Violent Cop

In 1989, Takeshi Kitano was a household name in Japan. He had first become famous for his 1970s role as one half of Two Beats alongside Kiyoshi Kaneko, a comedy duo specialising in the Manzai style; a funny man and a straight man, exchanging jokes at lightning pace. Kitano then began hosting Takeshi’s Castle (1986-1989) a game show where contestants compete in purgatorial challenges with self-explanatory names: ‘Stab and be stabbed’ or ‘Man-eating hole’. From these comedic origins the director, star and writer of Violent Cop (1989), aka “Beat Takeshi”, emerged.

Violent Cop marked a dramatic shift. As technicolour gameplay segways into a neo-noir vision of Yakuza-led underworld crime, Kitano is a bullish force of nature. He plays the protagonist, inspector Azuma, a policeman whose stocky build and swaggering walk embody a Dirty Harry persona, with extra dirty: in the opening scene, he confronts a gang of children assaulting an old man, follows the ring leader home, and breaks into his house. As he stands before the unsuspecting boy's bedroom door, he faces a Hannya mask, an oni theatrical symbol that is able, simultaneously, to represent and deter evil. Half comic, half-threatening, the masks may be upturned so that their frown resembles a grimace. He pushes open the door, proceeding to beat the boy into an apology. Azuma, like the Hannya, is morally ambiguous, responding to violence with violence, an arbiter of perverse justice.

Violence, and its excess, are central to the nihilism of Violent Cop. In Kitano’s world-building, characters and institutions are unperturbed by the excessive violence which saturates their experiences. In the police force, even as Azuma’s superior chastises his activities, he admits “I cannot say I am against it”. The film mocks the swaggering machismo of violence, representing ‘neo-tribes’; the police, the yakuza, that have been torn asunder by modernity.

Casio Abe has argued that Kitano, as filmmaker, is involved in an ongoing battle with his alter-ego, TV comedian Beat Takeshi. The two identities enact a synchronous dance with one another; Beat emerges in the precise, comedic timing of the club bathroom fight scene where Azuma repeatedly slaps a mob member for information. Kitano’s unrelenting arm movement works mechanically to hit his victim, the scene is overlaid with jazz. In Violent Cop actors are, like contestants in Takeshi’s castle, forced to play to exhaustion; or until they are eliminated.

“My biggest insecurity as a director is that I am a comedian,” states Kitano. Arguably, it is also his greatest asset, his comedic background lending to his novel direction, the abrupt juxtaposition of comedy with violence leading to a flattening effect. Beat Takeshi injects the neo-noir drama with a breath of absurdism; balancing swift and stripped-back dialogue with long, distended shots. A viewer is never relieved. After the last punch, the camera lingers for several – sadomasochistic – minutes after. 

Any heart within Violent Cop comes in the form of Azuma’s younger sister, who suffers from an affliction “of the head”. Always protecting and guarding her, she appears as his redeeming feature, and their shared status as outcasts unite them. “You’re as mad as your sister!” declares the Yakuza boss, Nito, to taunt Azuma. Yet, even together in the quotidian, life appears to lack meaning. Azuma and his sister walk home together, separated by ten paces; in the dark, they appear as strangers. In one of their rare moments of dialogue, Azuma asks his sister: “Have you been anywhere?”

She replies “I was going to, but decided not to”. To the end, Kitano faithfully commits to rendering the banality of both the everyday and violent. While attempting to produce a movie devoid of humour, Kitano directs a comedy of savagery, ennui and unreason.

Watch Violent Cop as part of TANK’s ninth season, Conception.

Sign up here.