Famous movie lines have a way of insinuating themselves into popular culture and language, until even those who know a film only by hearsay quote from it, if only because everyone else does.
Japanese films have generated their share of 名せりふ (meiserifu or famous lines), though it helps to know the context to get the full effect. For example,「事件は会議室で起きてるんじゃない！現場で起きてるんだ！」(“Jiken wa kaigishitsu de okiterunjanai! Genba de okiterunda!” “Crimes don’t occur in the conference room! They occur in the streets!”) has become a movie quote that “everyone knows.” However, its power comes from the character who utters it, Yuji Oda’s Detective Aoshima in「踊る大捜査線」(“Odoru Daisosasen [Bayside Shakedown]”), a 1998 film based on a hit TV show about cops in the trendy Tokyo Bay district. A cheeky nonconformist, Aoshima keeps butting heads with his 上司 (joshi, superiors) in the 警察官僚 (keisatsu kanryō, police bureaucracy). The above line, shouted at the film’s climax, became the era’s cri de coeur.
Enduring even longer as a kernel of movie wisdom is「人を憎んでる暇はない。わしにはそんな暇はない」(“Hito wo nikunderu hima wa nai. Washi niwa sonna hima wa nai,” “I don’t have time to hate anyone. I don’t have that kind of time”) from Akira Kurosawa’s「生きる」(“Ikiru,” 1952). Takashi Shimura’s petty bureaucrat hero says this line as he desperately tries to get approval from his colleagues to build a neighborhood park before cancer claims his life, though even the non-terminally ill have since taken it to heart.
More cynical is the observation made by the hero of “Yojimbo” (1961), Kurosawa’s classic Eastern-Western. Played by a comically grimacing Toshiro Mifune, this sword-for-hire (yōjimbō) wanders into a provincial town where there are two warring gangs — and coolly plays one off against the other. His sage advice:「用心棒にもいろいろある。雇った方で用心しなきゃならんのもな」(“Yōjimbō nimo iroiro aru. Yatotta hō de yōjin shinakya narannomona,” “There are different kinds of yōjimbō, the one who hires them has to be careful”). He later adds:「人を安く使うとかえって高くつくぞ」(“Hito wo yasuku tsukau to kaette takaku tsuku zo,” “When you hire someone cheaply you pay a high price”). These words of wisdom fall on deaf ears, not that it matters to the hero, who can beat fools with his wits as well as with his sword.
An even pithier observation is offered by Shimura’s sagely samurai after leading a band of 浪人 (rōnin, masterless samurai) in a deadly, if successful, battle against bandits in Kurosawa’s「七人の侍」(“Shichin no Samurai [Seven Samurai]” 1954):「また生き残ったな」(“Mata ikinokottana,” “We survived again”). When we see the burial mounds of his fallen comrades, we understand the note of bitterness in his voice. Victory comes at a price that most men of his kind must someday pay.
Some famous Japanese movie lines serve up black comic twists on mundane phrases, similar to Hollywood’s “I’ll be back.” Comedian/actor Beat Takeshi is responsible for more than his share, such as「今日は皆さんにちょっと殺し合いをしてもらいます」(“Kyō wa minasan ni chotto koroshiai wo shitemoraimasu,” “Today I want everyone to kill each other a little”) in Kinji Fukasaku’s controversial 2000 hit「バトル・ロワイアル」(“Batoru Rowaiaru [Battle Royale]”). Playing an official assigned by a near-future government to supervise a murder game with 42 junior high school student “players,” he delivers this line with a nihilistic glee that makes Arnold Schwarzenegger’s Terminator sound like Mr. Friendly.
In his own films, which he makes under his real name Takeshi Kitano, the punch lines often come with punches, though he also likes to show the Average Joe side of his tough-guy heroes. In his first film, 1989’s「その男、凶暴につき」(“Sono Otoko Kyobo ni Tsuki [Violent Cop]”), Kitano plays a sadistic police detective who uses slaps to the face and knees to the groin as not only punishments but also conversation starters. Asked by a cowed underling「先輩。なんで刑事になったんですか？」(“Senpai, nande keiji ni nattandesuka,” “Sir, why did you become a detective?”), he answers「ん？ 友人の紹介」(“n? Yūjin no shokai,” “What? A friend’s introduction.”) Which gets one of this very violent film’s few laughs.
Among Kitano’s more famous 名せりふ is the exchange between the two young heroes of「キッズリターン」(“Kids Return,” 1996) as they wobble on a bike around their old schoolyard. Shinji (Masanobu Ando), having failed as a boxer, asks his pal Masaru (Ken Kaneko), a washed-up gangster,「俺たちもう終わっちゃったのかな」(“Oretachi mō owacchatta no kana,” It’s all over for us, isn’t it?) Masaru answers with a smile: 「ばかやろうまだ始まっちゃいねえよ」(“Bakayarō, mada hajimacchainēyo,” “You idiot! We’ve only just begun”). Is he right? I’d rather not spoil one of Kitano’s best films for you and say. But like all great movie lines, it both plays perfectly on screen and lives a long life away from it in memory, even when the rest of the film is mostly forgotten.