“Have you ever killed a man? … Have you ever made love?” It’s tempting to call this latest film by Nagisa Oshima (In the Realm of the Senses, Max Mon Amour) a meditation on the “don’t ask, don’t tell” policy toward gays in the military — except that in Kyoto’s Shinsengumi militia in 1865 it almost seems that every third warrior “leans that way,” with at least half the rest precariously susceptible to feeling the same, or fearing that they might start feeling the same, at any moment. There doesn’t appear to be notable scorn for the practice, but veterans like Captain Hijikata (Takeshi Kitano) worry that excessive fascination with a pretty boy like the new kid, Kano (Ryuhei Matsuda), can mess up morale and, er, take the edge off military preparedness.
Takeshi Kitano has a way of making stillness into tension in his crime films.
In the opening shot of Violent Cop, Kitano’s 1990 directorial debut, the camera holds on the smiling face of a toothless derelict. Like a pebble dropping into a pond the calm is shattered when a soccer ball knocks his dinner from his hand and a swarm of teens rushes him. The violence erupts out of nowhere as they relentlessly beat and kick him, and as the homeless man lies dead on the ground the feckless kids hop on their bikes and nonchalantly peddle away as if leaving the playground.
Into this cruel, uncaring world strolls Azuma (Takeshi), the police detective who earns the film its title many times over. In his first scene he beats a suspect, one of the teenage boys, in the kid’s own room. Azuma has a reputation for making up his own rules and he maintains a precarious position in the department that looks away as the lone wolf gets results at the price of unbridled police brutality. “Behave yourself for a year while I’m chief,” demands his new superior. He looks on like he hasn’t heard a thing, and before long he’s back to his usual tricks, running down suspects, beating drug dealers, planting evidence, even slugging a pimp standing in the stationhouse hall. Once in a while he cracks a smile, but mostly he wears a deadpan mask. Kitano has an amazing face, calm and bemused, at times almost blank, with big teddy bear eyes and soft features that suggest a gentle nature denied in his every action. Even when the battle becomes personal and the hair-trigger cop goes on his rogue rampage, he maintains that serenity, hardening just a bit, his crook of smile straightening out to a taut determination, perhaps suggesting a touch of bitterness and sadness.