Upon arriving at the beach house to which he has fled – ostensibly escaping the treacherous warfare that threatened to interrupt his attempts to escape the mobster lifestyle he has lived up to this point – Murakawa (Takeshi Kitano) along with a handful of his underlings pass the time playing improvised games and performing practical jokes. So proceeds the middle (and most striking) portion of Takeshi Kitano’s international breakthrough Sonatine (Takeshi Kitano, 1993). Distinct from the locatable (albeit idiosyncratic) Yakuza settings that bookend this film, this middle portion marks the emergence of a radically different mode that haunts both the remainder and, retroactively, the start of the film. But the film’s narrative is not all that is altered here. This article will argue that genre, this film’s genre and conceptions of genre in general, are also radically reconfigured. By way of this middle section, I will contend, a new understanding of genre is given the space to emerge, a gesture that is echoed by the trajectory of Kitano’s career outside just this film. Ultimately, it is the capacity to demand recategorisation, so clearly articulated by this sequence that accounts not only for Kitano’s brand of cinema, but also his star persona in general.
Despite its international success, Sonatine met with box office difficulty in Japan. Aaron Gerow notes that difficulty in labeling the film’s genre (or genres) at least in part led to its initial domestic box office failure.1 Gerow states, “How to label the film became an issue as it was placed in such categories as ‘gangster-film,’ ‘private film,’ ‘art cinema,’ or even ‘student film.’ Even the press book seemed at a loss, stating in language largely unthinkable for press materials from a major studio, ‘one has to get used to Takeshi’s films… before trying to understand them.’”2 And James Ursini likewise notes this genre confusion when he argues that, on the one hand, the Yakuza film was “given new credibility, in the eyes of Japanese audiences as well as the world critical community, through the timely intervention of two transgressive postmodern filmmakers from a new generation of Takeshis: Miike… and… Takeshi Kitano”3 and on the other hand that, despite being pitched to producers as reminiscent of Die Hard, Kitano nonetheless, “Proceeded to make a small film in the style of the French New Wave, taking as his inspiration Jean-Luc Godard’s Pierrot le Fou.”4 What we have here, then, is a film that at once revitalises a dying genre and simultaneously refuses it, a pure genrefied bloodbath that is likewise an austere art-house hit, a comedy mashed with a Yakuza film mashed with a festival circuit draw, and vice versa.
Indeed much of the material surrounding this film – and Kitano in general – emphasises this navigation of extremes. Gerow stresses this liminal space between genres, literal spaces, and even audience responses,5 and Donato Totaro notes the emotional and physical binary poles visible in the characters (for instance, violence and contemplation).6 Indeed this polarity spreads beyond simply the films, it effects (or perhaps stems from) Kitano’s media persona as well. That is, Kitano has two seemingly contradictory identities. The first (or perhaps in Japan the second), the art house auteur that represents an increasingly diverse series of films, the figure who likewise stands as a serious and perennial filmmaker on the festival circuit; and the second, the incredibly popular and controversial television figure who has been described as, “Like Howard Stern without Stern’s skewering of celebrities.”7 As Darren William Davis notes of the T.V. half,
In 1998, [Kitano] regularly appeared on up to eight shows, on five different channels, including education, discussion, and comic variety programs. Beat’s [Kitano’s nickname, originating from his role in the comedy duo “The Two Beats”] humor is nonsensical, grotesque, raunchy, sadistic, xenophobic, homophobic, chauvinist, and intermittently nationalistic. His skits are often offensive to the point of provoking organized protests.8
It is in fact this navigation of poles (high and low, T.V. and Film, serious and farcical) and the subsequent manipulation of genres in and outside of the cinema that informs much of the discourse surrounding this (some might call twin) figure.
The function of this article, however, is not simply to reestablish these poles and the spaces that divide them, but to explore how Kitano’s navigation of these distinct personas disrupts this system of binaries altogether. In Cinema 2: The Time-Image, Gilles Deleuze details how the post-war filmmaking of the European and Japanese new waves birthed a kind of cinema that served in disrupting the classical structure of causal relationships. To Deleuze, this new cinema – what he calls the cinema of the time-image – was a cinema of the “seer,” of the character who has “become kind of a viewer. He shifts, runs and becomes animated in vain, the situation he is in outstrips his motor capacities on all sides, and makes him see and hear what is no longer subject to the rules of a response or an action.”9 This article argues that in his beach house, with a handful of henchmen by his side, Murakawa becomes a seer of sorts, and in so doing this film helps us to rethink the epistemological structures associated with genre filmmaking, particularly as they relate to space. Here, at the beach, this system for breaking down the causal structure of the narrative cinema – in this case the Yakuza genre that more specifically contains this narrative – and the manipulation of the binary poles that this film seems to oscillate between has very particular ramifications.
