Japanese multi-talent ‘Beat’ Takeshi Kitano is a cultural icon in his native Japan though thanks to some of his movies, in particular Battle Royal and the award-winning Hana-bi, over the years he’s gained quite a reputation in the West as well.

This set contains three of his earlier movies including his directorial debut VIOLENT COP. All three movies were also directed and written by Kitano. Given the fact that all are crime thrillers (albeit interspersed with the occasional dead-pan humour) you’d be forgiven to think that Kitano made his name in every genre except comedy. That said, the film was initially intended as a comedy though ‘Beat’ Takeshi’ (Kitano’s acting name) decided that he wanted to give comedy a break and see what it’s like to be a serious actor.

VIOLENT COP (1989) stars Kitano as Azuma, an unorthodox detective with a terrible temper who is only too happy to beat his opponents to a pulp. Constantly at loggerheads with his superiors, in particular Deputy Police Chief Higuchi (Noboyuki Katsube), he goes well and truly off the rails when fellow colleague and friend Iwaki (Sei Hiraizumi) commits suicide after it transpires that this particular vice cop was involved with drugs though he had a (perhaps justifiable) reason: the reason why he sold confiscated drugs is to secure financial security for his family after having learned that he has cancer. ‘Breaking Bad’, anyone? As if this scenario weren’t bad enough Azuma furthermore has to attend to his ‘feeble-minded’ sister Akari (Maiko Kawakami) who has just been released from a psychiatric clinic while at the same time teaching rookie cop Kikuchi (Makato Ashikawa) the tricks of ‘his’ trade. When Azuma discovers that Kiyohiro (Hakuryu), a henchman in the employ of shady businessman Nitu (Ittoku Kishibe) is behind Iwaki’s death as well as the murder of two drug dealers a violent confrontation is looming on the horizon… However, when some members of the Yakuza kidnap Akari and keep her as their sex slave, Azuma sees red, leading up to the film’s devastatingly blood-drenched and shocking climax from which no one emerges alive except… well, this reviewer didn’t see it coming! Of all the three films in this set, VIOLENT COP is perhaps the most ‘westernized’ in terms of plot and structure – a simplistic tale of a detective who seemingly cares about nothing and no one (least of all conformity) in the vein of Eastwood or Bronson.

BOILING POINT (1990) is more complex and with ‘static’ scenes followed by rapid outbreaks of violence, sometimes seemingly unconnected sequences tie up later on. The original title was 3x4 BY OCTOBER, a term relating to the world of baseball, for the film’s anti-hero is a juvenile ‘pinch hitter’ named Masaki (Yurei Yanagi) who occasionally calls himself James and is the weakest player in the junior baseball team. His day job sees him working as an attendant at a garage and it is here where all the trouble starts after a nasty young Yakuza member smacks Masaki in the face (as you do) after expressing his disgruntlement at the service. Whaddya know, Masaki hits back and the Yakuza pretends his arm is broken (it isn’t). A short time later a representative for Yakuza boss Otomo (Hisashi Igama) turns up at the station and demands the gas station owner cough up for the medical bills… Enter baseball team manager and bar owner Takashi Iguchi (Taka Guadalcan) who used to work for Otomo. Iguchi’s girlfriend suggests he help his protégé to make amends with the violent gang. Instead, members of the Yakuza mock Iguchi for being ‘retired’, a remark he doesn’t like one bit and which results in some nasty trashing. After Iguchi plans on traveling to Okinawa to acquire a gun, Masaki offers to make the journey in his place… together with his best mate Kazuo (Dankan). No prices for guessing that things don’t go according to plan after the two encounter the psychotic Uehara (a relatively late entrance for Kitano), a so-called Yakuza bully who has his own agenda for revenge. Although things soon descend into the usual orgy of violence there is a fair bit of deadpan humour to be found too, namely when the inexperienced Masaki accidentally hits the trigger of his gun and shatters the windscreen of his car instead of hitting his intended target. We get a truly explosive finale and the scene in which Uehara enters the gangsters lair with a deadly weapon hidden inside a bunch of flowers is inspired.

SONATINE (1993) once again sees Kitano displaying his trademark mix of stoic ‘the-devil-may-care’ gangster mixed with dark humour. Here he plays Murakawa, a Yakuza-enforcer tired of the game and in fact tired of life. His boss Kitajima (Tonbo Zushi) sends him to Okinawa where he is supposed to mediate a dispute between their allies, two feuding clans. Murakawa rightly suspects that something is dodgy about this assignment because the last time his overlord sent him to Okinawa he lost three of his men. He badly beats up his colleague Takahashi (Keníchi Yashima), only to travel to Okinawa with his men anyway. It doesn’t take long before they are ambushed, confirming Murakawa’s suspicions that his boss wants him out of the way. As the survivors including Murakawa flee to the seaside they engage in silly games such as shooting cans of soda pop from each other’s heads William Tell-style or playing Russian roulette (in a dream sequence Murakawa blows his own brains out, something that will become reality). There’s also an almost surreal scene during which his cronies engage is a strange dance ritual on the beach, a hybrid that combines elements of Sumo-wrestling and martial arts all exaggerated by a sped-up camera and jittery movements. Later on Murakawa kills the lover/assailant of a young woman named Miyuki (Aya Kokumai) just as he is raping her. As a ‘thank you’ Miyuki becomes Murakawa’s companion, offering a little romantic and even philosophical reprieve before an almighty shoot-out in a hotel.

Stylistically, SONATINE offers scenes and set-ups that look so composed and arranged they could almost be paintings – something that often stands in complete contrast to the violent themes of the movies. What is perhaps particularly shocking to Western audiences is how folks get slapped about in Kitano’s movies, even women are more often than not just eye-candy though there might be a finer point we’re all missing due to cultural differences. Another aspect which stands out is that Kitano is never the hero, not even the anti-hero… far from it he usually plays highly dislikable characters often even more psychotic and unhinged than his enemies.

This Blu-ray release includes numerous Extras such as:
Feature-length audio commentaries on Violent Cop and Sonatine by Chris D, punk poet, singer, actor, film historian and author of Outlaw Masters of Japanese Film,
Newly recorded audio commentary on Boiling Point by David Jenkins,
That Man is Dangerous: The Birth of Takeshi Kitano (2016, 20 mins): documentary examining the emergence, establishment and popularity of Kitano’s cinematic image,
Okinawa Days: Kitano’s Second Debut (2016, 20 mins): a look back at Kitano’s Boiling Point, featuring interviews with producer Masayuki Mori and actor Yurei Yanagi / trailers / 44-page booklet (first pressing only).