More noise than signal

Takeshi Kitano

Republished from the podcast shownotes of my other site, Fuds on Film

Japanese auteur Takeshi Kitano is one of our favourite filmmakers, and we’re delighted to bring you this run-down on his career. We explain why we find his work so captivating in this latest podcast. Join us for this exploration of inventively minimalist storytelling, Yakuza violence and slapstick comedy.

We’re running through his career in roughly chronological order, although with a focus on the films he’s directed rather than just acted in. We’re also not really touching on his voluminous television career, as it’s much less readily available outside of Japan. That said, we can’t ignore Takeshi’s Castle, the zany, It’s a Knockout/Wipeout-like gameshow, albeit one more likely to seriously injure people. Narrated in the U.K. by Red Dwarf‘s Craig Charles, it provided disposable late-night laughs that bear little scrutiny, but it may well be the most broadly known aspect of Kitano’s work. If that’s all you’ve seen of his, we hope the rest of this podcast gives you motivation to check out some of his remarkable film work.

The other early introduction you may have had to Kitano is his turn in Merry Christmas Mr. Lawrence, playing a relatively friendly P.O.W. camp officer underneath Ryuichi Sakamoto’s Captain. While he shows his charisma in the role, it’s clearly in support of Sakamoto’s character: his interaction with Tom Conti’s unofficial camp interpreter, and David Bowie’s, of all people, recently arrived officer that rather piques Sakamoto’s interest. It’s one of the first of the more nuanced takes on war films that show some attempt at understanding of the enemy’s often barbaric actions rather than simply demonising them, and it’s still very enjoyable, aided immensely by Sakamoto’s haunting score. That said, it’s a great film with Kitano in it, rather than a great Kitano film.

It’s his first outing as director that really consolidated his position as a star in our personal firmaments with Violent Cop, a film he also stars in and undertook a substantial re-write of. We describe what a pivotal role exposure at a (relatively) early age had in our appreciation of film techniques and narrative, but even without the nostalgia-tinted glasses this remains an astonishing work that features most of the techniques and styles that will recur throughout his later films. Fixed cameras and shots of unusually long duration, particularly of situations normally shot much more kinetically, makes for a much more intriguingly paced film, with the moments of violence built to such a degree that their climax is shocking and satisfying. The narrative sees Kitano play Azuma, a cop who’s never far from using violence as his first solution to any problem, with perhaps the closest Western parallel we can think of being Dirty Harry, although it’s not really so close to that. Azuma’s circle of violence gets completed when his police partner commits suicide after it comes out that he had been syphoning off seized drugs to a gang to sell, further complicated when said gang kidnaps Azuma’s sister. No one gets away from this clean, and it ploughs a much bleaker furrow than anything we’d seen to this point, to the point of giving us an ending that refuses to conform to anything like our expectations. It’s one of our favourite films, and we can’t recommend it enough.

Boiling Point is notable for being his first directorial effort that he’d entirely written himself, but while it’s not a bad film by any stretch, it’s outclassed by much of his other output. A young member of a baseball team swears vengeance on the local Yakuza after they critically injure their team coach, himself an ex-Yakuza, who stuck his nose in once too often. It takes a rather abrupt turn when it’s decided to seek out some weaponry, almost entirely switching to follow Kitano’s oddball Yakuza antics for the middle third before switching focus again back to the kid’s story. This hurtful switching of focus and some plot elements that appear with no previous explanation or set up, even when in all cases it would have been trivial to do so, really hurts immersion in the film. From our point of view there’s no such thing as a bad Takeshi Kitano film, but this is one that’s certainly a lower priority.

Perhaps envisaged as a way to avoid stereotyping, his next film, A Scene at the Sea is a much more sedate and entirely non-gangster based movie, as a young deaf and mute refuse collector finds a discarded surfboard, and decides to teach himself to surf. We follow his attempts as he becomes accepted by the local surf community and improves to the point of entering competitions, although this focus does rather hurt relations with his girlfriend. Exemplifying Kitano’s method of storytelling with precious little dialogue, this is an interesting, contemplative outing for Kitano that’s a rewarding watch, although he’ll return to this comparatively lighter fare later in his career with more success.

