What gathers audience members such as myself, who have grown to be fans of Asian cinema due to the genre efforts that have come to popularity in the past, is undoubtedly Takeshi Kitano. The cover art for the film is haunting and reflective, showing Kitano’s brooding and dark persona. Something that we have grown to know and cherish from Kitano’s own film library. Simply looking at the artwork, one would have no idea what to expect from the film proper. Just knowing that Kitano is attached is enough to make it interesting for many of us. After all, the actor/filmmaker has a pretty decent record when it comes to picking projects not directed by himself. Gonin (directed by Takashi Ishii) and Battle Royale (directed by Kinji Fukasaku) are two of my favorite titles of all time. Gohatto is another well known title that Kitano starred in but did not direct, and it also featured Yoichi Sai starring alongside the famed actor. If you were to walk into Blood and Bones expecting Kitano to be the most memorable part of the movie, you would actually prove to be right. Not because of a lack of decent narrative, not because of a lack of style or interesting characters but within the confines of this movie: he is a demon.
Shunpei Kim (played by Takeshi Kitano) is the definition of self serving, constant bullying and venomous evil. During the course of this movie, you will not for a moment feel any form of sympathy for this character. He takes advantage of his position in life and consistently beats, harangues and torments everyone around him for the two and a half hours that this movie runs. He is a foul beast, not suitable to even be referred to as a man. Yet, in this new society that came with the post-war generation he is able to actually financially succeed and empower himself further. I believe that the film makes many statements on the nature of family, the lack of development in the Korean ghettos and lack of kindness that man can have toward one another, but I think the statements that it makes on the commercialization and materialist nature of this new Japan are its most interesting. Within this new Japan, figures who put money ahead of all forms of virtue are able so succeed and aggrandize themselves to a become a person of respect. Based on a true story, the movie seems to fit as an indictment of the opportunistic nature of Japanese society and ultimately puts the capitalist system on trial.
The film opens incredibly strong. We start off on a steam ship staring off at a beautiful view of Japan just starting to blossom into fruition as a real economic force in the years prior to the war, but this beauty is soon forgotten as we watch Shunpei Kim brutalize and rape the mother of our central figure. He does so while his children watch on in horror. The sexuality throughout remains graphic and unflinching. In moments of legitimate sexuality and forced rape alike, sex is treated as an activity devoid of true intimacy. For Shunpei women are simply napkins to be used and thrown away. They give him children that he does not want and they take portions of his money and ultimately take up space within his home. Throughout the film the character takes on mistresses but never makes any form of actual emotional commitment to anyone other than himself. Even during the moments where intercourse is consented to by the woman, due to Shunpei’s sheer brutality one can’t help but see these moments as being a form of rape. His power hungry ego demands that he not share anything with these women, but that he simply conquer them.
Kitano is spectacular in this role, to say the least. While the role may be one dimensional, he is utterly ferocious throughout. Despite his body obviously being pudgy and giving the appearance of an aging man (which he is), he remains a frightening figure throughout. There is never a moment where we as the audience question why anyone would fear this man. A culmination of his most maniacal performances, Shunpei is rage personified. The rest of the cast all put in decidedly good performances next to Kitano, but their characters tend to be so emotionally detached that the only thing that we remain cognizant of is Shunpei himself. The character who gives the voice over narrative, the youngest son of the family played by Hirofumi Arai (best known Aoki in Toshiaki Toyoda’s Blue Spring), does not even gain the screen time to even become a recognizable central figure. His character remains a distant background figure through the majority of the film. This is where I believe that the film’s critics do have a point. At the end of this film… after all of the struggles, beatings and torture: the only thing we really know is that Shunpei Kim is an evil man.
The film often receives the complaint that it is simply far too depressing and although there are many horrible things that happen throughout, my biggest complaint is that it doesn’t actually reach the emotional core to actually inspire truly sad feelings. While converging the audience with negativity and no signs of a better life, the film becomes a cyclical motion of pessimism. The film doesn’t manage to speak to its audience and instead tries far too hard to crack their emotional center simply by hoping that they will feel for these characters as fellow human beings. We do not grow to know each individual character affected by this man. Instead, we know them as archetypes and we see them through scenes where they are rarely the focus. At the end of the picture, we know so little about these characters and we care about them even less. Although it does carry the power to make you weary and perhaps even depress audiences, I think by missing out on genuine emotion and supplying the audience with a true protagonist to showcase the situation for us the film severely limits itself and becomes much more ordinary than it could have been.