Death seems to dog Takeshi Kitano. The successful Japanese actor, comedian, television personality, radio host, poet, artist, writer, film editor, and director has professed an obsession with the subject. It is a theme that spans his oeuvre. His stories rarely end in the survival of his protagonist. For Kitano, death is the completion of life’s circle on this mortal coil. We might note that we start and finish our lives as mush, and that our manner of your death is informed by the way we live our lives. But death, as a concept, carries much more weight for Kitano.
It’s not easy to track down where Kitano’s early fascination with such a subject stems from. Kitano’s style is similar to Akira Kurosawa’s -- Kitano is widely acknowledged as the heir apparent to Kurosawa’s pulpit; he is one of the few Japanese directors Kurosawa openly praised -- but nowhere in his childhood can one find extremely impressive events akin to those Kurosawa lived through. To call Kitano’s formative years ordinary is a stretch, however, for he had a stern father, his family was largely destitute, and he lived in a neighborhood administered by the yakuza, the Japanese mafia.
It may therefore come as no surprise that nine of his fifteen films involve the yakuza. As a child he flirted with the idea of becoming a mobster, impressed by what he saw as an easy lifestyle, the flashy behavior he would eventually come to recognize as merely a façade put on by troubled, hard men. But the yakuza bosses wouldn’t accept him into their circles in any case. They told him to go home and work hard and take care of his mother. Thirty years later, the yakuza and their deadly lifestyle would still occupy his mind and heart. Arguably his most successful film, Sonatine, demonstrates precisely the grip that death has on Kitano. [Spoilers for the film lie ahead.]
Sonatine follows a yakuza captain, Murakawa. Disliked by his boss, Murakawa is ordered to take his posse to Okinawa to wipe out a rival syndicate, but the captain is severely underpowered, and he knows he is purposefully being sent to die. Consequently, death looms large throughout the entire picture. In an early sequence, Kitano captures Murakawa walking, his legs obscured. In Japanese folklore, ghosts and demons glide through the air with no legs. Kitano is essentially damning Murakawa from the outset. Throughout the film, Murakawa iterates that he was sent to die; he dreams of suicide and playing Russian roulette. He doesn’t bother taking cover when in firefights -- he stands idly, firing his gun, waiting to die.
Murakawa, like many of Kitano’s characters, does not flinch in the face of death. Because death is inevitable, and because life is often so difficult in Kitano’s world, there’s little point fighting it. If it takes you, so be it; if it doesn’t, keep waiting. A pivotal moment will come, as in Sonatine, where if death doesn’t come naturally a character will have to decide whether to continue living or not.
In that case, to decide upon death typically means suicide. In Sonatine Murakawa kills himself, for even though he has survived the gang war he knows there is no escape from his lifestyle, and he knows he cannot return to his boss, and he knows that it’s time to exit the world. It’s an interesting, extremely nihilistic turn: death didn’t take him as it should have, so he lends a reinforcing hand. Conversely, in Kitano’s directorial debut, Violent Cop, Azuma manages to exact revenge on a group of men who raped his sister, but he dies in the process of executing them. Though Azuma didn’t turn the gun on himself, he knew to avenge his sister would mean death.
In Kitano’s world, hitting rock bottom (hated by your boss, permanently estranged from family) is the ultimate failure. That tenet applies equally to his fictional works as it does to him in real life. In 1994, his fifth film, Getting Any? -- an inexplicable comedy that is difficult to comprehend, and that ends in a half-man half-fly creature flying into a building-sized pile of human waste -- crashed at the box office. At that time in his life, Kitano couldn’t seem to catch good press. He had been involved in several scandals including what amount to a raid on a famous publication: along with some friends, he stormed the offices of a newspaper that had been giving him trouble, attacked some of the employees, and ransacked the place before leaving. The incident, violent in nature and difficult to defend, ended in Kitano’s arrest and prosecution.
Shortly after the release of Getting Any?, Kitano crashed his motorcycle into a roadside barrier at a high speed in busy Tokyo. He suffered short-term memory loss as well as a permanent facial disfigurement (paralysis of the left side of his face), and later admitted that the crash may have been a suicide attempt. Kitano’s ability to fight off death’s clutch matches that of Murakawa’s. And with his new lease on life, Kitano promptly continued to make films about life’s end. Suicide appears as a prominent theme in Fireworks, a picture that deals with physical disability and mental illness. For his effort in Fireworks, Kitano was awarded the Golden Lion in Venice.
Kitano’s recent films continue this trend. In Achilles and the Tortoise, an artist dies when he crashes his car into a canvas, attempting to create art. In Takeshis’, the protagonist must drive on a road lined by corpses, weaving between them as if they were traffic cones in driver’s-ed training. The recent Outrage can only be described as a study of death, a highlight reel of unfortunate ways to die at the hands of the mob with some semblance of narrative stitching the violence together.
Kitano’s desire to capture death derives from his interest in his own mortality and in man’s mortality. It is frighteningly easy to die: take a nasty tumble; get clipped by a car while crossing the road; suffer an electric shock. It’s even easier to do permanent damage to ourselves: Tagg Bozied of the San Diego Padres' AAA affiliate jumped onto home base to celebrate a home run, landed poorly, injured his knee, and ended his career, all because of a simple expression of joy. We are only afforded one body in life. As time goes on we inevitably become mired with permanent afflictions that are disappointing no matter how mundane, like a scar where hair will no longer grow.
Impending death is a powerful concept. Kitano capitalizes on our interest in it. He reflects our horrified fascination with death, and in many ways he does more than that, for he embodies its enthrallment. Death is the final ending, an abrupt and often deeply unsatisfying exclamation point that disrupts our lives. It is interesting, therefore, to consider that even though death is inevitable in Kitano’s world, it is usually on a character’s own terms. Many of us will not be allowed that luxury. Perhaps that’s why the treatment of death is so leveled out in Kitano’s films. Ultimately, his characters have found some measure of peace and serenity, and their termination is rather unaffected. Unlike them, we struggle with death, because we rarely know when it will come for us.