A Sentimentally Violent Education
It is common enough for a painter, sculptor or installation artist to start making films and it wouldn't be uncommon for an artist moving into cinema to utilise an aspect of their artistic style as part of their mise-en-scene. From Andy Warhol to John Byrne, from Julien Schnabel to Sam Taylor Wood, artists have wormed their way into cinema from painting and installation work. But what about a filmmaker who puts his own paintings into the film he has made? There are numerous actors and directors who paint, including Sylvester Stallone, Dennis Hopper, and David Lynch, but isn't there something astonishingly narcissistic about a director, who also happens to take the leading role, allowing his paintings to punctuate the material rather like Yasujiro Ozu's famous pillow shots? In this sorrowful gangster film that emphasises the grief over the action, director and star Beat Kitano relies on his own paintings to register the sorrow of character and situation. With his wife dying and daughter dead years earlier, and now his colleague Haribe (Ren Osuge) losing the use of his legs, all Kitano can do is take out the various hoodlums who have made his colleague's life a misery to match his own. In fact, the colleague thinks his life is worse - at least Nishi is able-bodied. He offers this close to the end of the film, quite different from his remark near the beginning before he was consigned to a wheelchair. "Daughter dies, wife is sick and he's a damn cop." But before long Haribe will have been crippled and his healthy wife will leave him. Yet he still might seem happier than Nishi, who will kill himself and his dying spouse at the film's conclusion.
During the nineties Takeshi 'Beat' Kitano was much praised as directors could see in his work anyone from Melville to Peckinpah, Keaton to Howard Hawks, all name-checked in Geoff Andrew's Time Out review of Hana-bi, which also won the top prize in Venice. We would be more inclined so see similarities with Tarantino, Kaurismaki and Jarmusch, with a distant nod to Bresson and Ozu. Doing so locates his appeal but also allows us to understand an aspect of his failure: Kitano would seem to be one of the most overrated directors during that decade. The term overrated is, of course, problematic, a casual critical short-hand for the reviewer insinuating that his or her faculties are more acute than those of their colleagues. And if one escapes appearing more insightful than one's colleagues by writing about Kitano years after his key films (Violent Cop, Sonatine, Hana-bi) one can instead be accused of easy hindsight.
But our purpose here is to understand an aspect of that reputation while also attending to the incorporation of the director's own paintings into his work, to view in the former the narcissism of the latter, and seeing how this quality runs through Hana-Bi as both cynicism and sentimentality, offset by humour. When the colleague talks about Nishi being a damn cop, part of the problem is that he is too busy catching criminals to spend time in the hospital with his wife, but by the end of the film he will get that quality time by becoming a criminal himself: he robs a bank to pay for a trip to the seaside for the pair of them, and to help out his now crippled buddy in moments that are close to maudlin.
The film possesses an unequivocal moral throughline, but perhaps this is where we can find Kitano's 'overrated' quality; that like a lot of nineties films he seeks the moral in the story and the amoral in the situation - how many nineties films created scenes that allowed the leading characters to generate pain and humiliation towards others under the guise that these others were terrible human beings who deserved what they got? We might think of Bill Paxton's character in True Lies, peeing his pants as Arnold Schwarzenegger dangles him over a cliff, or the boys humiliated by Samuel L. Jackson near the beginning of Pulp Fiction - moments where weak characters can aggrandize our leading men in the pursuit of their goals. Now obviously Schwarzenegger is True Lies' undeniable hero, while Jackson in Pulp Fiction is just one of our ambivalent protagonists. But our point is that, in both examples, the directors, James Cameron and Quentin Tarantino respectively, expect us to side with Schwarzenegger and Jackson, to the detriment of the snivelling wrecks in front of their eyes. In each instance the director makes clear these are feeble individuals we shouldn't like; hence, we shouldn't especially mind when something unpleasant is done to them. They deserve whatever is coming. Kitano's work is littered with such scenes, the most obvious in Hana-Bi when Nishi and his wife are at a lake. A young man comes over and watches the wife putting the flowers in a jar with lake water. "It's no use watering dead flowers", he says, in a shot/ counter-shot exchange as the wife just concentrates on the job to hand. "Did you get ditched by a guy and lose your mind?" he adds. Kitano then cuts to the man looking off screen as we hear the crunch of feet on gravel while the film cuts again to Nishi entering the frame and punching the man to the ground. The bloke ends up in the lake. Nishi isn't finished with him yet as he pushes the man's face into the water with his foot. Blood is gushing from the man's mouth as we reckon he won't be insulting anyone in a hurry. This is two-wrongs-making-a-right cinema, with the end justifying the means and thus not too far removed from the sort of logic that rarely works when applied as Foreign Policy but does wonders for the box-office. In an earlier scene there is hardly a wrong to be righted - just after the robbery a man stands by the side of the road and tries to wave down the police car that Nishi has done up for the heist. Nishi whizzes past and then stops. The man comes up to the car and wonders why he didn't immediately halt. Nishi thrusts the door open as it clobbers the hapless stranger.
