Movie Review – Violent Cop (1989)

by NIR SHALEV

“Beat” Takeshi Kitano is a famous comedian in Japan, as well as an auteur who’s popular all around the world. Most of his movies are violent but are also studies of the violence inherited within the system. Whether a Yakuza film, a cop drama, a revenge flick, or a comedy about idiots, violence finds its way into Kitano’s stories and the violence is shown without censorship. And yet his films are more arthouse than Hollywood.

Violent Cop is Kitano’s directorial debut and the title is more than suitable as a description of its protagonist, Detective Azuma (played by Kitano himself) because he’s sociopath. The film’s introduction shows a small group of young teenagers beating a bum into unconsciousness. When they split and go their separate ways home, Azuma follows one of the kids to his house, enters his house, follows him up the stairs to his room and slaps the kid many times, and hard. He tells the kid to give himself up to the police the next morning but the kid insists that he didn’t do anything. Then Azuma grabs the kid’s head and butts it into his own knee. As the kid cries, Azuma tells him, “Oh yeah? So I didn’t do anything either.”

The story begins with a drug deal in which the pusher, Emoto (Kenichi Endo) is killed by the buyer, who apparently works with crooked cops. The murderer, Kiyohiro (Hakuryu) is an assassin working for mob boss Nito (Ittoku Kishibe). While Azuma works the case he is followed around by a rookie cop, Kikuchi (Makoto Ashikawa) and they eventually chase, on foot and in a car after a gangster that’s connected to the murdered drug pusher. Azuma follows his nose and through various connections meets up with another drug pusher named Hashizume (Ei Kawakami). In the public bathroom of a club he beats Hashizume severely and the camera never wavers. We are standing in the bathroom with the cops and criminals and we see the impact of the hits, and we hear the sounds bouncing off the walls. Kitano showcases a cop doing his job and at the same time taking his liberties as a cop too far.

Azuma has a mentally challenged sister, Akari (Maiko Kawakami); he picks her up from the hospital and from early in the film she lives with him. But one day when he comes home from work he sees her making drinks for a man who is lying naked in her bed. As Azuma escorts the man out of the apartment he kicks him down the stairs and makes sure that he gets on the bus that’d take him out of town. The scene is violent and comic at the same time because Azuma is nuts and he also very much cares for his sister. But Akari seems unfazed and the situation in her mind, had never occurred. It seems random but what transpires later in the film makes more sense of her character.

The segments with the sister don’t feel tacked on or superfluous because the editing of the film resembles that of Jean Luc Godard’s earlier work. It’s like a Japanese New Wave film that focuses on storytelling with minimal dialogue and plenty of atmosphere. Akari will eventually become the bridge that connects the final bout between the violent cop and the psychopathic killer. As Azuma’s investigation deepens and he closes in on Nito and his wrongdoing, Akari is kidnapped by Kiyohiro and his henchmen. Azuma awakens his self-destruction mode and the audience knows where the story’s headed.

The story is less intricate than it seems; it feels complex because of all the names thrown around. There are basically eight main characters and every one of them is important to the story. The best way to keep up is to jot down the names of characters who are bumped off and in doing so, eventually we are able to put two and two together.

The city where the story takes place isn’t Tokyo. It’s a smaller town with rivers and lakes and it lacks the gloss and the neon jungle of Tokyo, which adds to the film’s atmosphere of realism. And I’d also noticed that there aren’t any fades or wipes in the film, showcasing the jump-cut style of editing. The story is not concerned with days, weeks, or months, but with beginnings, middles, and endings. I understand why the back of the DVD says that this film can be seen as a cross between Dirty Harry and The Searchers.

I’d mentioned previously that this is a violent film and it only gets more violent as it goes along; of course the ending is the most violent part of the film. The gunshots sound loud and mean, the blood hits the walls, and Kitano films with the approach of realism. However, in order not to frighten the audience with the gravity of the crimes and murders depicted he plays his character (Azuma) almost without any emotions. As a cop, it’s frightening and Kiyohiro’s lack of emotions also makes him into a frightening killer.

This was a very financially and critically successful debut for the actor/director and his career flourished wonderfully. Between this film and his re-imagining of the “Zatoichi” character in The Blind Swordsman Zatoichi (2003) audiences favored the Kitano films that depict either the Yakuza or cop dramas. Sonatine (1993) is, personally his best film to date; it deals with tough Yakuza members who were betrayed and must await further instructions while living in a beach house. They act like children as if their childhoods hadn’t existed and the philosophies of the comprehension of life and death are a key issue in the film. Kitano’s character there is suicidal but never goes through with it because he’s simply afraid, no matter how good suicide sounds for him. Azuma treads on similar territory except that he’s not suicidal. He simply welcomes death with open arms and hopes to get rid of the bad guys before his life is ended.

I like tough guy movies and I like sociopathic cops and I like the Yakuza genre, which is why I really like this film. It’s also a good movie simply on its own. It tells a story that makes sense, showcases believable characters, and the violence appears lightning fast, which is a famous Kitano trademark. This film is a gem that can be watched many times simply for the sheer exuberance for the genre that it bends: tough cops that are as bad and mean as the criminals they chase. And sometimes more so.

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