A single moment from this beach house sequence is here of central importance. Having settled into said beach home, Murakawa and company are seen to be at play. Cutting paper doll figures and using them to create a paper Sumo match by tapping on small wooden sticks to move the paper mat that holds the dolls, the characters kill time by developing a game that is of no importance to the film’s narrative thrust.
But the construction of this game also signals something else, an ability of the characters to likewise construct a narrative system. Indeed, as the sequence progresses the characters, and Murakawa in particular, are in strange ways seemingly in – perhaps partial – control of the events that take place. As the scene progresses two of the lesser gangsters proceed (through a series of ellipses) to build a Sumo ring on the beach and engage in a comical match with a much larger third Yakuza. Murakawa watches as the much larger gangster – shirt removed and with Yakuza tattoos in full view – comically dispatches the smaller men in a very brief Sumo battle.
Following this moment is a single gesture that drastically alters this sequence, and indeed the film as a whole. With both the lesser henchmen down, the onlookers (Murakawa and Miyuki, another character he has just met) run into the frame and place the defeated men near each other as though they were inanimate objects. The trio (now including the victorious Sumo wrestler) proceeds to beat on the ground in much the same fashion and rhythm used to move the paper dolls.
In response to this drumming of the ground, the two figures begin to move, as though the pounding were propelling them in much the same way as it did the dolls. As this strange dance is performed, the music, which has been slowly building throughout the sequence, swells, as does the camera, which cranes up and over the figures. The speed of the paddling increases, and so does what appears to be the stop motion photography that animates the sequence, lending the moment an oneiric feel. The scene then abruptly ends.
In relation to Deleuze’s “seer,” this sequence serves as a particularly valuable outlier. Rather than a lost, perhaps passive viewer, Murakawa is without a doubt in control of the movement of this sequence. In fact, he has control to such a degree that time and space seem to cohere to the character’s wishes. The paddling of the sand – a gesture that Murakawa and Miyuki seem to take to intuitively – declares the characters’ dominance over the causal world of the film. And yet, narratively speaking, the characters are nonetheless constrained; they are disallowed from leaving this place or from progressing past this point. The banality of this sequence in relation to the plot has forced not only a deferral of action, but also a literal breakdown of progression in any traditional sense. The characters, still beholden to the plot in terms of their escape from this scenario, have squeezed from the conventions of the narrative a moment in which they assert themselves as authors.
Deleuze says of the time-image, “Between the reality of the setting and that of the action, it is no longer a motor extension which is established, but rather a dreamlike connection through the intermediary of the liberated sense organs. It is as if the action floats in the situation rather than bringing it to a conclusion or strengthening it.”10 This scene serves, then, not only as a system for encouraging this ability to reconnect thoughts through the deferral of action and the subsequent liberation of the senses, but it also simultaneously reenacts this process within the world of the film. That is, Murakawa and company are free here to radically re-author this space and this narrative, to uproot the causal world that they are forced to occupy and to radically refigure this world. This is not to say, however, that the authorship that the characters (as authors) present is legible; it is, like the world of the seer, indeterminate. There is action here, but that action has ceased to provide clarity or narrative movement, and instead pushes the moment only further into a space of contingency. What this scene enacts, then, is a reconfiguration of control, but one that yields no particular outcome. Authorship here changes hands, but in such a way that meaning in general is deferred. What persists is a kind of gap, a questioning of narrative direction that yields only greater ambiguity. Time in this sequence becomes irrational, it is all ellipses and culminates even in a stop-motion effect in which killing time serves only in extending it.
