Violent Cop (1989): The Study of Morality and Amorality in Takeshi Kitano’s Directorial Debut: Takeshi Kitano is one of Japan’s most acclaimed directors in modern times. Known chiefly for his crime or yakuza films, Kitano has his distinct style and vision on this genre. Many believe he is the man behind the revival of the yakuza films in the early 90s departing from the old school traits and creating something new with the genre.
These films are noticeable for their minimalism filled with sudden violence with characters’ lack of empathy executing them. Often there is less dialogue in the movie and more moments of silence act as beats between the actions and their consequences. Also, a recurring thing of capturing the reactions of the character’s actions rather than showcasing the actual action can be noticed in Kitano’s filmography. In terms of that, when the violence breaks out, he gets the reaction shots of the characters trying to interpret the human sensibilities behind doing so. This unique approach adds a humanist approach to the character’s portrayal and tries to figure out if some kind of morality exists in their most amoral deeds. And by making them morally ambiguous, Kitano asked the critical question – what is moral and immoral?
In his directorial debut, Violent Cop (1989), this question is profoundly raised. The film’s plot revolves around the ongoing drug war between the police force and the yakuza. Having the tendency to see things in binary, it is pretty prevailing for us to take sides. The police are the good ones, and the yakuza are the bad ones. It is the picture-perfect scenario for the moral and the amoral clash. But Kitano bypasses this binary by painting the characters working for both these systems with the shades of greys. They are morally ambiguous and can’t be judged by their professional parameters.
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Azuma (played by Kitano himself), a well-known honored policeman, is dedicated to his duty. But he has a bad reputation for using violence in the slightest of situations. In the first scene, we come to witness a bunch of punk teenagers harassing and beating up an old homeless man on the dead of the night. Azuma watches the incident. Later, he does the same with one of the kids to get a confession out of him. From that first scene, Kitano establishes Azuma as a man who may be on the side of keeping the moral compass straight do not hesitate to use amoral means to get that. But this use also has its limitations. In the next scene, when some small kids (not teenagers like the previous one) throw cans towards a passing boat over a bridge, only to annoy him, he doesn’t object to that. He passes them by without even seeing them. This contrasting characteristic signifies that he knows the limitations of morality and the pragmatic ways to use amoral means only to maintain things straight.
On the other hand, the character of Kiyohiro (played by Hakuryu) is entirely opposite to Azuma. Unlike him, He is not a morally ambiguous character. Instead, he has a one-sided point of view. He is a sadistic yakuza assassin who does not contain any moral compass. Where Azuma knows the limitations of his morality, Kiyohiro has no limit. In fact, he doesn’t contain any morality. Whoever crosses his path will be crushed by him. And to counter that, we see Azuma also losing his grip on his own mortality. Thus his pragmatic sense of amoral begins to collapse and becomes a loathsome dislikable, explicitly amoral creature.
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First, he frames evidence to capture Kiyohiro, which goes to torture and eventual killing of him in the end. In this process, he loses everything – from his job, his reputation, and most importantly, morality. Earlier in the film, we saw him taking care of his intellectually disabled sister, Akari (played by Maiko Kawakami). He is portrayed as an overprotective brother. But in the end, when Akari gets addicted to drugs by Kiyohiro’s men, Azuma does not hesitate to shoot her to death. At that point, Azuma doesn’t judge with the limitation of his moral apparatus. At that moment, there is no turning back for him to get things settled without going amoral. It quite resembles David Fincher’s Se7en as similarly the antagonist John Doe instigates detective Mills to commit the crime losing his morality. In both cases, the protagonists lost their morality to bring justice.
This actually shows the hypocritical nature of their psyche. In Violent Cop (1989), this hypocrisy is not the sole characteristic of Azuma. Perhaps, he can be seen as the victim of the hypocrisy rooted in the system he lives. The police force is the most significant example of that. They are meant to maintain the balance. But, it is them who leads the chaos in the first place (the corrupt police officers sell the drugs to the yakuza). And, it’s them also who are dying at the scene in the name of getting justice.
In the end, when all the pivotal characters die in this violent struggle of morality and amorality, we see their places are taken by new people. These new people are portrayed as morally upright earlier (for example, detective Kikuchi). But now they are morally corrupted, and the vicious game of morality and amorality starts again. With the final freeze shot of a young woman, Kitano signifies that the situation is the same after all this bloodshed. The murky game must go on, and ordinary people will suffer (like Akari).
Violent Cop (1989) is quite a mature film for a debutant director. Sometimes the film takes some drastic turns that are disturbing to watch. The study of morality and amorality through its tough characters, Kitano paves his path towards his future, contemplating the study of more morally ambiguous characters (like in films like Sonatine or Hana-bi). He doesn’t sympathize or romanticize these characters nor makes them extraordinary. Instead, he does a qualitative psychological analysis of these characters. When the movies tried to make these tough characters glamorous or fabulous, Kitano differed by not portraying them as likable. Instead, he does an objective study of their actions and consequences, making his films a unique treat to watch.