These are both what we can call audience gratifiers, scenes that please the viewer without much ambiguity or ethical questioning. They might seem indebted like numerous other such moments in nineties cinema to the violent semi-comedy of Lynch's earlier Blue Velvet or Scorsese's GoodFellas, but if we take the latter as an example, we can see a big difference. In the famous scene when the waiter gets his toe blown off by Joe Pesci's character, we don't giggle along in a moment of identification, but may laugh in a complicated process of estrangement. We laugh because we cannot believe just how trigger happy Pesci happens to be, just how easily his ego can be threatened and of his dangerous need for a laugh. We are hardly inclined to think as we often do in Tarantino's work or Kitano's, that such a scene is 'cool'. The scene is properly hot - a quickening of the audience's nerves rather than demanding an aloof confidence.
Yet some might say this is just a difference of style - that Kitano is closer to Jarmusch, Kaurismaki and Tarantino, as we have proposed, than to Scorsese. But even if that may be so, this doesn't mean that the style can override the ethical. If there is a world of a difference between Tarantino versus Kaurismaki and Jarmusch it rests partly on this point. Kaurismaki and Jarmusch are 'victim-oriented' directors, filmmakers who tend to side with the sorrowful and the passive, the dispossessed and the disillusioned. Tarantino is 'hero-oriented', showing characters who tend gleefully to best others even if they themselves may start out as victims as in Inglourious Basterds or Django Unchained. In this sense, Kitano in Hana-bi seems a halfway house between the 'victim-oriented' and the 'hero-oriented'. By the end of the film, Nishi will take his and his dying wife's life, but he has also taken out for the audience's delectation various hoodlums. Kitano fits into the disillusioning narratives of Kaurismaki and co. but with the triumphalist aspect of a Tarantino. Even if the style of such killings is closer to the elliptical quality of Kaurismaki, the glee is often more in the mode of many an American film that sees a hefty body count as a virtue. The style may be more Bresson than Schwarzenegger, but if the form is close to the French master, the sensibility is still pretty close to the Austrian revenger. In the scene in a bar where Nishi takes out a couple of hoodlums, the film shows the beatings very elliptically. In the first, the thug on the right-hand side of the frame insults Nishi while the villain on the left remains off screen. Nishi lifts up the chopstick in his hand and the film cuts to a pair of chopsticks lying on the white tablecloth as blood spatters across it, before cutting to the hoodlum clasping his eye, the chopsticks sticking out of the socket. Next we see a chair toppling over and the other thug following it to the ground as Nishi's boot comes in to give him a beating. Nishi remains offscreen; his boot doing the damage alone.
But for all its skill, the sensibility of the scene isn't very different from one in a John Wayne or Clint Eastwood film where the hero takes out a couple of troublemakers in a bar. While we might believe the style mitigates the sensibility, it doesn't quite counter it. Watching the film we may believe it still fits into the problem of violence, the sort of scene that glorifies aggression in a manner that leaves us identifying firmly with the perpetrator of the act. This is a difficult thing to ascertain on the sociological level; we don't want to indicate a cause and effect between violence on screen leading to violence in life even if there are plenty examples of imitative crimes taken from films as varied as A Clockwork Orange, Taxi Driver, Rambo First Blood, American History X and The Punisher. Stanley Kubrick withdrew A Clockwork Orange after copycat attacks resembling those in the film; the person who attempted to assassinate Ronald Reagan became obsessed with Taxi Driver and especially Jodie Foster's Iris. Michael Ryan, responsible for the Hungerford killings, reputedly watched Rambo numerous times, a claim albeit since disputed. American History X seemed to instigate a similar attack in Germany, explored in a very different style by the film Der Kick. A recent report in the Guardian about an horrendous anti-semitic killing in France came after the murderer watched The Punisher. After beating the 65-year-old Lucie Attal, the killer, "then dragged her body to the balcony of the apartment, and threw her over the railing - exactly the same way, he told prosecutors, as John Travolta does in The Punisher, the film he had been watching before the attack."