In The Poetics of Space Gaston Bachelard poses that rational understandings of the world must disavow the gaps and openings that might undermine them, and addresses the way that these disavowed fissures between meanings can split open and swallow a world all at once – a process most clearly achieved for him by way of art. Speaking of the strange way that images can puncture the rational while still – and this is the important part – carrying with them some inexplicable yet nonetheless potent strength and coherence, Bachelard posits:
How – with no preparation – can this singular, short-lived event constituted by the appearance of an unusual poetic image, react on other minds and in other hearts, despite all the barriers of common sense, all the disciplined schools of thought, content in their immobility?11
These are the questions Bachelard pursues throughout his book: how is it that such an event as the appearance of the poetic image can take place? How can a piece of art totally break itself and the world that it occupies, and yet still present us with something that strangely resists its own incoherence, something that still creates avenues for understanding? How can art flee from its own logics and in so doing still somehow propose new systems for coherence that not only re-adhere to their world, but provide new and valuable paths through it? To rephrase Bachelard in this new context, how can these characters on the beach strangely float away from and also regain control of their world? And why might it move us for them to do so? For Bachelard, it is in autonomy that the poetic image finds this ability. Bachelard: “As soon as an art has become autonomous, it makes a fresh start.”12
In Sonatine autonomy comes as a defiance of genre. Having these figures and subsequently the narrative altogether stop and start up again according to a new logic describes the mechanism whereby the film finds freedom from its own generic conventions. It liberates its images from the striation of genre and figures some other organizing illogic. To be fair, the coherence of this sequence could arrive quickly: Kitano’s oeuvre is full of these moments and so we can retranslate this sequence by way of his global auteur status, but the delay is essential here. For just a second these images are free of an appeal to the rational faculties. This is their fresh start.
What is inside of or allowed by these new images is, for however brief a time, unclear, and this is what is appealing about them. What genre provides is a stable system for coherence and appreciation as accounted for by the appeal of familiarity and the puncture of variance – itself so often unexpected but generally more readily reabsorbed – and what this sequence does is disrupt this trajectory, asking instead after the boundaries of configuration by way of its refusing easy absorption.13 Of similar structure is Deleuze’s concept of the any-space-whatever. Deleuze describes this kind of space as one in which “the connection of the parts of space is not given, because it can come about only from the subjective point of view of a character who is, nevertheless, absent, or has even disappeared, not simply out of frame, but passed into the void.”14 Again, the case of Sonatine butts against this concept, but provides a variation, as here we do have a governing gaze that is motivating the transmission of this space – that of the paddling characters themselves. And yet as the moment swells the stop-motion steps in and the causal relationships retreat, and so too does the linkage to Murakawa and his companions’ perceptions. The refiguring of the causal world that Murakawa undertakes itself severs the relationship to his gaze as controller of meaning and breaks apart the logic of the film.
This scene then is a double movement, it at once presents a meaning – by way of an example of what it might look like to refigure and re-author the world – but what that meaning signals or tends towards is the impossibility of any universal meaning, as the characters who employ this re-authoring provide no system for interpreting their new creation. In this world where narrative stops and where paddling the sand restarts a new kind of narrative that seems to cut against the grain of the old, the functioning of the world seems to lean on an understanding that at any moment a space could be opened anew – a space of play within a world of gangsters, a place of dream within a causal universe. Deleuze notes that the any-space-whatever “is a perfectly singular space, which has merely lost its homogeneity, that is, the principle of its metric relations to the connections of its own parts, so that the linkages can be made in an infinite number of ways.”15 And this infinite linking is evidenced here by the ability of Murakawa and company to indeed rewrite the world. The space here, “no longer has coordinates, it is pure potential”.16
But what does this opening of potential mean for a film that is often associated with a particular genre – and not only as example, but as trailblazer of the genre’s then newest mold? In examining this question, we must return again to the topic of liminality and the navigation of poles. In terms of the Yakuza genre itself, there is a strange dovetailing of the generic, stoic, hero and Deleuze’s time-image seer. As Tadao Sato notes of the deadpan, expressionlessness of Yakuza heroes dating back as far as the 1960s,
This expression of resignation seems to be a trait of men who have given up more sophisticated forms of communication, choosing instead the stern, ostentatious pose of one who is prepared to die at any time. The death resolve adds a stroke of beauty to the gory swordfight climax, with the fight becoming its ultimate expression.17
Murakawa here marks the limit-case of this face resigned to death, and indeed the finale of Sonatine, a suicidal bloodbath in which Murakawa confronts those who had him flee to the beach, is followed by Murakawa’s actual suicide – in a car, back at the sea. The deadpan observant face that Kitano inhabits is, then, twofold. It is the face of the Yakuza hero, but it is too the face of Deleuze’s seer – the character who cannot but observe the distended spaces that this narrative occupies, can never put them into action. But Kitano’s heroes, and Murakawa in particular, also defy the traditions of the Yakuza genre. As Mark Schilling notes of these films,
The modern-day gangsters played by Takeshi Kitano in Sonatine and Brother kill with all the emotion of roach exterminators and live according to their own social Darwin laws. Do unto others before others do unto you. Their characters are a far cry indeed from the noble stoics of [the] 1960s… who resorted to violence only after repeated provocation, while following the traditional gangster code of repaying one’s moral obligations no matter the personal sacrifice.18
And, later, Schilling again insists that Kitano is “less a gang-genre director than a sui generis talent, who appears to find gangsters convenient vehicles for his existential meditation.”19 Kitano’s film then at once occupies and defies its genre, and how appropriate for the director who produces art house films simultaneous with crass shock jock antics and subsequently blurs the line between the two to likewise blur the divisions between the inside and the outside of a genre, between homage and parody, between the face that is resigned to death and the face that mocks this resignation.
