much less to Takeshi's involvement with yakuza gangs than
meets the eye. Growing up in a tough neighborhood and working the
striptease circuit, Takeshi has many friends in the underworld. He sees
himself as a denizen of the underworld too, and has almost nothing but
praise for his yakuza buddies during interviews.

Ironically, this stance probably reflects much less of an iconoclast stance
than one might expect. In reality, the yakuza are much more tightly
integrated into Japanese business and society than organized crime anywhere
else in the world. That is, until the collapse of the Soviet Union.

A December 27, 1992 Los Angeles Times article by Alex Gibney explains how
the yakuza became so prominent in Japanese society. He says that the yakuza
are basically the sinew that keeps Japan's body politic together and that
only a breakup of the ruling Liberal Democratic Party could change that.

In 1987, LDP faction leader Noboru Takeshita ran to succeed Prime Minister
Yasuhiro Nakasone, who felt his chances were being hurt by a tiny,
radical-right group called the Kominto. From loudspeakers on their
agit-prop "sound trucks," the Kominto tried to embarrass Takeshita by
damning him with mocking praise as a politician "good at making money."

Gibney writes:

"To call off the trucks, Takeshita's chamberlain, LDP kingpin Shin
Kanemaru, asked Hiroyasu Watanabe, the president of the Tokyo branch of
Sagawa-Kyuin, a trucking firm with mob ties, to approach Ishii. In exchange
for an obscure act of penance by Takeshita, Ishii agreed to help and, the
next day, the trucks disappeared. In due course, Takeshita became prime

"Ishii, in turn, touched Watanabe for a series of loans and guarantees
worth $1.45 billion (U.S.), which Ishii used to buy up a golf course, to
invest in the United States and Europe, where yakuza influence is rapidly
spreading, and to speculate in the stock market, with the help of brokerage
firms Nomura and Nikko, whose executives of also bought $29 million worth
of golf-club memberships from Ishii."

The yakuza emerged after the war in cities like Osaka, Hiroshima, Nagasaki
and Tokyo as surrogate families for disaffected youths, just like Beat
Takeshi. They reinvented themselves as inheritors of an eclectic mix of
Japanese traditions -- from highway gambling to the samurai cult of
Bushido. They covered themselves with tattoos of mythical stories and gods,
while making money in the old-fashioned way: running labor pools and
selling black-market goods. From there, they used their financial power and
muscle to control the extortion, gambling and prostitution rackets.

The yakuza saw themselves as a kind of underground "businessmen." But even
more so than the Mafia of the Godfather novels, the yakuza also saw
themselves as a kind of nobility. By offering a place for the excluded
underdog in Japanese society, the yakuza's reverence for the traditional
Japanese ethic of reciprocal loyalties between the oyabun (boss/father) and
the kobun (follower/child) equated the honorable and the corrupt. The
oyabun/kobun relationship is at the heart of the ritual of finger-severing:
a gruesome rite of atonement in which the kobun presents his fingertip to
the oyabun as an act of repentance. Such a rite is central to Takeshi's
"Boiling Point," except characteristically the gangster Takeshi forces an
underling to yield a surrogate finger.

This dual reverence for capitalism and Japanese martial traditions made the
yakuza natural allies for Japan's right-wing and, in the Cold War era,
zealously anti-communist Americans. It is to Takeshi's credit that he
correctly identifies the yakuza, cops and businessmen as being part of the
same deadly web.

Louis Proyect
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