Violent Cop (1989)
What does it take to stand out as unique & free above the influences around you? That's a question implicitly asked by not only the art by but also the very being of "Beat" Takeshi Kitano, a maverick of Japanese media with a mission to break as many rules as he can get away with (and maybe a few extra ones for good measure). Never one to be easily categorized, Kitano's art mixes violence & tranquility, kindness & cruelty, death & life in genre-defying experiments that capture a wide scope of humanity without pretending that everything can be squeezed into the screen. His is a learned yet irreverent approach that can be formed by only one who has walked through many circles of life, beginning in destitution & rising through institutions, appreciating the views each step of the way.
Power isn't given out lightly or without conformity to public tolerance & the top brass's profit margins alike. Kitano, a standup comedian who dropped out of formal education in favor of working his way into television & cinema superstardom, is no stranger to this reality. An unlikely success in the entertainment industry -- notably acting as an unusually unrestrainably nutty & venomous funny-man in rising local duo act The Two Beats -- the social commentator often ventures to the absolute brink of what's permitted in pop culture. He comedically mocks the sacred cows of consumerist stupor & political correctness, among them cops, bureaucrats, nerds, women, pensioners, the spoiled, the spineless, the ugly, the stupid. Censorship is escaped in part by ways of a disarming demeanor, with relaxed body language & infectious humor presenting an informality that suggests more than a directness that could merit a front-on retaliatiation from his targets.
Having leveraged his stand-up cred to find success as a television host, film actor, director, screenwriter, editor, painter, tap dancer, one-time video game designer/tormentor of JonTron, voice-actor (for that knife-wielding mob boss who threw a baby into the air in Yakuza 6), and more, Kitano is aware of how to play by the rules as well as how to get away with subverting them. This is apparent in his self-starred directorial debut Violent Cop, which blew away audiences used to Takeshi the smiley vulgar comedian with Takeshi the psycho who slaps around weeping kids & runs subjects over in his police car. Even more surprising, Violent Cop isn't only shocking; it's a genuinely haunting thriller & a taut exercise in film form by a man hell-bent on proving that there's more to him than meets the eye.
The story begins in silence. We are greeted with the image of a homeless man, his vacant stare & toothy grin almost frozen in close-up. What's on the mind of this haggard hobo? What's he looking at? No sound or visuals clue us in; we're simply given a few seconds of this otherly gaze in closeup -- not quite at the camera, but definitely staged for it -- before a conspicuous axial cut to a medium shot that doesn't reveal much more for the viewer, continuing his expression until he turns to his humble meal. It's a striking start for confronting the audience with an interior life they can't get a read on.
Stillness is soon disturbed: a bunch of young punks (who seem to be no older than middle-schoolers) invade the scene to taunt & assail the still-silent man. This one-sided beatdown just keeps going on and on throughout an increasingly distressing tracking shot. Leave the guy alone, he just wants to eat his cold baked beans in peace! They don't get it over with quickly, either; it takes way too long for comfort before they finally end the old man's pathetic crawl. Even then, you can't tell if he's dead or just knocked out, poor guy doesn't even get closure. At least the teens seem pretty pleased, casually cheering as if they just beat a video game. The camera sets in place to see one teen waltz back home to mom (no father figure present) as if nothing happened; see you guys at school tomorrow! A few soundless seconds pass on the establishing shot of his posh house. Then Detective Azuma enters the frame.
Kitano's role as the titular cop is deadpan at first, though there's something forceful about his persistent knocking at the door of his hobo-hunting target. He steps in as soon as the mother peeks out; he doesn't give her a chance to react or find out what his "police business" with her son is about; now he's at the room of the kid, who grouchily opens his door. And he decks the middle-schooler in the face! Violent cop indeed. Making the forced confession even tenser is that the camera captures this barrage in one take, initially keeping Azuma's abuse of the punk on the floor off-frame. But then we pan down to see the connecting kicks & slaps we'd been inferring from Takeshi's forcefulness & the cries of pain shooting out. They're even more brutal than we'd imagined.
