The Many Faces Of Takeshi Kitano
Once described as “the true successor” to the great film director Akira Kurosawa by critic Nagaharu Yodogawa, Takeshi Kitano (or ‘Beat’ Takeshi) does not conform to the image of an auteur filmmaker.
Born in 1947, Kitano studied engineering at Meiji University, worked as an elevator operator, and became a successful stand up comedian before his breakthrough starring/directing role in Violent Cop (1989).
Kitano presents game shows, directs films, writes screenplays, paints, sings and was a one-time video games designer. He is a modern day renaissance man. His acting ‘style’ is so deadpan that his facial twitches take on a life of their own. The camera style he employs remains stubbornly static. His films contain extreme explosions of violence and dollops of slapstick comedy. Yet his films have a distinct quality that grabs the viewer’s attention. Japanese critics love his mixture of pulp fiction art house.
In the West, we are brought up on a relatively high edit cut rate of around one edit every three seconds. In contrast, it is not unusual for Kitano to hold a shot for an inordinately long time. The shot does not have to be of any significance. In Violent Cop, we see him walking over a bridge and it literally lasts for thirty seconds. The shot apparently adds nothing to the narrative.
This deliberate pacing is prevalent throughout Hana-bi (1997), written and directed by Kitano. The pacing is used to explore the relationships Nishi (Kitano) has with others, and examining his violent past that led to his police partner ending up in a wheelchair. Similar themes are examined in the multi-award winning Sonatine (1993), where Kitano plays a gangster tiring of his violent life.
Many of Kitano’s films seem to echo the rhythm and pace of the Zen rock gardens of Japan. Calm tranquillity in one part of the narrative and concentrated violent, energy in another.
Violence in his films is harsh and brutal. In Outrage (2010), his latest Yakuza film, Kitano directs and stars as Otomo, a clan boss. Otomo rains down vengeance on rivals with religious force. Human bodies are punished with slicing, chopsticks to the ear, tongue decapitation and a dental assault that updates the scene from Marathon Man (1976). This violence is counterpointed by slapstick comedy.
In Getting Any? (1995), Kitano puts together a sketch-based film rather like the Hollywood classic Airplane (1980). In one scene, a character brings a shipment of drugs to a dealer to be tested. The dealer promptly hands the bag of drugs to be tested by his ‘pharmacist’. The pharmacist progressively dips into the bag to test the drugs on his tongue until he empties the whole bag over his own head. The dealer turns round and says his man has gone “bananas” so the drugs must be good.
His films can be muscular powerhouses that don’t shirk from illustrating the brutality of violence.
Slapstick was very much at the core of Takeshi’s Castle (1986-1989). A cult light entertainment game show that can be likened to the UK’s It’s A Knockout! Kitano plays a count that sets up a number of challenges before contestants can reach him. Can you imagine Steven Spielberg being involved in that one! The show still plays on cable around the world and a special live edition was produced in 2005.
Kitano’s comic roots can turn dark as exemplified by his character in Battle Royale (2000). Set in an alternate future, Japan is a totalitarian state and uses ‘the Program’ to terrorize and control its populace. Every year high school students are chosen to battle one another to the death. Kitano oversees the Battle Royale between the chosen students. His character revels in the bloody spectacle and accuses the young of bringing it upon themselves. A satire on Japan’s struggle with modern life, Battle Royale (2000) is back in the spotlight as some consider The Hunger Games (2012) to be a direct copy.
Kitano to date has appeared in two major Western productions, Merry Christmas Mr. Lawrence (1983) starring David Bowie and Johnny Mnemonic (1995) starring Keanu Reaves. Johnny Mnemonic is a cult sci-fi film with cyber punk themes. With Merry Christmas Mr. Lawrence, Kitano acts to type as a brutal Sergeant in a Japanese POW camp.
A Scene At The Sea (1991), written and directed by Kitano, breaks with brutal characters. The main character, Claude Maki, is a garbage collector that wants to learn to surf. A bittersweet love story, the character sacrifices the love of his girlfriend so that he can pursue his ambition of surfing.
With Zatoichi (2003), Kitano embraced the samurai genre with a famous Japanese mythical character from the edo period. The film won the prestigious Silver Lion for Best Director at the Venice Film Festival. Here, Kitano’s character utilises violence for a positive purpose. He plays a blind swordsman that defends a village caught up in Yakuza war. The framing of the film is very exacting and deliberately evokes Japanese prints of the time. On many occasions, the screen is broken up into flat geometric compositions, stripping the elements into minimalist themes.
Takeshi Kitano seems an oddity when you consider the paths film directors normally tread. This is a man that had no formal training in filmmaking; indeed, his visual roots are in comedy. However, he has honed his filmmaking style and developed a persona that cuts across boundaries of genre and style.
On one level, his films can be muscular powerhouses that don’t shirk from illustrating the brutality of violence. On another level, his films can be frivolous, romantic and whimsical. He seems to deliberately defy the aura of an auteur, seamlessly creating alter egos to produce comedy, music, art and film. He doesn’t seem bothered about which platform he should be creating in, rather he creates in whichever genre interests him at that moment in time.
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