Sonatine rounds off his early career Yakuza-based trilogy, as he takes the role of a lieutenant dispatched with his men to aid an allied family in a turf war that turns out to be rather more than it seems. Lying low from the fallout on a remote beach, there’s a good stretch of this film that’s essentially just gangsters larking around on holiday. Sounds ludicrous, but works incredibly well, completely flat-footing my expectations of the film before it takes another wild shift for the ending, which is one of Kitano’s most memorable and effective. Arguably it’s an ending that an analysis of the narrative doesn’t support, but that’s a minor quibble to an excellent film.

Kitano returns to broad comedy with Getting Any?, a slapstick outing centred around a rather challenged individual’s attempts at getting laid, starting out with his attempts to buy an impressive car and getting increasingly more outlandish as the film progresses, winding up in Zatoichi and Godzilla parodies. While the shock value of some of the non-sequiturish comedy provided laughs on first view, on a recent reappraisal it’s rather badly dated and really demands a better familiarity with Japanese pop culture than even most Western Nipponophiles could hope to have to make it more than a curiosity for the completionist.

An ill-fated Western outing next, with Takeshi taking a bit part in Johnny Mnemonic. He’s perfectly fine, but the least said about the rest of the film the better. Join us next time for our commentary track if you really want the straight dope on this film which on paper sounds great, but does little to realise the potential.

Around this time Kitano suffered a serious scooter accident that left him partially paralysed and questioning whether he would work again. He doesn’t appear in Kids Return, but did write and direct it. Commonly held as a reflection on his accident and on finding a way to carry on in the face of disappointment, it sees two high-school dropout friends try and make their mark in the worlds of boxing and organised crime, only to fall short. Clearly their plight mirrors Kitano’s, but for me the only truly interesting aspect of the film is the window it offers into Takeshi’s mental state. As a film it’s perfectly acceptable, but the young leads don’t hold my attention as well as Takeshi can. It has its historical value, but his more recent semi-autobiographical works are perhaps more relevant and enjoyable.

This was followed by perhaps Kitano’s most well-regarded work, Hana-Bi, or Fireworks. He plays an ex-police officer, quitting the force after his partner is shot and paralysed. While his partner tries to find some meaning in his vastly altered life by taking up painting, Takeshi’s character becomes more concerned with spending time with his fatally ill wife, taking her on a road trip. It’s an amazingly warm and heartfelt piece, with another of Kitano’s incredible final scenes that, in contrast to Sonatine, earns its emotional punch with its touching narrative. To this day it’s his most moving film, and gets the highest recommendation from us.

Takeshi continued to act in other people’s films, bringing us to Gohatto, or Taboo in some markets, where he plays a supporting role in this tale of homosexual desire. A young swordsman is admitted to an elite militia group, but his Bishonen good looks cause a surprising number of heads to be turned. While Gohatto has its moments, none of them involve Takeshi, to the extent I’m left wondering if his casting was just an unconscious effort to mirror Merry Christmas Mr. Lawrence. Probably not. Commercially quite successful and certainly a very beautifully crafted film, but I’m not so convinced there’s enough of a narrative to back it up.

Back in the director’s chair for the wonderful Kikujiro, as he also plays an ex-Yakuza who decides to accompany a young boy across Japan on a trip to see his absent mother. Well, I say across Japan, it’s about a three hour car trip, but thanks to the astonishing immaturity of all involved it might as well be a transatlantic voyage. Narratively it’s so lightweight a gentle breeze would disperse it, but there’s so much good nature on display it’s near impossible not to let this colonise your heart. While it has moments of pathos, on the whole it’s charmingly light-hearted and perhaps the most successful of his comedic film output.

Another supporting role deserves mention, this time in Battle Royale, the brutal, brilliant Fukasaku manga adaptation that’s probably as much of an influence on the current crop of Young Adult dystopian literature as Lord of the Flies is on this. A class of school kids are forced to fight to the death, with Kitano playing their teacher. Again, another great film with Kitano in it, rather than a great Kitano film, so only of tangential interest to our podcast, but don’t let that put you off watching this amazing film.

A rare Western-backed outing next, with Brother transplanting the Yakuza film archetype to America but, if we’re being honest, not really bringing anything new to the table other than a slight reduction in the amount of subtitled dialogue. It’s fine, and holds up better than my admittedly shaky memory had me believe, and if you’re in the mood for another of Kitano’s gangster outings this will scratch the itch. It’s just not high up on the order of preference.

