Takeshi Kitano dies in almost every one of his movies. For the renowned Japanese actor-director, death is an essential and very obvious stage in the circle of life. Critic Casio Abe, in addressing Kitano’s use of death as a theme, wrote quite simply, “Takeshi Kitano’s movies are all movies about death.” Those who have seen Kitano’s more violent features will attest to his obsession with documenting man’s end; indeed, not much more need be said past Abe’s simple but canny description of the auteur’s style. Death is often personal for Kitano. He frequently plays the lead role in his works, and he is typically the last one to go down—sometimes at the hand of others, other times by his own hand. His films are superb and he has even been hailed by some Japanese critics as the spiritual heir to Akira Kurosawa’s throne (Kurosawa being the greatest Japanese director, and one the greatest directors in history).
Yet, despite his successes, and despite his masterful use of death as a thematic instrument, Kitano’s approach is very much anomalous. When we examine the typical protagonist in Western films, especially Hollywood films, we find that death is largely absent, and is, in most cases, totally ignored. Our action heroes may kill tens of people but they themselves never die. Jason Bourne is still alive and kicking (to use a hackneyed phrase) as the credits roll in the third Bourne picture. James Bond has ascended to even greater heights. He has survived twenty-two different adventures with nary a scratch on him. This invulnerability is not just limited to protagonists in action films. Most dramas or thrillers work the same way. To pick a random title, Jamie Foxx defeats Tom Cruise in Collateral without too tribulation—despite the fact that Cruise is a trained assassin whereas Foxx is a cab driver. Roll the dice on another movie: Jake Gyllenhaal and his chums survive the perilous cold in The Day After Tomorrow while almost everyone else gets wiped out. What are the chances? (Well, at least everyone in the first world gets frozen over. That’s Roland Emmerich’s thing, I guess—cataclysmic disasters only ever wipe out the West.)
The ‘happy ending’ became ossified in films long ago. I suppose most would attribute it to the fact the people like a story with a positive ending. We want to see our heroes surmount the odds, defeat the wrongdoers, and save the day. It’s certainly a safe bet: we elevate plenty of real-life characters to heroic status, and we want to see them succeed as well. At the risk of simply selecting a topical example, Lance Armstrong has millions of followers that continue to defend him, claiming that the USADA is out on a witch hunt against him. Nothing short of an admission of guilt from Armstrong himself would shake their resolve, and maybe not even that. To some, this figure has become a hero.
I do wonder if this trope hasn’t become a little tired over the last few decades. We have become so saturated by heroic success that it has almost become a little meaningless. The comic book character Wolverine, though as big an icon as you’ll ever find, suffers a major flaw: he can’t die. He is literally invincible—his superhero power is that he can heal any injury, wound, disease, and the like—so there are no stakes. He fights all manner of enemies, but nothing is ever hazardous to him. We know that when we reach the last page of the issue Wolverine will still be alive. The fact that nothing can affect him—and most other action heroes, for that matter—means that he probably won’t have changed at all from the first page of the book to the last. When we read a book or watch a film, we are looking for character development. We want to see characters change; we want to see them grow from their experiences. They might make progress, or they may even devolve, but they change. Yet that never happens to characters that are bulletproof. If there are changes, they are only cosmetic. In one James Bond film his wife is murdered, and in another he is forced to go rogue against his agency, but who he is never actually changes.
I am not about to suggest that killing off protagonists at the end of the story is a solution to this problem, or that death should become the new standard. But I do feel that death as a narrative tool is largely being ignored, in a way that can be detrimental to some works. One of the most impressive things about the film adaptation of The Mist was that—spoilers!—the protagonist died at the end. It actually comes as a surprise, because we’re so used to the hero killing off all the monsters and making everything safe and normal again. We don’t see it coming. It is so rare that that happens in movies that it actually shocks us, and we might be moved to recommend the film to others on that basis alone. “It has an amazing ending,” I can remember saying to friends. In this case, “amazing ending” is really just code for ‘here’s something you won’t see too often.’
In some cases, a protagonist dying would be more impactful and more stirring than the boilerplate ride-off-into-the-sunset happy ending. Perhaps the best non-application of this is the marquee television series 24. I always thought it would have been terrific if Bauer died in the final season. His character had experienced so much physical damage and had endured so much emotional torment that, provided it was suitably handled, his death would have been a nice capstone to seal the series with. Ideally, he might have ended it all himself—in fact, if there was ever an opportune time for Bauer to take his own life, it was actually in the final episode of the first season. I suspect such an ending would have instantly catapulted 24 into television lore. At the very least, we can certainly say that the death of a protagonist is a more impactful sight than a happy ending. It’s not the case that every film could end this way; nor should every film end this way. But we seem to have gone to the other extreme, where deaths rarely happen. The reasons for this might not be as benign as ‘viewers want a happy ending.’ We might be cynical and say that, in the hunt for sequels and lucrative film properties, it’s not good business practice for a blockbuster action film to kill off its star character. The Rambo and John McClane characters have been spun out into franchises that may never die down.
There are certainly some missed opportunities here, as in the case of 24. The ending of Kitano’s Sonatine—where the protagonist realizes he has nothing left and ends it all, sitting in his parked car on a dirt road by the seaside—is etched into my brain in a way that few other endings are. In no way should every film have a sad ending, but it would be a shame if those that could pull of something original refuse to in favor of the conventional happy conclusion. It might make us happy, but it won’t stay with us. We might, as a closing note, return to Kitano, who warns us that films have become too complex. Narratives are too alive, dense and packed with different sights, sounds, and tons of noise; there are myriad characters, myriad plots, and in sponsoring that milieu a film risks being sapped of its strength and of its impact. Kitano once spoke on this issue in regards to one facet of moviemaking—set design. “Art directors and set designers want to do their job, so they tend to add a lot of things,” he said to the critic Casio Abe. “They never take things away. One time we just had to take everything out of the room. I often make my art directors cry.” That sentiment, I fear, is also applicable to life. We add things to our own lives until it is eventually all taken away. It’s rarely taken away from our protagonists. But we cannot ignore death, Kitano warns us. It is there, and it is waiting.