The Continuity of Physicality: A Distillation of Cause-and-effect in Takeshi Kitano’s Violent Cop

Violent Cop’s (1989) concern with physicality manifests itself through multifarious aspects. Not only are we made aware of the bodily through its emphasis within the established narrative film paradigm (causal relations/ spatiality/ temporality[1]), but also by an intertextual continuity that draws upon director/actor Takeshi Kitano/Beat Takeshi’s persona outside the medium of film. The Film’s Japanese title Sonno Otoko Kyōbo ni Tsuki, which verbatim translates to “that man is equipped with violence”, is itself a link to an event entirely separate from – yet similar in its concern with physicism to – the cinematic world.

In 1986 Kitano, along with a group of collaborators, conducted a “raid” on the offices of weekly gossip magazine Friday. Supposedly enraged by the falsified printing of a story concerning a mistress, Kitano physically assaulted multiple journalists before demolishing the interior of the building.[2] The incident resulted in a seven-month televisual break for Kitano – during which he was voted the most popular presenter in a viewer poll – and culminated in a nationwide notion that Kitano was a “violent man”.

It is under this image, one of physical violence, that studio Shochiku marketed his debut feature, with producer Okuyama Kazuyohi commenting that they “developed an ad campaign that bordered on the underhanded in exploiting the image of the tarento Beat Takeshi to the fullest.[3]

The film’s poster, on which we are confronted with a full-body shot of Kitano, serves as a reminder to this perceived physicality by which Kitano became defined, and drew immediate attention to the anchoring of the film’s title to the image of Kitano’s corporeality.

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Here we see that violence is viewed as an extension of the bodily, and therefore physicality. This same notion is touched upon by an article in Japanese film magazine Kinema junpō:

“Just hearing Beat Takeshi will star in a violent picture, plus try his hand at directing, is enough to pique one’s interest. Knowing that Beat Takeshi doesn’t just normally reveal an independent opinion about “violence”, but shows it with his behaviour, one has to wonder what kind of “violent” movie he will make.[4]

In his book Beat Takeshi Vs. Takeshi Kitano, Casio Abe argues that the cinematic language of Violent Cop is “woven together from the concept of time that has repeatedly been emphasized by such words as “persistence”, “continuity”, and “length”, together with the spatial concept of the “impact of the right angle”.[5] Examining the film closer, we become aware of each of Abe’s theorised elements as they are presented/embodied in relation to physicality, and the way in which a microcosmic world is formed by a sense of physicism that is both the film’s main concern, as well its structure and tool for reflexive comprehension. In order to explore this depiction of physicality effectively, it must first be broken into three different groups: Physicality in Violent actions, Physicality in non-violent actions, and The Physicality of Cinematic Methods.

Physicality in Violent Actions

In the Violent Cop entry of his Takeshi Kitano director’s spotlight, film critic Jonathan Lack reworks Abe’s core elements of  “persistence”, “continuity”, “length”, and “the impact of the right-angle” in relation to violence, offering the terms “Senseless”, “Persistent”, “Physical”, “Continuous”, and “Reciprocal” as a more “holistic[6] understanding of the language on which the film’s central (and titular) theme operates. Alongside both Abe’s and Lack’s revisions (for what reason does it have to be either, or?) I would add “expressive”,  “escalating” and remove “physical”. The reason for this omission is simple: defining individual events/actions as “physical” alienates the term, isolating it from its intrinsic embedding within all the elements of violence offered above. If we are viewing all violence as physical and considering the weapons used to perpetrate said violence as extensions of the bodily, it becomes futile to extract physicality and examine it free from corporeal objects/actions, as its very existence is created and depicted through them.

Firstly, examining the violence as “senseless”, we needn’t look any further than the film’s opening scene, in which a group of teenage boys are seen, unprovoked, attacking a homeless man. Here senseless violence is immediately contextualised, and the first step (or trigger) of the cause-and-effect narrative is established as meaningless. The violence here is also emphasised as “persistent” by its longevity, as well as through the use of an unbroken lateral dolly movement (which Abe contrasts against the following vertically composed shot of the boys riding away as the first example of “the impact of the right-angle”).

Throughout the extent of the film, “senseless” violence is juxtaposed against its “expressive” counterpoint, with those who participate in the former being punished for refusing to be held accountable when the “reciprocal” nature of their acts comes back to strike them. The boy who senselessly beats the homeless man, for example, is followed home by Detective Azuma (Kitano) and punished by being persistently slapped as well as head-butted in the very next scene. As the senselessness of acts “escalates”, so do their “reciprocal” outcomes. When it comes time for antagonist Kiyohiro’s henchmen to be held accountable for raping detective Azuma’s sister, they think of escaping the situation by leaving, and in doing so sign their death warrant – and are immediately killed.

Violence is also portrayed as senseless by its vapidity: nothing is gained from its application, and the death of all the major characters in the film’s climax is the natural outcome of this. Lack argues that the closest violence comes to being meaningful is during “Azuma’s iconic interrogation of drug dealer Hashizume in a nightclub bathroom, where he slaps the man, over and over again, until Hashizume gives him a name”. Physicality is heightened in this scene by becoming real, with Kitano actually slapping actor Ei Kawakami twenty-three times while the camera gazes on unflinchingly. In bringing the violence to the real world, Kitano is stating that not only is his film about violence, it is also made from it.