With his mission apparently accomplished, Azuma saunters out of the house in a shot mirroring the first establishing shot of the house from earlier. On the outside, it looks as if nothing ever happened. And in a way, that captures the soul of the film right there: no melodramatic music, hardly any intimacy from closeups & the like, but a deeply stark tone established by violent disruptions bookended by stillness.
From here, the film follows Azuma as he tracks down a powerful drug ring, breaking every rule of conduct along the way. He disregards his superiors at the station, beats up suitors to his mentally retarded sister, & yanks around a nervous greenhorn partner whom he forces to pay taxi fare & gambling debts. Good stuff. Often pretty funny to see a cop who doesn't even try to talk through anything with sarcasm or quips, just barrels through as others object. Tell him not to rough up the suspect too badly, he doesn't care. Tell him the boss wants to talk with him about his running the suspect over with a car (twice), he doesn't care. Not even a retort! Now that's a dedication to your craft.
Now, Kitano was originally set to play the leading role of Violent Cop under the direction of Kinji Fukasaku -- the craftsman behind stylish social commentaries such as Yakuza Papers and Battle Royale -- under a fairly comedic script by Hisashi Nozawa, who's delivered capable work for everything from Detective Conan features to biker femdom pinku. Plan A was for a lighthearted action-comedy along the lines of Lethal Weapon, all jokey & relaxed in between people getting shot in the face. When Kitano ended up taking the reins due to it being the only way to fit his packed television production schedule, he turned out to be capable due to his experience in television giving him technical skills as well as confident control of his presence in relation to the camera; he used this to concoct unconventional visual ideas such as the choice to capture his character's urgently striding in one shot to exclude his head from the frame to emphasize decisively, pondering body language over conventional expression.
You'd think a showbiz guy would lean into the Robert Redford route of directing and writing himself to be a safely idealized and likable presence in an easily accessible scenario. Even Jay Leno did Collision Course, that one goofy buddy cop film where he was the stereotypical dumb whitey who got taught to be less "brash, obnoxious, sexist & racist" by Mr. Miyagi. A dumb thriller would have been a safe recovery PR move since Kitano had recently been arrested for rallying some followers to join him in physically attacking muckraker journalists for reporting his extramarital affairs -- based! But Takeshi's vision isn't exactly what one would call safe.
In fact, Kitano had already been on a streak of extreme roles, such as an Oedipian rapist in Mosquito on the Tenth Floor & a camera-hamming killer in No More Comics. Fascinating explorations of dark social dominance, and not as romanticized or "liberated" as your cosmopolitan Hannibal Lecters or Clockwork Alexes, either. Kitano never makes emotion simple or easily endorsable; the alterity encourages one to question what's being conveyed, as opposed to the actor being a palatable vessel for a straightforward message. Officer Azuma isn't a one-dimensional psycho; he gets along well with his fellow detectives, sticks up for his new partner Kikuchi (at least when he's not making him pay cab fare or ignoring him outright), and patiently looks out for his mentally handicapped sister Akari even when she naively brings strangers home from nightclubs. But this is never presented in a "maybe he's a nice guy after all" angle; the human attributes are adjacent, not a hierarchy that negates other attributes.
By now audiences expected violent boorishness from Takeshi due to his prior roles & real-life outbursts. What was surprising in Azuma was newfound silence, a quiet intensity suggesting a barely contained fury in the face of incessant degeneration: kids perform petty crime in the open, two-bit crooks butcher officers in their escapes, and leads constantly turn up dead (sometimes literally). These mundane injustices infecting an outwardly rather tranquil-seeming city -- the visuals can be more colorful than the grime & gaudiness one expects from a gritty thriller -- prompt Azuma's tactics to become more and more extreme & alienating.
