Being Takeshi Kitano

11 02 2010

Takeshi Kitano

Takeshi Kitano, yesterday.

Takeshis’, a new film from cult Japanese director ‘Beat’ Takeshi Kitano, arrives in UK cinemas this week almost five years after it first made an appearance on the international festival circuit.

Those looking for clues as to why Takeshis’ has taken so long to reach us might want to consider the film’s somewhat unusual subject matter. For a start it features not one Takeshi Kitano, but two, hence that slightly odd mucking around with the possessive apostrophe in the title. The first is ‘Beat’ Takeshi, a grizzled movie star who is in the midst of shooting a World War Two action film. The second is Mr. Kitano (also played by ‘Beat’ Takeshi), a convenience store clerk who idolises the movie star and dreams of becoming an actor.

It’s not long before the two men’s paths cross, and their real and imaginary lives begin to overlap to a confusing degree. Mr. Kitano’s violent, film-based fantasies spill over into the narrative while, for his part, ‘Beat’ Takeshi finds himself imagining and experiencing scenes from the other man’s life. At some points in the narrative it’s not clear whose point-of-view the audience is supposed to be seeing the story from, or indeed whether what we’re seeing is a real event, a dream or a fantasy. There are gun-fights, sudden deaths, and a musical tap-dancing interlude. ‘500% Kitano – nothing to add!’ is the film’s English tagline, and its director has spoken of wanting to create a work that defies logical analysis.

It probably helps to know a little bit about Takeshi Kitano before seeing this film. The 63-year-old first made his name as a stand-up comedian, a job that he landed while working as a lift operator in a strip club. A stand-up partnership took him onto TV, where he developed a cruel, insolent and sometimes naive comic persona. He went on to present topical discussion shows and, more famously, Takeshi’s Castle, in which ordinary Japanese people competed in a series of bizarre knockabout challenges to capture the eponymous fortress.

After acting opposite David Bowie in Merry Christmas Mister Lawrence (1983), Kitano landed his first job as director with 1989’s Violent Cop, in which he played, erm… well I’ll let you guess. Over the course of the Nineties, the director honed his style with a series of masterful, deadpan yakuza (gangster) films including Boiling Point (1990), Sonatine (1993) and Hana-Bi (1997). This latter was made after Kitano almost died in a motorbike accident that left him partially-paralysed, and saw a new, more reflective tone enter into his work.

In fact, Hana-Bi may well come to be seen as the beginning of the end of Kitano’s yakuza period. His later work does contain gangster pictures of a sort – the US-set Brother in 2000 for example – but these are increasingly interspersed with more gentle, or at least different kinds of films. Kikujiro (1999), for example, told the story of the oddball relationship between a Chaplinesque loner and a young boy searching for his mother. Zatoichi (2003) resurrected a popular samurai character from 60s B-movies. And Kitano’s two most recent films, Kantoku – Banzai! (2007)  and Achilles and the Tortoise (2008) are both about artists in various states of personal and creative decline. Some have suggested, understandably then, that Takeshis’ represents a farewell to the yakuza genre by the film-maker.

Takeshi Kitano

Takeshis'

I’m not so sure. After all, for all of their violence, Kitano’s ‘yakuza’ films were never quite yakuza films anyway. In amidst the shoot-outs and the matter-of-fact, deadpan aggression, there was always much more going on; Kitano’s vision was always an eclectic and poetic one. Watch Hani-Bi or Boiling Point and you’ll find as much comedy as ‘action’. The sight-gag, the put-down, and the comedy slap are all as much a part of the director’s cinematic toolbox as the sudden, violent cuts for which he is famous.

There’s a depth of feeling in these films too which cuts across genre. Death in Hana-Bi is as near and as random as life in Kikujiro is new and strange. The only answer to life, Kitano suggests, lies in laughter, although it doesn’t really seem to matter much whether we laugh with other people or at them. The important thing is to recognise the beauty of life, no matter how brief it may be. So in Sonatine, the most moving section of the film is also one of the funniest, when a group of doomed gangsters plays games on the beach while waiting for an inevitable showdown with rivals.

The sea is a constant image in Kitano’s work too, as befits a Japanese film-maker. In Hana-Bi it is the contemplation of light on water that inspires a newly-disabled policeman to take up painting and find meaning in his life. And, at the end of the film, a shot of the sea accompanies the sound of gunshots, as the frailty of human existence is contrasted with the eternal. “We all know our origin is in the sea and it feels to me as though Mother Nature is calling us home,” the director has said. “But on the other hand, we know we no longer belong there.”

Hana-Bi

At 63, and with another film in the pipeline, Kitano shows no signs of slowing down. In Japan he is still known primarily as a television personality, an Eastern Jonathan Ross or David Letterman. In terms of his art, this is probably no bad thing. After all, it is ‘Beat’ Takeshi’s mainstream fame that has allowed Mr. Kitano to continue working quietly on his ‘hobby’ – his film-making – with remarkably little interference from anyone else.

So, while it might be nice to think that inside every Dale Winton or Noel Edmonds there’s a budding auteur just waiting to express himself, the reality is that ‘Beat’ Takeshi must be considered a genuine one-off, a cheerfully wayward talent in today’s too-often homogenous cinema. And long may he continue to be so.

500% Kitano? 600% Kitano, I say!

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2 responses

4 10 2011
15 11 2011
glen

He’s brilliant but also has done some strange Howard Stern type silly late night game show in Japan http://www.japansugoi.com/wordpress/maria-ozawa-on-beat-takeshi-late-night-show-michaikenai-tv/

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