My introduction to Japanese cinema came when I watched Akira Kurosawa’s Ran at about around age nine or ten. Kurosawa is, of course, one of the greatest directors of film—the greatest, to my mind, though there’s some room for debate there—and Ran is his renowned adaptation of William Shakespeare’s King Lear. I liked it, though I was far too young to grasp what was going on; too young to even keep up with the subtitles. Some years later I happened to see Takeshi Kitano’s Fireworks (released as ‘Hana-Bi’ internationally), and it was then that I decided that Kitano fell second to Kurosawa in the all-time director rankings, and that, despite being one notch below Kurosawa, Kitano would become my favorite director of all.
It’s something of a presumptive claim to make about cinema when you’re only fifteen, and when you’ve barely seen any films of note. Despite that, my opinion hasn’t varied at all since then, and I stand by it today. Of course, at a certain point it comes down to taste. We can objectively decide that both these directors deserve to be in the top echelon, but whether you choose to favor them over Bergman or Hitchcock or Fellini or Kubrick becomes, at a certain point, a subjective matter.
Both Kurosawa and Kitano are widely known in the West, though certainly more people would have heard of former. They are the most successful Japanese imports—Kurosawa simply because of the quality of his work; Kitano because of his adeptness, and because his films about gangsters appeal to the American market and are frequently cited by characters like Quentin Tarantino. Here is the rub: while Kurosawa’s films are easily available both here and in Europe, released by the likes of the Criterion Collection along with some smaller distributors, Kitano does not enjoy the same support—at least not in the United States. Publishers like Artificial Eye maintain his presence across the Atlantic, but here in the U.S. many of his films are unavailable and the ones that are available are in fact only formerly so, for they are typically out-of-print. Even if they were in circulation, the quality of the video, audio, and the translation is so poor that one would almost be better off not watching the film at all.
Kitano’s work is too good to merit such an astonishingly slapdash treatment. He is, like most auteurs, an eclectic character: part thug (he has a criminal past) but part comedian (Western viewers may actually know him best as the lead character on the show mXc), a flawed renaissance man that regularly writes books and columns in newspapers, has previously released a video game, and hosts television and radio talk shows in Japan, all things above his film ventures. The landmark moment in his career came in 1994, when he attempted suicide by crashing his motorcycle at high speed in Tokyo. The resulting injury failed to kill him but it did paralyze the right side of his face, and he recovered from the fall claiming to have a new lease on life.
We’ve previously examined how his life experiences could be said to contribute to the trademark nihilistic tone of his films, but they certainly also impact his filmmaking style. Kitano writes, edits, acts in and directs most of his movies, though it is his directing that is most remarkable of all. For one, his camera barely moves, which is something that immediately makes an impression on audiences used to Western styles of filmmaking where camera movement is perhaps generally in overabundance. As a rule Kitano never pans, and he prefers tracking shots, though even these are employed no more than ten or so times in a film. And it is not as if he shoots a scene with multiple cameras and then cuts between them to artificially give his film some movement—he typically only shoots scenes from two vantage points, and cuts significantly less than in the average Hollywood flick. But none of this stillness slows down the pacing. Rather, the camerawork adds a tonal weight to the film. Even his gravest stories come out from under this seeming all the more bleak. It is, of course, a deliberate effect: the heavy tone is precisely what Kitano wants to achieve, and few others manage to engineer it as well as he does.
An added benefit of the limited camera movement (and this is something that I suspect Kitano implicitly understands and is trying to evoke) is that the camera simply reports what’s happening in the film without adding anything to it. Consider the opposite: in films with excessive camera movement, the camera is in fact impacting how you view the film. It’s an affect above whatever is happening onscreen. In extreme cases, like in the shaky cam genre, the camera practically becomes a character in the film, as if it is narrating what’s going on. There’s nothing inherently bad about this, but I do get the sense that some directors employ camera movement without appreciating the fact that it will, in many cases, actually impact their narrative or at least the way in which they convey their story. Kitano, of course, does precisely the opposite. His camera is a court stenographer: it just happens to be set up in all these places where it can document the goings-on, but it does not make its presence known.
This results in some remarkable looking sequences. Kitano typically shoots action scenes with a camera cutting back and forth between each of the gunman. But because his action is so rigid, there’s no need for any real movement. In the above clip from his magnum opus Sonatine, a shootout at a bar begins abruptly and ends just as quickly. Men stand still and fire at each other until they decide to fire no more. The camera simply cuts between the figures, surveying the violence in a detached, almost clinical manner. Kitano’s desire is to reveal the crass and heinous brutality of it all, and in this respect he likely does it better than any other director in film.
His interesting and often brilliant camerawork and his obsession with the theme of death (which we discussed in that linked piece two years ago) are just two of his many great qualities. A short piece like this can’t do him (or most great directors, for that matter) justice, but I’ve focused specifically on an aspect of his directorial style that I find impressive. And yet, as noted, the home video market for his films is in disarray in the United States. Perhaps fortunately, the best release is of Kitano’s best film, the abovementioned Sonatine. It is available packed-in with Zatoichi, Kitano’s take on the classic blind samurai character, and both films are “presented” by Quentin Tarantino. But other than that, a North American fan’s only hope is to pull the films from the U.K., or even from Hong Kong, where the quality of the releases (the official ones, that is) is surprisingly good.
There is one clear candidate that could pick up Kitano’s torch: the Criterion Collection, which specializes in releasing foreign films, specifically those with artistic merit. Criterion’s Japanese releases already do well, and Criterion has a strong history of performing brilliant transfers of titles that would be considered niche even in their native country. That they would have no interest in picking up Kitano is remarkable, although that decision may very well be one influenced by financial considerations. It’s easy to forget that film distribution is a business. A company like Criterion lives or dies by the films it releases. But it’s not that Kitano’s films don’t (or wouldn’t) make money—I would guess that he has a wider audience here than many of Criterion’s more obscure European directors. Rather, it’s probably the case that other companies own the rights to his films, smaller outfits that don’t particularly care to up the quality of their releases. Spending the money and time required acquiring those rights and then to restore and remaster the films may be more trouble than it is worth.
It’s the fan of film that ultimately loses out. Kitano is important. His style is utterly unique, and the themes he deals with don’t receive any real treatment in films released by any of the major studios here. If you’re looking for a film that examines and meditates upon death, the best bet is to look within indie circles, and even then those movies are rare and never produced to the standard of Kitano’s works. His style of directing, and his excessively still camera, is also something you won’t see elsewhere. He is, in a very real sense, more than a rarity—he is the only man doing what he is doing. That, I would have guessed, would be worth preserving in the best way possible. Perhaps it’ll happen one day, and we’ll finally get to enjoy Kitano in all his splendor.