“Beat” Takeshi Kitano has been making headlines recently. Late last year the 70-year-old Japanese filmmaker, actor, author and entertainer was awarded France’s coveted Legion of Honor for his contribution to contemporary arts while film retrospectives in New York and Rio de Janeiro, along with a spate of fresh Blu-ray releases from Film Movement and Third Window Films, have spawned renewed interest in his work. Kitano is also wrapping up production on his latest directorial effort, the third film in his lauded crime trilogy Outrage: Final Chapter (2017), and we can look forward to seeing him in the highly anticipated live-action adaptation of Ghost in the Shell (2017) soon. As a longtime admirer, it has been a joy to see the arc of his career take shape from popular television comedian to celebrated film auteur and beloved cultural figure.
FilmStruck subscribers currently have access to four of Takeshi Kitano’s earliest films including Boiling Point (1990), Sonatine (1993), The Blind Swordsman: Zatoichi (2003) and my personal favorite of the bunch, Violent Cop (1989). Violent Cop was the first feature film Kitano directed and its impact should not be underestimated. As he continues to gain new admirers around the world, I thought I would revisit the movie that launched Kitano’s filmmaking career and transformed his public persona from a fun-loving clown into a cinematic powerhouse in Japan and abroad.
Violent Cop was originally meant to be a lightweight vehicle showcasing Kitano’s comedy skills and directed by the late great Kinji Fukasaku, a purveyor of some of Japan’s best crime films. However, when Fukasaku had a falling out with the Shochiku studio, Kitano took over the directing reigns and revised the script in order to demonstrate his acting abilities. The end result was a brutal, hard-hitting and incredibly bleak police drama that surprised the studio and stunned Kitano’s adoring public. It also earned him a legion of new fans and admirers.
Set within a crime-ridden neighborhood in Yokohama, Violent Cop opens with a group of unruly youths assaulting a homeless man in a scene that recalls Stanley Kubrick’s A Clockwork Orange (1971). The attack is witnessed by rogue homicide Detective Azuma (Takeshi Kitano) who follows one of the young men home and proceeds to beat him into submission while simultaneously demanding his confession.
This shocking and disturbing introduction signals to viewers that Azuma is no ordinary detective and this is no ordinary police film. As we follow along while he tracks down members of a vicious crime syndicate, it becomes apparent that violence is Azuma’s modus operandi and he regularly threatens, beats and terrorizes his suspects. Despite this cruel streak, he also displays a sense of humor with coworkers and at home, he expresses genuine compassion for his mentally unstable sister. We never learn much about his background but the chaos that erupts around him suggests that Detective Azuma’s violent streak is deep-seated and homegrown. He’s simply not cut out to be a member of the police force but that fact is overlooked by his besieged superiors trying to protect the public from threats outside and inside of their department.
The film has rightfully been compared to Dirty Harry (1971) but there are darker and more dissident factors at play here. Violent Cop is a severe indictment of police corruption that refuses to frame Detective Azuma as a hero but thanks to Kitano’s nuanced portrayal, we can empathize with his character or at the very least recognize the forces that are fueling his rage.
Kitano plows through the film like a growling bulldog saying very little but his steely composure suggests he’s ready to tear through anyone and anything that gets in his way. When he does spit out a line or two it is usually accompanied by a smirk or a sigh alluding to his inner frustrations and world-weary exhaustion. His tightly wound performance recalls the volatile police officers often found in film noir such as Dana Andrews’s Detective Dixon in Where the Sidewalk Ends (1950) and Robert Ryan’s Detective Wilson in On Dangerous Ground (1951) but Kitano resembles a Japanese John Garfield with a touch of Charles Bronson thrown in for good measure.
Besides creating an unforgettable character in Detective Azuma, Kitano also established his filmmaking credentials with Violent Cop and it’s a dazzling directorial debut. This atypical police drama is a dynamic and brooding production that relies on extreme longshots, powerful close-ups and vigorous crosscuts making it seem as if the relentless violence on display is engulfing all of Yokohama. There is no escape from the film’s brutality. You feel every punch, every knife wound, and every gunshot but there is nothing glamorous or gratuitous here. The aggressive nature of the film should make viewers think as well as squirm uncomfortably in their seat.
The high point of Violent Cop is a lengthy chase sequence that seems to take place across the entire city as we’re dragged through its crowded streets and back alleys accompanied by slow jazz and refrains of Erik Satie’s classic “Gnossienne 1.” And as the film staggers towards its gut-wrenching conclusion, it is hard to imagine anyone without their jaw on the floor when the credits finally roll.
by Kimberly Lindbergs, originally written for FilmStruck and published in 2017