Kitano Takeshi: One Who Shows What Cannot Be Seen

by: division-ten
for: Japanese film
when: April, 2009
length: 1,361 words
topic: the films Sonatine and Zatoichi
notes: If you have not seen Sonatine or Zatoichi, there are some major spoilers!

Great directors are few and far between, and even their greatness wears thin over time and is debatable. Kitano Takeshi, first known as a comedian with the stage name Beat Takeshi, has an additional hurdle to go through. If one looks at award winning films, such as one that had won an Oscar, one finds very few comedies, a genre often seen as “popular” and “amusing”, but hardly noteworthy. Film critics and analysts like Donald Richie relegate Kitano, nay, yakuza film directors as a whole as “popular” and therefore not fit for scholastic study, while others like Casio Abe feel that they have to go out of their way to make a case for what Kitano does in his work, often to the point of over analysis. Kitano is more than simply a popular director. He has a strong and dynamic sense of color and composition in his work, and an excellent use of sound (both in score and sound effect) to compliment the action (or lack thereof) onscreen. However, what makes Kitano Takeshi’s work more than simply good, but great, is his understanding of his characters. His character’s weaknesses, faults, and emotions are portrayed by the film as a whole, through a combination of acting, visuals and sound. In the film Zatoichi, one does not simply watch a character onscreen, but he or she becomes the oculocutaneous albino swordsman themselves. Only a great director can create such incredible depth and immersion for those viewing a film.

If one is to call Kitano a great director, then what exactly makes a director great? If being a great director means making good use of picture and sound to tell a story the best way possible, then Kitano certainly does through his style, or lack of a consistent one. While Kitano makes use of silence as part of a tension-building score in films like Sonatine (silence, not music, came with the death of Murakawa) and Zatoichi (the score subdued or went silent to allow the natural sounds that a blind person would notice to become both the sound effect and the score instead), and uses a single color to dominate his films (blue for Sonatine and red for Zatoichi), his style moves, flows, and changes with the story, characters, and action on screen. A great director is not one who is pretentious and esoteric, he or she is one who can fluidly adapt their direction to meet those changes. In Sonatine, time is both endless and frozen, exacerbated by Kitano’s use of stop-motion in the sumo scene to make a sense of surrealism, and multiple shots of the same full moon (which may have been the same full moon, three different full moons to signify three months passing in the blink of an eye, or, as Casio Abe put it, a full moon three days in a row to signify frozen time). His keen understanding of silence assisted in this idea of stagnant time and Murakawa’s death.

However, it is in Zatoichi that one sees, quite literally, the way that the blind and visually impaired move through their world like the character Zatoichi himself. Kitano skillfully manipulates sound, camera, and actor to get this difficult effect, and clearly did his homework, bringing the viewer to an interesting dilemma on the movie’s end, that is, whether or not the character of Zatoichi can actually see. Instead of the possible answers that Zatoichi is or is not blind, Kitano uses the cinematography tools at his disposal to quietly slip in a third option. Zatoichi is neither blind nor not blind. With all of the small hints, one can come to the conclusion that Zatoichi actually has a rare disease called occulocanteous albinism, and the viewers of the film, unaware, are being exposed to the symptoms and effects of this disease. Kitano is a great director because he could have simply made Zatoichi either blind or fully able to see, but instead gives us this other choice.

How, exactly, can one come to the conclusion that Zatoichi has this ailment called oculocutaneous albinism? This rare disorder is a form of albinism, affecting men more than women. In women, there are no visible signs, but men have lighter hair (blonde, platinum blonde, or white) and light bluish or greenish eyes. Zatoichi certainly fits this description, as his hair is visible for the entirety of the film, and, in the end of it, the audience has a clear look at his blue-grey eyes after he has tripped on a rock. Neither one of these colors are common among Japanese as actual hair and eye colorations, and there is actually a form of ocular albinism (a category of diseases of which oculocutaneous is a part) that only affects Japanese men.

