Kitano “Beat” Takeshi’s Wikipedia entry describes him as “a Japanese filmmaker, comedian, singer, actor, tap dancer, film editor, presenter, screenwriter, author, poet, painter, and one-time video game designer.” Not surprisingly, this has led many to describe him as something of a jack of all trades – but that’s where the figure of speech must be cut short, for an appraisal of his work reveals that, far from being a master of none he is invariably at the top of the game in whichever medium he chooses to work with. Perhaps a more appropriate description – used by film critics and fans alike – is “Japan’s Renaissance Man”.
Kitano’s breadth and appeal is unprecedented. From hugely successful comic to international movie star and filmmaker with a number of prestigious awards under his belt (in addition to which he was also named a Commander of the Order of the Arts and Letters of France in March 2010), to prime time game and chat show host, newspaper columnist, social critic, novelist and professor at the Graduate School of Visual Arts in Tokyo, no one of comparable talent and diversity springs to mind. To suggest that he is “the most talented man in the world” is by no means stretching credulity.
His career as an entertainer began quite by accident. While working at a strip club as an elevator operator, he stood in for one of the performers who had taken ill, and from there went to form a comedy duo with Keneko Kiyoshi known as Two Beat. By the mid-70s they were performing regularly on TV and were fast on their way to becoming a huge success, their unique brand of manzai stand-up comedy, characterized by straight man/funny man banter, was controversial in its selection of the elderly and infirm as the focus of its mockery. Kitano’s career throughout much of the 1980s was mostly comedy roles for television, with the notable exception being his appearance in Oshima Nagisa’s Merry Christmas Mr. Lawrence, in which he played a POW camp sergeant during World War 2. Kitano stated in an interview with the French press some years later that he insisted on one condition from Oshima before he’d agree to appear in the movie: that the notoriously aggressive and bullying director refrained from shouting at him. Evidently, Oshima agreed.
Kitano’s major creative break, which would catapult him from TV personality to acclaimed director and pave the way for his entrance into the international film festival circuit, came in 1989. Originally cast in the starring role of Violent Cop, Kitano ended up taking over the direction of the film and made significant revisions to the script after the original director Fukasaku Kinji fell ill (Kitano would later work with Fukasaku on Battle Royale). It was an impressive debut, a movie about a nihilistic, violence-prone policeman that established Kitano’s minimalist shooting style, daring editing and deadpan approach to humour.
Kitano’s second feature. Boiling Point, further refined the aesthetic sensibility of Violent Cop as well as his approach to the study of violence and masculinity, but it was 1993’s Sonatine which defined him as an international director on the rise. With Sonatine, Kitano crafted a Yakuza thriller in which each of the three acts mimic the sonata form of exposition, development and recapitulation. Murakawa (played by Kitano) is sent along with some associates to mediate a turf war in Okinawa, but soon discovers that this is a ruse and that his life is in danger, and goes into hiding on a remote beach. Here, Kitano’s unique brand of humour and surrealism comes to the fore, as the Yakuza lounge around on the beach idly playing games and setting up pranks to pass the time. The gangster persona unfolds, and the film transforms into a story 0f men becoming boys, in a world seemingly created for their enjoyment. The denouement, which sees the reality of their predicament suddenly catching up with them, is unexpectedly poignant.
While Sonatine marked the conclusion of what has become known as his “Yakuza trilogy”, Kitano was busy working on other projects that demonstrated his diversity as a filmmaker. A Scene at the Sea saw Kitano remain behind the camera for the first time in what is perhaps one of the most minimalist works of cinema to emerge from Japan – the story of a deaf and mute young man who teaches himself to surf. Almost entirely bereft of dialogue, the formal style of direction with characters often directly facing the camera recalls the works of Japanese master Ozu Yasujiro and reveals a romantic side heretofore unseen in Kitano’s movies. Likewise, the semi-autobiographical Kids Return offers viewers a nostalgic look at two young friends on the cusp between adolescence and adulthood, as they face critical choices that will go on to define their lives as men in the world. Made after Kitano recovered from a near fatal motorbike accident this is clearly a personal piece of work, fluctuating between melancholy and whimsy and infused with acutely observed characters and frequent flashes of humour.
Arguably Kitano’s definitive work to date – and perhaps his most critically acclaimed – is 1997’s HANA-BI (known in the US as Fireworks), which won the Golden Lion at the Venice Film Festival. Kitano plays Detective Nishi, a policeman who’s daughter has recently died and who’s wife is dying of leukemia. A stakeout goes horribly wrong, leaving his partner crippled and another colleague dead, on top of which he has owes a large sum of money to the Yakuza. Nishi resolves to rob a bank. While on the face of it this synopsis may sound formulaic, HANA-BI is anything but.