As does the seer, Murakawa holds steady a face that exists between. These polar extremes, and the movement between them, are central too to Deleuze’s time-image. According to Deleuze, those spaces that contain the seer, “Can have two poles – objective and subjective, real and imaginary, physical and mental. But they give rise to opsigns and sonsigns, which bring the poles into continual contact, and which, in one direction or the other, guarantee passages and conversions, tending towards a point of indiscernibility (and not confusion).”20 And the case of the beach in Sonatine provides an example of just this connecting of poles that gives rise to indiscernibility. This is a space that allows for those doubled images that come to signify both sincerity and parody, high and low, the traditional and the modern; these binaries meet and stand suspended, hovering in space without moving towards any verdict. This beach then is the place of contingency, it is where the concerns of the storyline and the multi-textual meta-narratives come and collide without resolution. And it is too the place where the padding of sand can make everything move again, but in a new direction entirely, re-authoring and enlivening but tending towards nothing in particular.
And this space likewise is the limit zone of indiscernibility that defies categorisation. Here the generic and extra-textual elements collide and coalesce, leaving their interpretation in the hands only of contingency. And in this moment the rules of the genre are too left up in the air. How is this film supposed to be categorised? That is, how is a film that defies any universal, stable categorisation to be defined and accounted for through a broader grouping? Surely it shares a relationship to the genre to which it obviously belongs, but what, precisely is the nature of that relationship? The placing of this film into its genre is easy, but its relationship to that genre, we discover, is indiscernible. What, then is genre? And how loose can its connections be? These are the questions that this film asks. This is a space of radical possibility that asks of its generic category, “if we can classify swords and guns, can we not also classify killing time and paddling sand?” – a recursive line of questioning that necessarily yields a genre of one. But, upon inspection, isn’t that too the case for any film? Or, furthermore, for any public figure? For, to quote – actually, re-quote – Deleuze a final time, the Yakuza film has, in the hands of Takeshi Kitano, become “a perfectly singular space, which has merely lost its homogeneity, that is, the principle of its metric relations to the connections of its own parts, so that the linkages can be made in an infinite number of ways.”21 What we might call an any-genre-whatever.
What greets Murakawa and his compatriots upon leaving the house, then, is a world no longer tied to the strictures of this knowable genre. But this reordering supersedes just the generic boundaries of the gangster film. What is being reforged here is the very language by which this narrative speaks. This moment at the beach never reoccurs, it is never rendered in retrospect a coherent decision utilized to underscore a larger concern of the film. It stands on its own with no connective tissue by which it might find a centralized logic. This film’s fresh start then exceeds just the negation of genre, it negates a far wider range of habituated ways of understanding. For Bachelard it is the radical surprise that accounts for the importance of art. He says, “The entire life of the image is in its dazzling splendor, in the fact that an image is a transcending of all the premises of sensibility.”22 This is to say that it is in its capacity to surprise that the image upsets our expectations for how things work, and reminds us that these expectations are limited, that the mechanisms for their appearance are not so sturdy as they seem. That is, genre here is stopped, reconsidered, and ultimately reabsorbed into what we experience, but this process does not stop at the boundaries of genre. Language itself in these moments undergoes this same process, and what is provided is an avenue for the appearance of something new.