A similarly frosty reception commercially and critically to his next film Dolls, which I consider a little harsh. That said, it’s entirely understandable, as there’s a number of problems with the film that ought to earn it scorn. It’s essentially three loosely tied together tales of love and the effects on people when it goes rather wrong, and individually none of them stand up to much scrutiny. Yet, as a whole, taken with easily the most beautiful frames of any Kitano film and Joe Hisaishi’s soundtrack, Takeshi has created something that, to me at least, is quite haunting and memorable. Not laugh a minute stuff, but rewarding, and climbing quite high up my order of preference.

Zatôichi is a much more conventional film, but it’s also amazing, so we’ll let it away with that. Kitano’s take on the blind swordsman legend is still relatively light-hearted, although deadly serious compared to the pastiche in Getting Any?. The masseur with the cane sword meets two geishas who turn out to be the surviving children of a family murdered by the local criminal gang, and helps them in their quest for vengeance. Tight, bloody action scenes mix surprisingly well with moments that tap lightly on the fourth wall, and some well-realised characterisation glues everything together quite well. A great introduction to Kitano’s style of film-making, and a tremendously enjoyable film.

Takeshi then embarked on a loose trilogy of loosely autobiographical works, the first being Takeshis’. I say loosely, because Takeshis’ comes across more like the result of David Lynch eating too much cheese while dreaming a Charlie Kaufman script. In a nutshell, a more-or-less real-life Takeshi meets his doppleganger, who’s auditioning for bit parts while working in a convenience store, and whom the narrative mainly switches to while reality flies apart at the seams. Certainly it’s nothing like Kitano has made before and on that basis alone it’s highly interesting, and it’s mental enough to cover the fact that it’s not really saying much about anything or anybody.

Glory to the Filmmaker! plots a much more comedic course, with a loose framing device being Takeshi searching for a new film project as an excuse to batter through vignettes of various film styles. It’s both really inventive and amusing throughout the first hour, and while it rather trails off towards the end it’s not enough to stop this being a very enjoyable film. Again, in terms of insight into Kitano’s character I feel it’s not providing any at all, but it’s a fun ride and well worth seeking out.

Rounding off the trilogy is Achilles and the Tortoise, which is much more obviously providing a channel into Takeshi’s mind. Playing a painter who spends his life trying to perfect his craft only to be continually harangued by an art critic, there’s very obvious parallels with his film-making career. Takeshi’s character’s obsession with his craft leads to estrangement from his wife and child, all the while Takeshi using these events as fuel for his art. Of the trilogy it’s the most successful on a narrative level, and packs more emotional heft than the previous two, although arguably Glory to the Filmmaker! is rather more fun. While none of the films can be wholeheartedly recommended, if you have some familiarity with his previous works then this is certainly a hell of a triple bill.

Takeshi went on to find great critical and commercial success with his return to Yakuza films with Outrage and its sequel Beyond Outrage, although for our money it’s far from Kitano’s best work. Which is not to say that it’s bad, but this tale of double crossing as branches of Yakuza families are manoeuvred into going to war with each other is quite conventionally told, and displays little of the hallmarks of his earlier work. We assume that’s deliberate, and it’s surely no coincidence that this is his most narratively dense work yet. We rather think he has the Godfather trilogy in mind more than his own earlier Yakuza trilogy in how this plays out, but unfortunately neither film can quite cash those cheques. Perfectly acceptable entertainment, but we’d rather hoped for more given the general reception.

Ryuzo and the Seven Henchmen brings us up to date as he brings a rather lighter tone to another Yakuza tale, this time centring on a retired Yakuza, nostalgic for the old days, deciding to call his Yakuza buddies out to bring the band back together and take on the disrespectful whipper-snappers running the organised crime scene in ways they don’t find particularly honourable. Curiously it deals better with the passing of the “golden age” of the honour code, as well as ageing in Japanese society , than the two serious dramas that preceded it, at the same time as being consistently amusing and accessible. For my money, the best thing he’s done in a decade.

So, that’s a whistle-stop tour of his career, and we can only encourage you to seek some of these films out. They’ve been immensely important to all of us here at Fuds on Film, so if you’re in broad agreement with our opinions on other things and you’ve not seen any of Kitano, you’re in for a treat. We’re almost envious.