The lawyer and novelist John Grisham once proposed that incidents so clearly based on cinema should lead to the filmmaker taken to court. Writing about another film that led to copycat killings, Natural Born Killings, Grisham reckons "a case can be made that there exists a direct causal link between Natural Born Killers and the death of Bill Savage. Viewed another way, the question should be: would Ben [Darras] have shot innocent people but for the movie? Nothing in his troubled past indicates violent propensities. But once he saw the movie, he fantasized about killing and his fantasies drove him to his crimes." Grisham adds that the idea of holding filmmakers legally responsible for their films is usually dismissed, but Grisham reckons all it would take is a filmmaker found guilty for "the party to be over". It is not our place here to talk about this potentially legal issue, except to say that films from the obviously exploitative to the clearly exploratory seem capable of influencing an unstable person's behaviour. Consequence needn't guarantee culpability. Nevertheless, while watching a film we might ask ourselves what is the identificatory relationship we have with the violent act. Are we siding too unequivocally with the perpetrator in the deed. There may be distance in the form in the diner sequence in Hana-Bi, but there is no ambivalence at all in where we stand in relation to it. The thugs are insulting, aggressive and pushy and get their just desserts. If revenge is famously a dish served cold; in many films it is a dish served sweet. Hana-Bi is part of the sugar-coating.
Indeed, the sugar coating is elsewhere close to the saccharine, with Kitano never a director afraid of the sentimental. If he pushes further into the violent than Kaurismaki and Jarmusch tend to do, then he also pushes further into the mawkish as well. We see this clearly in the scenes with the crippled cop, someone whose scenes usually consist of him looking forlornly at his desk in his wheelchair. Near the beginning of the film he feels luckier than Nishi, but soon enough after the accident his wife and child, as we've noted, leave him, unable to face living with a man confined to a very sedentary life. He talks about this during a scene where Nishi wheels his old colleague to the shore and, as the colleague speaks about his sorrows, the film's music heavily plays over the words. In our wish to avoid the sentimental there is always the danger of being cynical, but if the cynical is a means by which to counter the maudlin, then it can sometimes be no more than a viewer's response to a manipulativeness they find in the filmmaker. Kitano's score doesn't give us much emotional wriggle room as we squirm under the sentiment and perhaps we feel the need to escape the mawkish all the more if we have at the same time a sensibility not very far from the gleefully vengeful. Kitano is a lot more sophisticated a filmmaker than one who sets up the perfect family situation all the better to destroy it with acts of violence which then have to be avenged, but does this rest on the sophistication of the style over the sensibility of the ethos?
This is a difficult question; it means making claims on the invisible (the director's sensibility) in the context of the visible (how a director puts his images together), but there are numerous examples of directors whose sensibility can be broad but whose style is brilliantly achieved, evidenced by D. W. Griffith in Birth of a Nation, Eisenstein in Battleship Potemkin, and Leni Riefenstahl in Triumph of the Will. There is a vulgarity to the work that isn't detrimental to the result. We might even wonder if the result aesthetically would have been less successful with a subtler sensibility. We may fret over the politics of such a position adopted in each instance, but that doesn't mean we can deny the power of the images once that stance has been offered. Yet we can say of Griffith, Eisenstein and Riefenstahl that they innovated within their ideological assertiveness, while in Kitano's case we believe the director's form excuses the sensibility: gives it a patena of authority the situations themselves don't justify. Whether it is the scene where Nishi takes out the thugs in the restaurant or beats the man insulting his wife, Kitano's style is impressively unconventional but the sensibility no different from that of many an action film that shows the obnoxious getting necessarily manhandled.
However, in contrast there is the heist scene in Hana-bi which emphasises the planning and minimizes the action. Viewed mainly from CCTV footage, Nishi goes in and robs the bank without a word and with no need of violence, dressed in a cop's uniform. As he triggers the gun to make clear what he wants, the rest of the scene is played out in silence and glances, with various people in the bank going about their business or silently looking on. The scene captures well the inexplicable nature of a crime happening under everybody's nose yet with the discretion of a waiter clearing a table. The contemporary heist or robbery is often a melodramatic affair, from Pulp Fiction to Point Break and up to The Dark Knight, the films emphasise how frightened everybody ought to be as the films play up the adrenalized buzz of a tense situation. Kitano drains all the potential tension out of the sequence all the better to inject into a quiet quizzicality. One young man sitting watching events is given three reaction shots, though he will prove neither heroic nor cowed. He looks as if curious about the motives of the man committing the robbery dressed in a cop's uniform, while we have the ironic information that this is a plainclothes cop donning the uniform to commit a crime. There is in this young man's look an expression of curiosity that indicates he would much rather know why Nishi is doing it than how he might interject. Equally, a moment before the heist, we see Nishi rolls down his window in the custom created police car that he will use for the robbery and points his gun at a young worker standing by the side of the road. As he points the gun the worker looks momentarily petrified before Nishi says bam and the worker plays along, pretending he's been shot. Both these moments with the young men contain within them a sensibility more than a form, in the sense that there is nothing fresh at all in the aesthetic as the moments rely on shot/counter shots and reactions shots, but that we cannot reduce the content of the scenes to the minimum unit of central conflict where our hero bests another.