This Violence is made “persistent” through its repetition. The physical language of the film is limited in its range of movements, and the same actions are used multiple times over its duration. Just as Azuma is established in a scene of persistent violence, so too is the antagonist Kiyohiro, whom we are introduced to repeatedly stabbing a drug dealer on a pier. Abe argues that through persistent violence a “number of bodies” are “stripped naked”, citing Kiyohiro’s repeated punching by his superior (and drug overlord), Nito, as revealing of his “fragility” (this theory manifests itself most prominently through the repetition of scenes of Azuma’s walking, which we shall explore later).

In this sense, the violence can be read as “expressive”, an outlet of emotions for those who have no other. There is even a case to be made that Azuma’s violent tendencies spawn from a repressed homosexuality, with clues interwoven throughout the film’s narrative pertaining to this. One of these clues is the sexual imagery on display throughout Azuma’s confrontations with Kiyohiro. Azuma’s face is at its most “expressive” (Kitano is renowned for his restrained performances) when his gun is resting phallically in Kiyohiro’s mouth during an interrogation-turned-torture session. His refusal to acknowledge women in a nightclub (and the slapping of his partner for doing so), as well as a sarcastically ironic joke about Kiyohiro’s sexuality, do nothing but further this ambiguity.

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Abe points out Azuma’s fixation with head-butts and Kiyohiro’s abdominal stabbing preferences, suggesting that the right-angular relationship between the two. The femininity of the abdomen stab juxtaposed against the masculinity of the head-butt works to create a dualistic nullification in which Kiyohiro’s ‘homicidal “right-angleness” is ultimately sucked out by Azuma’s right-angle actions.’[7] As a result of this nullification, the violence begins to “escalate”, as both protagonist and antagonist become obsessed with outdoing each other. Lack chronicles this escalation succinctly:

“Azuma arrests Kiyohiro after Iwaki’s death, beats the living daylights out of him, and nearly shoots him; in return, Kiyohiro kidnaps Azuma’s sister, has her gang-raped, and later stabs and nearly shoots Azuma in the movie theatre sequence (Azuma escapes by turning violence around on Kiyohiro once more); in response to all this, Azuma – no longer an officer – buys a gun illegally and goes on a spree, murdering Nito, Kiyohiro, and even his sister, before being killed himself by the man who watched him murder Nito.”

In this brief reflection of Narrative events, the “continuity” of violence, the bridge from one act to the next, and the manifestation of cause-and-effect through physicism is illustrated clearly. Violence propels the film forward in a linear manner, and Azuma’s straight path, metaphorically and figuratively (during the film’s climax he actually walks forward to his death), both begins and ends with the physicality of violence.

Physicality in Nonviolent Actions

Despite Violent Cop’s primary concern with violence, it could be argued that the most illuminating manifestation of physicality is found in the repeated scenes of walking. A lot of screen-time is dedicated to the act of undisturbed peregrination. During one sequence we watch part of Azuma’s journey into work, made up of three shots spread across a one-minute-and-fifty-two-second period. Firstly we see Azuma, via a front-view, spend forty-four seconds crossing a bridge, then a thirty-three-second lateral dolly movement that decapitates his head from its body via the frame (forcing us to focus on the act of movement), and, finally, a further thirty-five-second shot of him traversing the precinct to his desk.

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When asked “why do you shoot scenes where all we see is you walking?” Kitano jokingly explains this motif by responding: “Because that’s part of the TV cop show formula.” This response, however, need not be taken seriously, because, much like Nito is laid bare by his repeated punching of Kiyohiro, so too is Azuma’s gait an exposure of the tangible, physically bare nature of his flesh.

Abe devotes a whole page to Kitano’s walk, describing it, during the opening scene where it is captured from the side, thusly:

“He walks as if being propelled vigorously forward. His hips do not move up and down. His powerful walk seems to conform to the stereotypical Japanese habit of keeping in a perpetually low position.”

However, observing the walk from the front, Abe notices:

“He appears quite bowlegged. The fact that Takeshi’s feet do not even manage to perform the basic repetitive action of making contact with the ground starting from the heels, shifting forward, and then pushing away with the toes contradicts the sense we had gotten of Takeshi’s powerful stride from the side-view shots. Furthermore, the right side of Takeshi’s upper body moves rhythmically up and down with each step, giving the impression of a limp.”[8]

In his gait we see the physical depiction of a bodily deconstruction. His ramshackle propulsion is that of a man absurdly tied to a fatalist path, the strain on his legs from the upper body making it seem as if he is carrying a bomb (which here explodes in violence) that is weighing him down.

