On Aug. 12, 1989, “Beat” Takeshi Kitano’s debut as a director, “Violent Cop,” was released in Japan. Kitano was already famous here as a TV comic and emcee, and was known abroad for his role as a brutal POW camp guard in Nagisa Oshima’s 1983 World War II drama “Merry Christmas, Mr. Lawrence.”
But when he took over as director of “Violent Cop” from veteran Kinji Fukasaku, who left the project due to a scheduling conflict, Kitano had had none of the usual education or training for the job.
Even so, the critics raved about “Violent Cop” and Kitano’s fans made it a modest hit. The “Kinema Junpo” magazine annual critics’ poll named it the eighth best Japanese film of the year and the Yokohama Film Festival gave Kitano its best director prize.
In my review for this publication I was less impressed, charging Kitano, then king of the local showbiz mountain, with ego-tripping as Azuma, a maverick cop who punches and kicks miscreants into submission while never getting punched or kicked in return.
Seeing the film again after 30 years I found myself liking it more. The violence now looks less excessive, especially compared with what has come since. And Azuma’s brand of rough justice feels more … justified.
Also, the character’s determination to avenge the cold-blooded killing of a fellow cop by a ruthless gangster, as well as his love for his mentally ill sister, serve to humanize his stoic character, while making him less of a directorial sock puppet.
Meanwhile, Kitano’s signature stylistics, from long takes and limited camera movement to terse dialogue and flashes of black humor, are already present in “Violent Cop,” as are his trademark macho romanticism and fatalism, with Azuma striding unblinkingly to Erik Satie’s “Gnossienne No. 1” on his way to an appointment with death.
And after seeing hundreds of Japanese gang and cop films, I was struck by how Kitano reimagined the genre in his first film.
In contrast to the 1960s gangsters of genre superstar Ken Takakura, who adhered to a strict code of loyalty to the gang and sacrificed themselves for the gang boss, the two main antagonists of “Violent Cop” are loners who flout rules and despise authority.
Also, where the hoods of Fukasaku’s 1970s films had a florid swagger, Azuma and his nemesis (played by the single-named Hakuryu) are controlled but coiled. Their silences suggest future explosions.
Unquestionably, Azuma shares DNA with Clint Eastwood’s Dirty Harry and Peter Falk’s Columbo, but only Kitano could play him.
The influence of “Violent Cop” and other early Kitano films, including his 1993 international breakthrough “Sonatine” and 1997 Venice Golden Lion winner “Fireworks,” has been large and lasting among Kitano’s contemporaries and filmmakers here and abroad.
Echoes of Azuma can be heard in the Nicolas Winding Refn and Ed Brubaker Amazon series “Too Old to Die Young,” which begins with the quest of Miles Teller’s dirty cop hero to revenge a murdered partner. A spiritual resemblance starts to emerge as the camera holds his impassive visage for second after tense second: Like Azuma, he’s hard to read, impossible to intimidate … but Azuma had a cooler kick.