Takeshi Kitano stars in Violent Cop and, as director, adds a unique style.
TIFF Cinematheque's series of 11 Japanese films from the 1980s finds this singular national cinema at a point of radical transformation.
That decade saw the decline of Japan's major studios and the emergence of an independent movement. Unlike their most celebrated U.S. contemporaries, however, many of Japan's new wave of indie filmmakers, increasingly influenced by manga and anime, focused on genre. No genre became more dominant than the yakuza film - and no other director would become more closely associated with it than Takeshi Kitano.
Kitano was already a stand-up comic, popular TV personality and eminent screen icon by the time he was cast as the titular anti-hero in Violent Cop (Tuesday, March 5, 8:30 pm). When the film's original director fell ill, Kitano took over, reworked the screenplay and insisted on an alternately unnerving and eerily comical use of a static camera.
His directorial signature is as deadpan as his largely expression-free acting style, imbuing scenes of murder, torture and rape with a chilling lack of affect that could be construed as social commentary were it less relentlessly enigmatic.
Easier to come to grips with are dark comedies like Yoshimitsu Morita's The Family Game (March 10, 7:30 pm), in which a tutor is hired to instruct a failing junior high school student interested only in roller coasters. The tutor's unorthodox methods prove so effective that he ultimately takes it upon himself to discipline the boy's entire family with the same patriarchal violence.
Kinji Fukasaku's Fall Guy (March 17, 7 pm) takes a similarly satirical approach to Japan's film industry itself, a milieu depicted as riddled with hysterical stars cultivating entourages of hyper-obedient underlings.
The protagonist could be considered a hero among such hangers-on, a bit actor so devoted to the star he follows that he not only marries the star's pregnant mistress but also volunteers to hurl himself down the longest staircase in Japanese movie history just to save the star's boilerplate samurai epic - and perhaps advance his own career.
Sadomasochism, repression, bureaucracy, manic adherence to established social hierarchies: an entire country's history of neurosis was up for grabs. Nothing was sacred in this pivotal period that would change Japan's cinema forever.