There are plenty scenes of the latter, which might make us muse over the egotism of a filmmaker who directs and stars in his own films. Has there always been an aspect of egocentricity to this combination, usually alleviated through comedy? Charlie Chaplin, Buster Keaton, Jacques Tati, Woody Allen, Albert Brooks are just a few who come to mind, but dramatically it is much less common. Even the independently-minded, unashamedy egocentric John Cassavetes would often cast Peter Falk or Ben Gazzara as his main actor, even though he was as famous as either of them at a certain point in his career. It's as if comedy provides the alibi by virtue of the humour generated: that there is a strong aspect of self-ridicule in the casting. Kitano's films have humour, but nowhere near enough to justify the narcissism when there are so many scenes with Kitano taking out thugs without much effort. If Rocky III is the most narcissistic of the Rocky films it rests on Stallone not only starring and directing, but also insisting that his body-oiled torso gets to win the big bout. Is there a similarly narcissistic aspect to Kitano's work?
Here we can return to the paintings and their central role in the mise-en-scene. Steve Rose says, there's plenty of evidence that artists can make decent movies - Steve McQueen, Sam Taylor Wood, Julian Schnabel to name a few - but it rarely works the other way around. Looking at Dennis Hopper's goatee-stroking conceptual works, or Sylvester Stallone's hamfisted attempts at abstract expressionism, you suspect they were misled into overestimating their talents by a coterie of star-struck sycophants." (Guardian) But imagine if Rocky III also had another character in the film painting Stallone's paintings, the paintings we see in the film and that they were found in various other places in the film too - including the bank Nishi robs? It is one thing for the director to insists on a painterly aspect to the images he creates, but to incorporate within the mise-en-scene the paintings that the filmmaker themselves make can seem very narcissistic indeed. This is an odd and exceptional example of ekphrasis, strictly speaking the way a painting will be described in words in a book or a poem. But it can be used to extend to cinema: the manner in which cinema takes the medium of painting and inserts it in the films themselves. From Tarkovsky's use of Breughel to Greenaway's use of Hals, from adoptions that augment the painting to inclusions that turn the painting into visual clich, many filmmakers have found it useful to incorporate painting into their work. But we would not expect the director to include directly their own canvases in the film we are watching. Maurice Pialat and David Lynch, for example, started out as painters, but while we might be surprised to discover this concerning the ostensibly realist aesthetic of the former, and not at all in the latter's case, we expect the director not to quote their own work but to incorporate their sensibility into the new medium. In Kitano's film it can seem like a very odd example of product placement, but rather than a corporation managing to plug Nike, Coca Cola or Apple, the director promotes his own artwork. When Tom Ford does something similar in A Single Man it nevertheless appears both more acceptable and more obviously narcissistic. Ford designed all the clothes Colin Forth wears in this early sixties account of a man with little to live for but with a wardrobe to die for. He grieves for his late boyfriend while languishing in luxurious loss. But the film is all of a piece, and also a sort of piece de resistance: the design is the thing, and this is the profession Ford is known for.
In Hana-bi it isn't the thing at all - Kitano is best known as a filmmaker (and famous TV comedian) and the paintings remain both forcefully incorporated into the narrative and oddly present on the walls of various locations. We see it not only on the wall of the bank Nishi robs, but also in the restaurant he eats in and the cafe where he meets the wife of a colleague who has been killed. Yet the paintings also have an odd relationship with the film. They are diegetically present in quite distinct ways. They are part of the general mise-en-scene but also the paintings Horibe will start to paint when he has a moment of illumination when, pushing his wheelchair along a street, he notices flowers in a florist's window and the film cuts from his wonder to various Kitano paintings. Horibe will start painting in the very style that we will have seen elsewhere, but there is no diegetic link between the work we see and the work he paints. If for example he had been influenced by these other paintings, if in the film's occasionally convoluted time structure these were paintings on various walls that Horibe had earlier painted, then we would have a diegetic weld. That we don't have it can make Kitano appear even more egotistical: that we must view the paintings as beyond the diegesis because of the way it doesn't fit easily into it.
