The Unbeaten As a movie star and world-class director, Takeshi Kitano is the champ-playing brutal men who live and die on their own terms

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Just before the final shootout in Brother, the yakuza played by Takeshi "Beat" Kitano walks into a diner out in the California desert. The old man behind the counter takes a long look at him and says, "You Japanese are very inscrutable."

There are a few jokes in this little scene in Kitano's first American film as both actor and auteur. One is that the old man is himself Japanese-American, baffled by the demeanor of a compatriot from the far side of the Pacific. Another is that the line echoes the title of a Kitano TV talk show-one of seven he has airing in his homeland-You Japanese Are Strange. But the third is on Kitano's loyal worldwide audience. Because his pictures (passion action movies, lurid and pensive) are pretty darned scrutable.

The Tough Loner, whom Kitano embodies in most of his films, is bound to no nation and needs no subtitles to translate his brute magnetism. It doesn't even matter which side of the law he is nominally on: as an officer in Violent Cop and Hana-bi or a yakuza in Boiling Point, Sonatine and Brother, he carries a gun and a grudge. Like the uninflected killer played by Alain Delon in Jean-Pierre Melville's classic 1967 crime film, aptly titled Le Samourai, Kitano walks slowly, stares blankly; he might be a patient whose life the surgeons have saved by removing his soul. Like Clint Eastwood in his early surly days, Kitano is implacable, dispensing retribution that may also be justice, but only coincidentally. He is a Zen or zombie Clint-a Dirty Harakiri.

The Delon and Eastwood films could seduce viewers into the world of mean men because their stars were beautiful. Kitano is not beautiful or ingratiating; not even conventionally graceful. Chatty and capering on TV, he is typically mute and blocky in films. His face has the puffiness of a club fighter's after a beating. Yes, that face was partly paralyzed and rearranged in his 1994 motorcycle accident, but the only visible difference is a scar. Besides, his expression was always immobile. The movie Kitano was never exactly Jim Carrey.

Yet he is known in nearly as many countries as the rubberized Hollywood star. Takeshi pages pock the Web, in Spanish, French, English, Dutch, German, Italian, Polish. His international admirers, seeing him churn out nine films in 11 years as actor-auteur-and perhaps catching him as an actor in art films (Nagisa Oshima's Gohatto) or a Hollywood thriller (the Keanu Reeves Johnny Mnemonic)-may not know that films are a kind of hobby for Kitano. How could he have time to do anything else? But of course he does: in Japan, he's on TV nearly seven hours a week.

In this case, the Westerners' ignorance can be a gift. Local viewers have to juggle jagged images of a personality who is the Japanese equivalent of Groucho Marx on the small screen and Humphrey Bogart on the big one. Westerners have no vision of Takeshi the TV clown to erase before they can accept him as an existential hit man.

In his 1989 directorial debut, Violent Cop, the stolid face and avenging-devil persona emerged fully formed, fists and feet blazing. The film begins with punks beating an old man senseless. One of the kids goes home; Officer Asuma (Kitano) walks into the boy's bedroom and whacks him silly. "I did nothing," the lad protests. "Then I've done nothing," the violent cop replies. The message couldn't be clearer if it were spelled out in neon. Good guys and bad guys use the same methods of punishment; they may be the same guys, except one has a badge. Kitano took over Violent Cop after director Kinji Fukasaku dropped out. He didn't plan the film or write it. But it's all Kitano in its charting of an arid landscape with no easy signposts. No sentimentality here-indeed, no evident feeling. He seeks no sympathy for Asuma. The man needn't be attractive, only compelling. If you want to idolize or iconize him, that's your business.

In his first film as actor-director, Kitano played a policeman too violent for his department; in his next, the 1990 Boiling Point, he's Uehara, a gangster too violent for the yakuza. By Sonatine (1991), Kitano Man had matured, or wizened, into its now familiar form: the gang-war veteran who can be impressed or surprised by nothing. He doesn't act out of an awesome rage, like a Pacino or De Niro hero. He isn't exorcising personal demons or giving an unjust society the dynamite stick up the butt that it deserves. Freud and Lenin are not on his bookshelves. Kitano Man is just doing what he's supposed to-what he, the killing machine, is designed for. A gangster's life, like a cop's, is not romantic in these films. It's a job, a routine, like ditch-digging but with less action and a higher body count.

Cynics would say that Kitano knows an audience will endure long spells of artistic entropy as long as he delivers a few shootouts or explosions. The artillery scenes are like production numbers in old musicals. But he doesn't cue the killings or glamorize them. Things just erupt, blow up, like in real life. Like, his admirers would say, in real art.

The jurors of the 1997 Venice Film Festival thought Hana-bi was art; they gave it the top prize. The movie has "art" of a sort: Kitano's own paintings, executed in a faux-naf (or maybe really nave) style, are seen throughout the movie. Hana-bi also flirts with humanism. Kitano is Nishi, a cop, and his wife has terminal cancer. (Women in Kitano films, when they appear at all, exist mainly as objects or metaphors: the hooker, the angel, the noble victim.) Nishi becomes a caregiver with a vengeance: he steals money to support his wife.

But tenderness hasn't softened him. A creep shakes him down, and he pokes a chopstick in the guy's eye. Nishi is not post-modern so much as post-mortem. Stick a gun in his face-he has no reaction. Go ahead and shoot, his look says. I'm dead already. Oblivion is the embrace he seeks, for himself and his wife. At the end, they sit on the beach; she thanks him "for everything," and he shoots them both dead.

After Kikujiru, a wan comedy in which the Kitano gruff guy serves as a young boy's nanny, he has returned to the crime genre with Brother, which is released in Australia this month ahead of a season in New Zealand. Shot in Tokyo and Los Angeles, this is a hyper-violent action movie with the standard fish-out-of-water plot-only this fish is a tiger shark. A yakuza lieutenant comes to L.A. to help his half-brother, a low-level thug. Aniki, as everyone calls Kitano (it's Japanese for brother), has nerve, entrepreneurial skills and a lot of spare bullets. Before long, half of the L.A. underworld has eaten his lead and the other half wants to have a chat with him. He has managed to tick off every Japanese, Mexican, black and Mafia mobster in town.

You may think Hollywood has exhausted the varieties of maximum mayhem; Kitano proves that the industry simply needed some fresh blood from Japan. Among the innovations: two ritual finger-cuttings, another chopsticks assault (this time up a fellow's nostrils) and, on a warehouse floor, nine fresh corpses arranged in the Japanese ideogram for death. Western audiences will learn subtle ethnic differences among the criminal classes, such as that the Japanese are more likely than the Americans to disembowel themselves in front of a rival. Kitano's direction is lively and loud enough, while his acting stays in the usual living-dead range. He laughs rarely-as when he observes, "We'll all die," and has a giggle fit.

That's the worldview of Kitano's crime films, where life is to die for and death is a punch line. Could any view be bleaker-or, in the hands of a master showman, more rudely entertaining? For TV's Beat Takeshi and the movies' Takeshi Kitano are halves of the same protean artist. One does anything for a laugh; the other dares the audience not to laugh at the spectacle of man annihilating himself and his species for the sake of a rusty old word like honor.

At the end of Brother, Aniki hands a wad of money to the old man behind the counter. "For the repairs," he says, and walks out the door to be mown down in gunfire that will obliterate the diner. Aniki may be a homicidal-suicidal yakuza, but you have to admire a man who leaves a big tip.