This is all to say that art such as this, art which suddenly and without warning upsets its own logics – what we had taken to be our own logics – is of use in its capacity to help us see our world differently. According to Bachelard, “Art… is an increase of life, a sort of competition of surprises that stimulates our consciousness and keeps it from becoming somnolent.”23 In this sequence, by way of surprise, what becomes most clear is that in this possible dream the world depicted is finally most awake, and so are we. This explanation therefore accounts for more than just the way genre can be broken apart and refound. What this sequence reveals is the way that solid structures of understanding can be disrupted so as to make new pathways for meaning in a more general sense. This is to say that this sequence is political, it allows us to think about our world in new ways. Elsewhere, Bachelard deploys a metaphor of the house to describe the process whereby we can exit the world of habituated knowledge. “Words – I often imagine this – are little houses,” he begins, “each with its cellar and garret. Common-sense lives on the ground floor, always ready to engage in ‘foreign commerce,’ on the same level as the others, as the passers-by, who are never dreamers. To go upstairs in the word house, is to withdraw, step by step; while to go down to the cellar is to dream, it is losing oneself in the distant corridors of an obscure etymology, looking for treasures that cannot be found in words.”24 To this arrangement we might try a final rejoinder: what might it mean for us to go outside? To visit the beach? To venture, as Murakawa and his friends do, into the world of shared things and to ask again what they might mean and how we might interact with them. This is the promise of these images, they provide a view of another outside, not the one we have seen before but the one we don’t know, or don’t quite know. What this sequence tells us is that what we think we might understand – genre, stardom, politics – might in fact be just a world of paper dolls, but it also tells us that paper dolls might be something else too.
- Aaron Gerow, Kitano Takeshi (London: BFI, 2007), p. 101. ↩
- Ibid., p. 101-102. ↩
- James Ursini, “Takeshi Kitano: Melancholy Poet of the Yakuza Film,” In Gangster Film Reader, ed. Alain Silver and James Ursini (Pompton Plains, NJ: Limelight Editions, 2007), p. 226. ↩
- Ibid., p. 228. ↩
- Aaron Gerow, Kitano Takeshi (London: BFI, 2007), p. 115. ↩
- Donato Totaro, “Sono Otoko, Kyobi Ni Tsuki / Violent Cop,” In The Cinema of Japan and Korea, ed. Justin Boywer (London: Wallflower Press, 2004), p. 136. ↩
- Darrell William Davis, “Reigniting Japanese Tradition with Hana-Bi,” Cinema Journal 40, no. 4 (2001): p. 59. ↩
- Ibid. ↩
- Gilles Deleuze, Cinema 2: The Time-Image, Trans. Hugh Tomlinson and Robert Galeta (New York: Continuum, 2005), p. 3. ↩
- Ibid., p. 4. ↩
- Gaston Bachelard, The Poetics of Space, Trans. Maria Jolas (New York: The Orion Press, 1964), p. xiv-xv. ↩
- Ibid., p. xxviii. ↩
- I’m thinking here of Rick Altman’s account of the way that genres develop in predictable patterns: Rick Altman, Film/Genre (London: BFI Publishing, 1999), p. 21-22. ↩
- Gilles Deleuze, Cinema 2: The Time-Image, Trans. Hugh Tomlinson and Robert Galeta (New York: Continuum, 2005), p. 8. ↩
- Gilles Deleuze, Cinema 1: The Movement-Image, Trans. Hugh Tomlinson and Barbara Habberjam (New York: Continuum, 2005), p. 113. ↩
- Ibid., p. 123. ↩
- Tadao Sato, Currents in Japanese Cinema, Trans. Gregory Barrett (New York: Harper & Row, 1982), p. 53. ↩
- Mark Schilling, The Yakuza Movie Book: A Guide to Japanese Gangster Films (Berkeley: Stone Bridge Press, 2003), p. 19. ↩
- Ibid., p. 39. ↩
- Gilles Deleuze, Cinema 2: The Time-Image, Trans. Hugh Tomlinson and Robert Galeta (New York: Continuum, 2005), p. 9. ↩
- Gilles Deleuze, Cinema 1: The Movement-Image, Trans. Hugh Tomlinson and Barbara Habberjam (New York: Continuum, 2005), p. 123. ↩
- Gaston Bachelard, The Poetics of Space, Trans. Maria Jolas (New York: The Orion Press, 1964), p. xxix. ↩
- Ibid. ↩
- Ibid., p. 147. ↩