Far from being a police/gangster thriller, the film is a meditation on grief, loss and one’s sense of responsibility, in a world where moments of beauty are followed by abrupt violence, a world loaded with a fatalism expressed through stark imagery rather than expository dialogue. HANA-BI is clearly a deeply personal film – perhaps more so than Kids Return – and Kitano’s preoccupation with suicide and the search for salvation through art as personified in the character of Nishi’s crippled partner makes the viewing experience lyrical and moving. The paintings used throughout the film are Kitano’s own, painted during his period of convalescence after his motorbike crash; surreal pointillist images of plant/animal hybrids in vibrant colours, simple yet highly effective. It is undoubtedly a masterpiece.
Many of Kitano’s earlier films are notable for his stoic performances, which resemble Clint Eastwood’s The Man With No Name, and an underlying existentialist philosophy. But beyond this his full body of work reveals a much more diverse and nuanced talent that defies easy categorization. Kitano is equally comfortable creating between commercial entertainment, anarchic comedy, hard-boiled gangster noir and Felliniesque forays into the nature of creativity and the art of cinema. His lengthy career has seen him create one of the funniest, most anarchic game shows TV has ever seen with Takeshi’s Castle in which contestants attempted to storm his castle, overcoming (or not. Mostly not) a variety of assault courses filled with traps. See young and old, male and female alike hurl themselves around like rag dolls and try not to think about health and safety standards.
He also produced and hosted a 90 minute special on 9/11 titled, Unexpected! Stranger Facts Than Fictions: Three Years Later – Facts about Seven Mysteries of 9/11, in which he discussed seven of the unanswered anomalies and inconsistencies with the official story, including the feasibility of the alleged cell phone calls from the planes, the lack of evidence of a plane at the Pentagon and the intimate ties between the Bush and bin Laden families. As a mainstream television event it has no precedent in the western media – imagine Noel Edmonds or Jay Leno producing such a show and you get the idea of quite how radical such a production appears.
The later period of Kitano’s career surprised – and in some cases disappointed – many of his fans, as he moved towards more introspective, self-reflective film making. After sending up his gangster persona in the funny and touching road movie Kikujiro followed by a somewhat misguided attempt to translate his Yakuza thrillers to an American audience with Brother, he made Dolls, featuring three vignettes studying the bonds of love and death as a relative event. He stated, “The reason why modern Japanese and Westerners loathe the notion of death so much is beyond me. There really is no reason to loathe death.”
With Takeshis’, the first of his surrealist autobiographical trilogy, Kitano delves even further into introspective territory, in a film highly autobiographical in bent which deals with dualities, where Kitano plays a showbiz star and prominent actor who meets a look-alike struggling actor (whom he also plays). Those unfamiliar with his work will find the film virtually inaccessible, as much of it parodies or passes comment on his previous work in film and television. Likewise with Glory to the Filmmaker!, Kitano plays a film director trying to find a commercial hit, moving from one genre to the next, much as Kitano’s career saw his mid-period as a series of explorations with projects of varying style and tone.
After Achilles and the Tortoise, his final surrealist film on fame and the agonies of the creative process, Kitano returned in 2010 to a footing more condusive to his “core” international audience with Outrage, a brutally cynical gangster film which depicts the Yakuza and their machinations as a commentary for the cold and calculated methods of the corporate world, a never ending string of deals and betrayals punctuated by increasingly inventive and disturbing acts of violence. In contrast with his earlier Yakuza films, few, if any, of the characters in Outrage are sympathetic and there is little in the way of crises of conscience which characterised films like Sonatine or Hana-bi.
Outrage 2 is currently in production, continuing on what appears to be shaping up as another Kitano Takeshi trilogy. It’s impossible to know where Kitano’s career might venture next, even within the Yakuza thriller format. A hint at his creative process came from a conference with the French media around the time of the release of his retelling of Zatoichi in 2003. When discussing future projects he outlined one idea he was mulling over at the time:
“What I’d really like to do is a parody. They often make parodies of Hollywood films. I think a great parody would be to do a film in two parts. A real gangster film followed by a parody with the same characters. That’d be really funny. For example, in the first scene of Zatoichi 2 we’d see the Yakuzas arriving on a giraffe. Their boss would be a hippopotamous. They’d ask a kid to steal Zatoichi’s cane sword but he’d come back with Zatoichi in person, parodying the first part of the film.”
And therein lies the futility of trying to second guess the next move from the most talented man in the world.