More than looks, however, is the way that Zatoichi acts and interacts with the world around him, done most noticeably through Beat Takeshi’s actions and more subtly through Kitano’s direction. Beat Takeshi’s performance easily clues the viewer into non-sighted behavior. He walks uneasily, head down and eyes closed. If Zatoichi were fully blind, this behavior is understandable, but it can just as easily be explained as someone who has oculocutaneous albinism (hereafter, shortened to OA). As Zatoichi wore neither glasses nor hat, the strong daylight sun would blind any albino’s photophobic (oversensitivity to light) eyes, over saturating the surroundings to the point where closing one’s eyes (or squinting, as Zatoichi may have actually been doing) is the only option without proper glare protection. His, and other characters, comments about “seeing”, and therefore better able to fight, in the dark may be a double advantage. Because those with OA have eyes that take in too much light, what little light is available in the darkness would be good enough to see by, but hinder a normal person used to the sunlight.

Beat Takeshi uses other mannerisms to simulate one who has this rare and unusual genetic disorder. When he smells or listens, his head whips towards the source, and his head is sideways when in conversation with others, so that he can listen to them, and not make eye contact. He makes full use of the sound around him as he fights, and waits for his enemies to speak or make noise before attacking in daylight, as those with OA usually, but not always, have strabismus, which can cause serious depth perception problems and a lack of peripheral vision. So, using one’s auditory senses rather than fractured eyesight is often a smarter decision when fighting, especially with a sword that is meant to cut things a certain distance away from one’s body. However, at night, he easily clears out several ninjas who try to attack him in both darkness and near silence.

Meanwhile, Kitano Takeshi pulls his audiences not only into the story of Zatoichi, but one step further, into what it might be like to be him. Image in Zatoichi, for example, is done in several different ways to mimic the way someone with OA would perceive the world without making the whole film blurry. During the daytime (and brightly lit night) scenes, the film is a blur of overamplified, almost candy-like, colors, with red in the prominent position, especially the blood. Instead of making the fake blood in Zatoichi dark, thick, and sticky, Kurosawa had the CGI team make the blood look and behave like cranberry juice: fluid, smooth, and an incredibly vibrant, all encompassing shade of red. This brightness is simply impossible as a normal color of human blood, but does provide an overexposed illusion similar to the way that people with OA view things in daylight. Likewise, other things in color, like the kimono worn by the Naruto siblings and the shiny redness of Zatoichi’s cane are equally supersaturated colors. Even the tatami mats in the Naruto flashback sequence are an unusually bright yellow, which also acts to contrast the red of the blood of the parent’s deaths. During the night, however, especially in the scene where Zatoichi confronts the yakuza boss, the camera shifts back and forth, as if the viewer were seeing through Zatoichi’s eyes. A major habit of many blind and visually impaired people is to rock back and forth while listening to something important, active listening, and the viewers subconsciously rock along with the listening protagonist.

Lastly, and most importantly, is the way in which Kitano uses score and sound effects to mimic the way that someone with OA perceives the world around them. The sound effects, in particular, are unusual in two ways. Firstly, the sound effects in the film, particularly those of footsteps, are unusually loud to mimic the preference of the visually impaired to rely upon their auditory senses for navigation. More importantly, however, is the integration of these sounds into the actual score. The background music in films is typically outside of the film’s internal world, but in Zatoichi, the score is heard by the characters, or, at the very least, by Zatoichi himself, who turns the nonsensical sounds around him into a coherent overlapping melody with footsteps for percussion and awls for harmony, painting in the invisible details around him with the sound.

Kitano truly understands the tools of the filmmaker and uses them to the best of his ability. By combining acting, visuals, and score he goes far beyond telling a story or introducing characters. He helps his viewers become characters they could never be, like Zatoichi, someone who is severely visually impaired.


Casio, Abe. Beat Takeshi vs. Takeshi Kitano. Tr. William O. Gardener. New York: Kaya Press, 2005.
Sonatine. Dir. Takesi Kitano. DVD. 1992.
Zatoichi. Dir. Takeshi Kitano.
DVD. 2003.

(Also, my knowledge of ocular and oculocutaneous albinism comes from a mix of personal experience of living with OA and teaching at a school for the blind, as well as an ongoing project documenting the disorder, some of which can be found at a temporary bilingual [Japanese and English] website:)