Released in 1989, Violent Cop heralded the arrival of Takeshi Kitano as a serious new cinematic force. Before making his debut as a director Kitano made a name for himself as an actor and comedian in Japanese films and on television. In his film Merry Christmas Mr. Lawrence (1982) director Nagisa Ōshima cast Kitano as a prison guard and exploited the inherent duality of Kitano’s image. Kitano has the build of a “tough guy” but the angelic face of a loving father or kind teacher. In Violent Cop Kitano himself, as director and star, capitalizes on this with the same affectiveness.
Violent Cop is ostensibly the tale of an uncontrollable policeman, Azuma (Kitano), who is fired from the force after a series of violent incidents that culminated with his attack of yakuza henchman Kiyohiro (Hakuryu) in revenge for the murder of his best friend Iwaki (Sei Hiraizumi). As the vendetta between the ex-cop and the yakuza spirals out of hand Azuma’s world comes crashing down around him until his life ends violently in a suicidal shootout.
While Kitano certainly embraces many of the tropes and genre traditions of the yakuza drama, his primary goal as a filmmaker is to examine the very nature of the violence that functions as escapism in the cinema. In the opening scene of Violent Cop a gang of teenaged boys assaults an old man. Kitano’s camera stays with the victim during the attack. A look at the assaulting body comes moments later when Azuma enters the home of one of the attackers and beats him bloody. Essentially Kitano splits two scenes in half so that each completes the other. In this opening Kitano announces that Violent Cop is going to be about the cyclical nature of systemic violence.
While this cycle of violence between two institutions draws tighter and tighter together it becomes ever more clear that to Kitano and his character Azuma violence will inevitably end in death. The notion that death is forthcoming is what liberates Azuma to take the kind of action he does. Azuma lunges forward to his doom happily as long as he takes those he deems guilty with him. Azuma is the grotesque mirror image of the “super cop” heroes of the American cinema like Harry Callahan.
The brutality of Violent Cop is, in addition to being thoughtfully edited to create a reflexive causality, is itself highly stylized and self-conscious. There is a scene where a cop attempts to wrestle a fleeing suspect to the ground that suddenly erupts into a protracted slow motion sequence. The struggle between these two men as they clash takes on the shape and manner of a macabre ballet. The inevitability of violence and death is reiterated in the sublimity of this sequence whose auditory accompaniment is a quiet little tune and soft diegetic sounds of the scuffle.
There is a stillness and a peace to all the violent scenes in Violent Cop. Even in the scene where Azuma’s sister Akari (Maiko Kawakami) is raped this same juxtaposition of brutal images rendered sublimely is at work. In this instance, as with the elderly man in the opening sequence of the film, the dichotomy privileges the victim with a look at the violence coming later in the form of Azuma’s retribution.
Violent Cop is as unpleasant as it is captivating. There are so many films about cops going off the rails but so few accomplish what Kitano has in his debut feature film. As larger than life as the characters tend to be in such films, Kitano never wavers in bringing a humanist truth to every scene. Kitano takes the cop movie and turns it inside out, making it a film about action and reaction rather than good and evil.