Friday, 18 March 2011

Kateshi Kitano - the world’s most extraordinary film director

I first became aware of Takeshi Kitano (AKA Beat Takeshi, when he isn’t directing films) some six or seven years ago while staying with my family in a flat on the Giudecca kindly loaned to us for a week by generous friends. We came across a DVD of a 1989 Japanese cop movie alluringly entitledViolent Cop (that’s my kind of film title, I have to say – you know it’s not going to be one of those ghastly, sensitive, whispy rite de passage films Barry Norman always used to drool over while casually dismissing anything a real man might want to watch of a Saturday night). 

We worried that the film might be a bit on the raw side for our eleven-year old son – but he’s never exactly been a shrinking violet. True, it was massively violent – but, as with so many products of Japanese culture, it was strangely familiar and utterly alien at the same time: the violence was both less and more shocking than it would have been in an equivalent  Hollywood film.  

In the film Takeshi Kitano  plays a truly psychopathic version of a Dirty Harry-style rogue cop whose first response to every situation is violence. A colleague mixed up in drugs commits suicide and his daughter is kidnapped by gangsters. Beat Takeshi goes bonkers. Er… that’s about it. Much like Clint Eastwood, he goes bonkers without his face betraying the slightest hint of emotion – Takeshi is the deadest deadpan actor since Buster Keaton. (Whether he’s an actor in any real sense is open to discussion: but he is undoubtedly a huge screen presence.)

The film was supposed to be a comedy, but the original director dropped out after shooting started and Takeshi (already cast in the lead role) took over as first-time director as well, heavily rewriting the script and turning it into a drama – albeit a rather odd one (for a taster, watch this trailer).

1990’s Boiling Point, Takeshi’s second film as director, sees our hero as a low-level Yakuza in Okinawa whose life and career are in a real mess (I expect it goes with the territory). The main theme – almost inevitably – is revenge. Everyone behaves oddly: in fact, no one in a Takeshi film ever does quite what you expect them to do.  

While Boiling Point is not considered one of Takeshi’s best efforts, it’s stuffed with his distinctive trademarks: local detail (e.g. restaurant diners’ teeth blackened by squid ink and some peculiar sexual behaviour - avoid this trailer if you’re likely to be offended); relentlessly black humour accompanied by high levels of slapstick semi-comedy (face-slapping and bum-kicking - a sort of gangster Benny Hill); unemotional, affectless behaviour, to the point where you begin wondering whether they’re all suffering from Autistic Spectrum Disorders; violence which manages to be both extreme and casual – as if they’re committing acts of violence for the want of anything better to do; longish, atmospheric scenes which don’t seem to have much point; oddly affectionate portrayals of largely robotic characters who seem locked in some ritualistic Noh play, going through the motions rather than making conscious behavioural decisions; and an absolute lack of glamour in the portrayal of the seedy, violent, amoral world which forms the backdrop to all of Takeshi’s crime dramas. (I’ve no idea if it’s deliberate, but there’s something of Scorcese’s Mean Streets in all the Takeshi movies I’ve seen.)

I’d also recommend Hanna-Bi, the film Takeshi made in 1997 after a serious motorbike accident left half his face paralysed. He plays a cop who resigns after his partner is crippled in the line of duty. His wife has leukemia and he’s borrowed money from the Yakuza to look after her needs – money he can’t pay back. As you might guess, it isn’t a comedy – which might account for the fact that it was his first true  international success. (The bank robbery sequence is particularly good, while there’s ascene in a bar which should be avoided by those averse to violence.)

Beat Takeshi is one of the most extraordinary characters in international cinema. Before becoming a movie actor-director, he starred in a long-running TV comedy show and hosted the gameshow Takeshi’s Castle (still playing on digital TV here). He hosts a weekly discussion show on Japanese TV, involving entertainers and politicians, and is a painter and installation artist. He is also – as you can see from this clip – a tap-dancer (in case you’ve never seen an aging actor/director/talkshow host/installation artist tapdancing while being accompanied by an orchestra  playing “Stand By Me”, you really should take a look). 

If you’re in the mood for something (very) different, and aren’t simply gagging for the next Jane Austen adaptation, Takeshi’s films are well worth checking out.

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