In a later scene, we see Azuma leaving a pier on which Kiyohiro’s next victim, Emoto, (involved with the death of Detective Iwaki) is hiding. As Azuma ascends a set of stairs, leaving the scene, Kiyohiro passes by – descending them – and there is no reaction on either of the men’s faces. We then watch the detective as he continues his journey, turning corners (here Abe once again refers to the right-angleness of actions) and traversing roads before suddenly, with no emotional perceptibility or epiphany, other than that discernible through his sudden movement, spinning around and bolting back the way just travelled. Here we see a thought process depicted through the physicality of action: the only inclinations we are given as to Azuma’s mental workings are the movements that suddenly overtake his bodily form. When he reaches the pier, Kiyohiro is gone, and Emoto is lying dead in the water.

But what is the sum total of all these scenes of walking? Not only do they underline Kitano’s primary thematic concern (that of the bodily), but they also reflexively strip the narrative’s form, revealing – in the same way they do Azuma’s fragility – the rigid physicality of cause-and-effect. Azuma’s walk is the distillation of the continuity depicted through violence: much like one violent act leads to another, so too is the first step followed by a second (and so on). Even after Azuma is shot dead in the film’s climax, his partner, Kikuchi, resurrects his (and therefore the film’s) physicality, directly mirroring the shot that introduced us to non-violent physicism: Azuma crossing a bridge. The signifier has changed, but the signified remains the same: Kitano has reflexively brought our attention to the circularity of his film (a narrative device also used in many of his other works such as Boiling PointKids ReturnDolls, and Takeshis’) through the continuity of its salient theme.

The Physicality of Cinematic Methods

The allusion to the film’s form demonstrated through the bodily suggests a relationship beginning with thematic concern that is reflected through structural apparatus. The circularity of physicality leads to the circularity of structure. Conversely, it could be argued that it is the cinematic methods (what Siegfried Kracauer calls the technical properties[9]), that is, the apparatus used in crafting the film, rather than just its photographic embodiment, that lay physicality’s foundation.

The film is constructed adhering to art-house conventions, utilising techniques such as ellipsis and de-dramatization as (Brechtian) distancing methods. Kitano draws attention to his stripped-down screenplay, a truncated version of Hisashi Nozawa’s original (written for Kinji Fukasaku), by omitting its most maudlin aspects. Nozawa’s screenplay originally appeared in the September 1989 issue of Shinario (scenario), followed a month later by Kitano’s in Kinema junpō, both appearing before the film’s release. Notable differences were to be found between the two, as Aaron Gerow comments:

“Nozawa provides more emotional justifications for his characters. The tragedies of Honma and Iwaki are described in sentimental detail, and several scenes of Azuma’s past with Akari imbue the film with nostalgia for a better time… What Kitano excised was not only those aspects of the movie that made it a Fukasaku film – the narrative violence – but many of the regimes of narrative explanation itself.”[10]

In one scene the captain, with his lieutenants on either side of him, demands Azuma’s resignation; this is followed by a shot of Azuma, then another of the captain, a close-up of Azuma’s badge on the desk, and finally a wide-shot in which the lieutenants have disappeared. This sudden ellipsis draws attention to the nine scenes Kitano chopped from Nozawa’s screenplay in between Azuma’s being asked to resign and his doing so, and draws attention to the “[physically] violent act of cutting”.

Despite their individual discontinuity of narrative logic, the amalgamation of scenes in the film operates in a linear fashion. Physicality is the impetus that ties their discontinuous strands together, and Azuma’s constant movement – his trajectory from birth (the birth of Kitano as a director/Beat Takeshi as a serious actor) to death – is the through line tightening the knot. The film is reduced to its most physically bare across all elements of construction, utilising cinematic methods that are usually concerned with invisibility (the cut/the camera’s gaze) and exposing them the same way it does its characters’ flesh. Physicality is killed and reborn both onscreen and off – it is frozen, isolated, and exposed by the oppressive regimes that contain it. On-screen these regimes are a society from which violence is an outlet, and off-screen they are conventional cinematic methods that are here subverted. Violent Cop is both a film about physicality and made from it.

CS

References

[1] Bordwell, D., Staiger, J. and Thompson, K. (1995) ‘Story, Causality and Motivation’. In: The Classical Hollywood Cinema: Film Style and Mode of Production to 1960. London: Routledge, pp.12-13

[2] http://www.kitanotakeshi.com/index.php?content=biography

[3] Okuyama, ‘Bīto Takeshi e no ketsubetsu’, p.286

[4] Akimoto Tetsuji: ‘ Bīto Takeshi inabyū, Kinema junpō 1016 (15 August 1989), p.86

[5] Abe, Casio (1994) Beat Takeshi vs. Takeshi Kitano, New York: Kaya Press, p.50

[6] http://www.jonathanlack.com/2013/06/director-spotlight-series-takeshi.html

[7] Abe, Casio (1994) Beat Takeshi vs. Takeshi Kitano, New York: Kaya Press, p.55

[8] Abe, Casio (1994) Beat Takeshi vs. Takeshi Kitano, New York: Kaya Press, p.52

[9] Kracauer Siegfried (1960), Theory of Film: The Redemption of Physical Reality, Henden & Oxford: Oxford University Press, p.28

[10] Gerow, Aaron (2007), Kitano Takeshi, London: BFI, p.70

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