Escalating the matter is a rival found in yakuza hitman Kiyohiro, who similarly rejects the bureaucratic hierarchy of his bosses & gets off on exerting power on those he sees as beneath him. Azuma can't quite pin the smug, metrosexual murderer to any of his crimes, which exacerbates his frustration with trying to work in the system legally. Finding themselves in each others' sights, their uncontrollable contempt borders on the insane, yet Violent Cop isn't the gorefest its title & reputation may suggest. The kill count barely reaches double digits, no body parts are chopped off, there isn't a single explosion -- but faces sting red when they've been punched, bodies flail from being shot, heads erupt blood when bludgeoned. Acts that would be but a tiny endorphin hit in a PG-13 Hollywood flick are presented as brutally final here; they shock the audience by disturbing the silence, yet in a setting where the cruelty of those who should be innocent & the corruption of institutions that should be benevolent are all so commonplace as to demand no emphasis from composition or sound, the violence ingrains itself as permanent & serious yet endless & ubiquitous. People suffer intensely, yet silence always creeps back in.
The form of Violent Cop itself is a cold stare at pure evil, with its characters often spectating violence yet doing nothing to stop it. Azuma saw the kids beating up the hobo in the first scene yet claims to have been powerless to intervene. Interrogating a suspect about drugs being sneaked from evidence, Azuma lets loose a small eternity of maniacally persistent slaps -- Kitano is hurting the actor -- to get him to talk, during which Kikuchi as well as the audience itself passively watch in stunned horror. When Kiyohiro assassinates that same informant in a later scene, he takes his time & relishes the show while slicing his terrified victim's grip on life. The new police captain acknowledges Azuma's outbursts but stops him only when it puts his career on the line. And innocent children are powerless to stop a brutal attack before their horrified eyes. In these & other scenes, the camera is largely static, capturing events in extended takes, with an unblinking gaze.
The mostly immobile camera expresses itself as a glare that cuts through excess to see primal drives. Kitano rewrote over 90% of that original script, chopping lines & entire scenes left and right. And not just filler; even characterization, such as dialogue meant for a confrontation scene to convey that Azuma's longtime friend on the force Iwaki was making dirty money to help with Akari's treatment got the ax in favor of an ominous, distant view of their meeting. Nine entire scenes were offed between the police captain demanding Azuma's badge & the cop finally renouncing his position to go deeper into his vengeance, with two characters in the room simply disappearing between cuts; it's a standout example of a film drawing attention to its artificiality & obfuscation.
Yet essential information is still legible if delayed; for instance, while Azuma's wistfully spaced-out sister Akari is never explicitly said to be mentally retarded until over an hour into the film, it's apparent from Azuma's longsuffering protectiveness & Akari's vacant stares, idle play, and non sequitur lines that something alien to normal experience is going on in her mind. According to critic-cum-director Makoto Shinozaki on Kitano's work, "What is essential in film is not explanation but depiction." Analyst Casio Abe goes so far as to call Violent Cop's style anti-explanation, a retroactive construction of meaning. As a result, the audience is challenged to identify humanity beyond mere talk & direct expression.
Characters in Kitano kino are defined in part by what they think & state, but the consequences of their entanglements show no quarter favoring personality. The existence (if not the content) of internality -- thoughts caring, brooding, despairing, racing, seething -- is made palpable to the audience, yet they're neither self-affirmingly explicit nor even coherent, much less of any aid to the characters' struggles. Seemingly no one gets what he wants here; emphasis on effect over mere intent makes the film's stasis all the bleaker. Kitano's subtraction of dialogue imbibes the film with a sense of speeding towards destruction, yet despite all this paring down, scenes of silently walking down desolate streets (akin to the lonely march of the hopelessly romantic thinker in the brutally static town of Bela Tarr's Werckmeister Harmonies) take significant screentime. This display of small physical beings in a vast, unaccommodating setting says a great deal about how doomed one loose cannon is in trying to purge the world of ingrained evil by himself.