Yet Kitano's own presence within his work seems both narcissistic and modest at the same time. When he takes out villains he does so with efficiency but with none of the monstrous egotism we find occasionally in Stallone and often in Schwarzenegger. Stallone and Schwarzenegger look like dispatching a villain adds half an inch to their bicep and an inch to their chests. The shrunken shouldered, shoulder-shrugging Kitano, with scars down the right side of his face from a serious motorbike accident in 1994, looks like he'd rather be elsewhere than beating people half to death - as if in the beating he wants to reduce them to the state he already occupies. If many a star beats another character around to the point of death and sometimes beyond, it is to teach them a life lesson. Kitano appears more inclined to offer death lessons - to say that people shouldn't get above themselves because we all end up under the ground eventually. We might not like the scenes where he humiliates the man who mocks his wife, and the one where he answers the person seeking help by opening the car door that will floor him, but the irony comes from a deflation within the exhilarating.
Can we claim a similar status for the paintings: that their presence in the film isn't to admire the brilliance of Kitano but to accept they are knocked off as the villains are knocked out? If we might find the idea of Stallone's daubs appearing in the films he made during his peak narcissistic phase (from around Rocky III to the Specialist, and including Cobra and Rambo: First Blood Part II) intolerable it rests on the irrepressible egotism he offers in such films. If they showed up in Cop Land, however, we might be more generous, seeing in the work a reflection of Stallone's character's troubled mind and debilitated, bloated body rather than self-promotion. If context is everything, what is the context in which we find Kitano's paintings, paintings Steve Rose describes when going along to a retrospective of the filmmaker's painterly ouevre, as, "at best...colourful, crafted examples of what you might call the naive style; at worst, they are the sort of amateurish doodles you might find at a flea market"? (Guardian) They would seem generally in the film to be there to represent naivety, as if somehow capturing the mournful reality of people's lives and not their exuberant self-regard. Though we see Horibe painting, we know others are already on walls painted by someone else, as if all the characters in the film who are sensitive and kind (from Nishi to Haribe and others) would be capable of either painting the work or reacting to it. Thus the work isn't constantly available through the film as a form chiefly of ekphrasis, as painterly quotation, but as mise-en-scene. In other words the paintings don't need to be any good to be in the film, they just have to be deeply reflective of the mood the film wants to capture. By point of comparison we can think of Don Bachardy's work throughout Robert Altman's Short Cuts. There may be far better LA artists than Bachardy (though we have no interest here in judging), but few artists better able to capture the sensibility that Altman wants to reflect in the film. Here Bachardy's paintings (like Kitano's, painted by a character within the film) capture well the need for a good smile. But this is dental work rather than mental work: it is the necessary pearly whites that can project to the world a happiness the characters themselves may have immense difficulty accessing - as if happiness has nothing to do with inner peace and instead with outer impression. How good Bachardy is seems irrelevant next to how well he happens to be used by Altman.
In this sense, Kitano' paintings are impressively artless, giving to the film a counterpoint to the violence we witness, and also giving thematic underpinning to the elliptical nature of the thuggishness shown. We would not expect work like Kitano's to appear in Tarantino's films (though perhaps Jackie Brown could have found a variation on it), partly because we do not expect from Tarantino's figures the sort of 'inner life' Kitano wants to indicate the characters here possess. Rather than necessarily seeing Kitano as an egomanic so determined to push his product upon us that he doesn't only write, direct and star in his own films, but also insists on foisting upon us his paintings, we can see him delineating a mise-en-scene that needs any art (good or bad) which can entertain a naive misery, as though the paintings may have been painted non-diegetically (by Kitano) and diegetically (by Haribe), but could be produced by anyone who shares the sensibility of the film. This is a sensibility that accepts violence is a necessary evil but of secondary to a greater evil that seems to have no perpetrator: the death of Nishi's daughter and the terminal illness of his wife. It makes sense that the film ends with off-screen suicide, with Nishi sacrificing his life to join his spouse in her impending death. We might wonder if the still living Haribe will find a way of painting their demise, a man no longer capturing criminals, but now capable of capturing loss in the most gauche of images. Kitano's cinematic images are less nave, but it is the naivete which makes Hana-bi the director's best film.
© Tony McKibbin