Jokes rely on leaps and contrasts. Two unlike things, often bizarrely unlike things, come together to create a funny third thing. That’s why Franz Kafka is hilarious (Gregor Samsa woke up to find himself transformed into a giant bug in The Metamorphosis). And that’s why Takeshi Kitano’s bleak, absurdist and extremely violent Boiling Point is as well.
I mean, a film that begins with a man contemplatively sitting in darkness (soon revealed as the gloom of an outhouse) announces right off that there’s going to be some leaps and contrasts. An existential image — man in the void — becomes man voiding. Brilliantly, as evidence of Kitano’s impish aesthetic (and despite the little chuckle one might give when the scene comes together), the sequence still preserves the original idea. A version of dust to dust and all that.
Boiling Point is billed as a movie about the yakuza. The opening serves notice that any expectations one might have for such a story won’t survive Kitano’s pugilistic sense of humor. It’s appropriate, since before he started in movies — writing, directing, acting — Kitano was one of Japan’s most popular comedians. This probably informs his basic visual dialogue: the subversion of what’s supposed to come next. For example, one big twist he serves the audience — especially those who came anticipating a film like his previous production, Violent Cop, in which he starred — is that he only shows up in Act Two. He dominates that middle third, yes, but then just as quickly departs.
Anyway, in Boiling Point, Masaki (Yurei Yanagi) and Kazuo (Dankan) play on an amateur baseball team. I guess you could call them friends — they hang out together on and off the field, and demonstrate a comradely familiarity — but it’s hard to tell. Like most of Kitano’s people, they regard the world with deadpan expressions no matter what’s going on around them. (And some seriously weird things go on around them!)
Violence seems the one way anybody expresses himself in Boiling Point. It’s unfortunate Masaki and Kazuo aren’t really good at violence, much less baseball. Early on, Masaki gets into a minor quarrel with a gangster patronizing the gas station where he works. The results are a bruised forearm and a ding to the yakuza’s egg-shell ego. Perhaps if Masaki had actually taken out the guy with a sweet right hook, things might’ve gone differently. In any case, the thug gathers his buddies and severely beats up the team’s coach.
To get revenge, Masaki and Kazuo set off for Okinawa where they’ve been told they can buy a gun. They don’t have a plan and spend a lot of time wandering around before they fall in with Uehara (Takeshi Kitano), a yakuza so psychotic that even the local mob wants little to do with him. Uehara also owes his superiors a significant amount of money, not to mention a finger, as is the yakuza way. He agrees to help Masaki and Kazuo, but then immediately wraps them into an insane scheme to clear his debts.
What follows is a criminal comedy of manners. Uehara is the id made manifest. Random beatings, sexual assault, maiming, murder — nothing seems prohibited to this creature of impulse. Bizarrely, I found it impossible to turn from his antics. Blame the charm of Kitano’s roguish pluck; it explains his popularity as a comic. And I laughed not because I think such things are funny, but because I was shocked anyone could be so unreflective, so at-one with their impulses. Such purity is riveting, the same way self-absorbed children possess a strange, primal allure. Masaki and Kazuo, ineffectual schlumps that they are (or viewer stand-ins?), follow in his wake, either afraid or incapable of not going along.
Still, you might wonder why anyone would risk being in Uehara’s presence for even a second. Boiling Point really isn’t concerned with such logical questions. It’s a dive into a surreal landscape. The subconscious holds fiat. At one point, for no good reason, Uehara emerges from a field of flowers, wearing a crown of blossoms. I immediately identified him as both Oberon, the fairy lord of misrule and that monarch’s sadistic trickster Puck. Typical of Boiling Point, the moment also possesses a jarring beauty. Just as typically, it’s a testament to Kitano’s love of contrast, bookended by scenes of graphic violence.
Rules don’t apply when crime and violence are involved, at least not compared to the orderly, process-bound realm of baseball, a distinction Kitano draws by opening and ending the film with long sequences on the clay diamond. By comparison, Uehara’s world is an absurdist nightmare where men can become asses and fairy queens might fall in love with donkeys. The literal eruptions of madness in Boiling Point are themes made visual.
Earlier, I mentioned that Boiling Point relies on the unexpected for much of its energy. Unlike many other crime movies, it avoids the incessant, rapid cutting characteristic of the genre. Kitano loves to hold the camera on an actor for unusually long beats. Sometimes, it’s to build tension, as when yakuza gangsters stare into the lens. When Masaki and Kazuo eat popsicles, the moment conveys the quiet stagnation of their lives. (And Masaki’s response to that boredom is pure Kitano.) Or it’s to revel in a shot’s beauty, for the director is nothing if not an artist. Kitano possesses an eye for color and mise-en-scène. Passages often become works of visual art in themselves. The mid-film baseball game on the beach Uehara organizes is pure beauty.
And then Kitano switches it all up. The joke that takes too long to tell often isn’t funny. This is where the director’s comedic roots come into play again. He might enjoy the lingering camera, but he’s also a master editor. He knows when to avoid preamble, dispense with buildup, enter mid-action, post-action. Sometimes he lets the action occur out of the frame. He trusts the viewer to fill in the gaps. The sudden shifts prompt laughter, just as likely a gasp (Boiling Point can push the limits of taste), and contrasted with the long takes, they also enhance the movie’s already dynamic style. The film’s meandering plot might seem a loose, baggy monster, but Kitano knows exactly what he’s doing.
I just wish whoever was responsible for the English title had come up with something different. The original Japanese 3×4 Jugatsu refers to the score of a baseball game and the month of October which is apparently playoff season in Japan. Masaki and Kazuo lose both games they play. The words Boiling Point suggests a film about common men driven to extremes, mad as hell and not going to take it anymore. That is most definitely not Masaki and Kazuo. Boredom, dead-end jobs and an unremarkable semi-urban homescape have stripped them of initiative. These guys are, as the original title implies, losers. Ain’t nothing going to change that. Unfortunately, the film suggests you can either be a loser or you can be dead. I told you it was bleak.
Stefen Styrsky (@Stefen_Styrsky) writes short stories and film reviews. His work has appeared in Amazon’s Day One, the Tahoma Literary Review, Number Eleven Magazine, Litbreak and The Offing, among other places. He has an MA in Fiction Writing from the Johns Hopkins University and lives in Washington, DC. His website is stefenstyrsky.com.