Indeed, this is the story of a status quo negating atomized opposition. Azuma's energy ends up only burning bridges & diminishing status; aside from losing his badge, he neglects to morally guide the impressionable Kikuchi, whose witnessing Azuma's acts of lashing out seems to turn him off from striving for any justice at all. The rootless rookie jadedly practices a golf swing during the funeral of a murdered fellow officer & after disappearing from the film for a period re-emerges as a chillingly pragmatic figurehead of the survivors who inherit the future. As a high-profile navigator in the world of controlled expression, Takeshi Kitano himself knows a thing or two about needing to make connections & how hard it is to preserve these ties when he pushes against the system, lamenting "a first-rate talent for making other people worry" with his acts of subversion. What Violent Cop ultimately conveys, then, is the self-destructive futility of the individual against his environment. Azuma isn't the lone crusader of justice who saves the day High Noon-style; he is a reminder that isolated individuals can't change the world on their own. Moreover, both his careening into madness & his partner's passivity carries the deeply disturbing indication that the act of seeing evil, something inescapably incessant in an information-overloaded world, is a phenomenon that in itself isolates & corrupts in a downward spiral.
By constantly exposing himself to this madness, Azuma's situation begins to spiral out of control. After an extremely illegal interrogation of Kirohiro that culminates in another officer getting shot and Azuma losing his badge for good, Kirohiro retaliates by kidnapping & torturing Azuma's sister. Not one to be deterred by a lack of authority status (or legal weapons), Azuma confronts Kirohiro and his posse in what isn't so much a tactical or balletic firefight as a haphazard collision of freaks shooting each other point-blank. Azuma stands riddled with bullets only to find his sister mentally broken from her torture. He puts her out of her insane misery. And before he can stagger off the scene, he unexpectedly gets the same bullet-in-the-head treatment from Shinkai, the taciturn advisor of one of the yakuza bosses Azuma killed on his rampage. The seemingly reserved servant had been lurking in the shadows, astounded by the crazed carnage taking place before his hidden eyes. "The whole world's gone mad!"
Shocking, but there's still one more scene up Kitano's sleeve: a punchline, no less. After being practically forgotten by Azuma (and the movie itself), rookie Kikuchi returns in a scene mirroring Azuma's earlier walk to the police station. But he's reporting to a new boss: at the yakuza HQ, Shinkai offers him the same job smuggling drugs out of the station that used to belong to one of the many cops slain during the film's events. Evidentially not willing to be added to the body count, the enthusiastic Kikuchi is ready to keep his head down by playing for both teams: "I'm no fool!" He accepts his first of many bribes and saunters out of the room a richer and safer man, as the camera sears one more image into our heads, zooming into a bystanding secretary who watches his departure with an inexplicable sense of knowing horror washing over her face... before looking away, blankly returning to her work. The frame freezes, the loop is closed, back to business as usual.
That most people tend to simply passively allow the elite (and other predatory psychopaths) oppress the weak & that any active opposition tends to fail to communicate or otherwise reproduce itself before being squashed out are notions that make for an astoundingly bleak conclusion to an astoundingly bleak film, yet there's truth in this. More than "just" a razor-sharp assemblage of harrowingly hard-boiled cinematic craft, Violent Cop is a recognition of the immutability of the laws of power, unblinkingly witnessed from the perspective of an impotent madman on a suicide mission against forces he's hopelessly ill-equipped to combat. That recognition of how easily things can go wrong is necessary for figuring out what's needed for things to go right.
While later Kitano films would shift far more focus to how life-affirming humanity may survive in the cracks between the concrete status quo, Violent Cop not only sets a necessary foundation of a filmography-running thesis but also transcends the fatalist nihilism of post-masculine crime scenes such as American Beauty and Falling Down (both presenting strong men as an inevitably dying breed deserving of replacement). Tragedy in an actionable perspective instead of total surrender to despair. By presenting the seers alongside the actors, by eliminating all pretenses of the camera as all-knowing, by reducing tonal guidance in direction, and by challenging the audience to infer events not directly seen or heard, Takeshi Kitano invites us to ways of seeing beyond the easy signifiers set forth by mass media, to see the implications and transformations that always always always accompany appearances natural & deliberated alike. You'll need that sight to prevail over apparent despair & see how things should be.