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Tuesday, July 13, 1999

Documenting a journey to the truth


In 1996, Makoto Shinozaki released one of the best Japanese films of the decade -- "Okaeri." A drama about a lonely young woman's descent into madness and her husband's attempts to rescue her, "Okaeri" penetrated to the heart of their relationship, while rejecting the standard manipulative tricks to jerk audience tears. Instead, Shinozaki drew naturalistic performances from his actors, allowing them to improvise freely in crucial scenes, while using his camera as a sympathetic observer, not an intrusive participant.

Ironically, though "Okaeri" was widely screened at foreign film festivals and won an enthusiastic critical reception (this critic put it atop his Best 10 list for the year), Shinozaki found it hard to raise financing for his next film, about a former soldier's struggle to adjust to life in postwar Japan. Needing, as he put it, "to pay the rent," he accepted an assignment from Office Kitano to direct a video about the making of Takeshi Kitano's "Kikujiro no Natsu (Kikujiro)," a road movie depicting the journey of a middle-aged yakuza and a young boy from Asakusa to the home of the boy's estranged mother in Shizuoka Prefecture.

For most of the 28 days of the shoot, beginning July 20, 1998 and continuing to the end of September (with days off for Kitano's TV schedule), Shinozaki was on the set with his camera, recording every aspect of the production process.

As are all such films, Shinozaki's "Jam Session: Kikujiro no Natsu" is a PR tool for its subject. (If Kitano had any major blowups on the set, they are nowhere to be seen.) On the other hand, because Shinozaki is Shinozaki -- a careful and attentive observer with a nose for, not news, but emotional truth -- he has managed to get closer to Kitano's creative processes than any of the dozens of media interviewers have, with their prepared questions and their preconceptions.

Kitano is not a hard interview (he lets fly with jokes and opinions as naturally as Ichiro lines balls to the outfield), but he is a shy man whose meter is always running. Question him about his work methods or cinematic inspirations and the answers often come back as wisecracking sound bites -- readily quotable, but not deeply revealing.

Shinozaki, however, is not only a colleague, but a film journalist known for his long, probing interviews with Kitano and other filmmakers. He is more interested in Kitano the director than Kitano the celebrity, in the gears more than the glamour of making movies (not that glamour is in large supply on a Japanese film set).

Kitano, more than most filmmakers, Japanese or otherwise, creates on the fly, under pressure that most mortals would find crushing. Appearing on nine television shows while making "Kikujiro no Natsu" (which was still under the working title "Volume Eight" at the time of shooting), he couldn't go even a day over schedule because a delay would throw out of whack the timed-to-the-second machinery that is his life.

As the Japanese director of his generation with the biggest international reputation, he can no longer toss off an in-joke like his 1995 sex comedy "Minna Yatteru-ka." Expectations were high (this film was a candidate for selection in the Cannes Film Festival's competition section), and Kitano was determined to meet them.

But as Shinozaki's camera records, the mood on the set is surprisingly relaxed. Though he gets star treatment, including a flame-haired young man hovering nearby with cigarettes and other creature comforts, Kitano is always ready with a joke to defuse tension, while giving his staff the latitude to do their jobs. Suggestions flow freely and Kitano listens carefully. Nonetheless, there is never any doubt who is charge.

On a night shoot at a summer matsuri (festival) staged for the film, Kitano is everywhere, briskly framing shots ("we don't need that lantern in there -- everyone knows it's a festival"), gently coaching young co-star Yusuke Sekimoto and blocking out his own scenes with a stand-in. ("Lying there with his legs together, he looks like a corpse," he says while looking into the monitor.) With seven films to his credit, including the 1997 Venice Golden Lion winner "Hana-Bi" he exudes the confidence of a veteran who knows what he wants -- and how to get it.

But when Shinozaki captures him in his quieter moods, Kitano has a look of intense thoughtfulness that one seldom sees in his public persona of the scapegrace clown. The film is a big gamble for him; it's a sharp turn away from the violence that had become his trademark, to slapstick comedy and sentimental human drama. And one is curious whether he is wondering how he can possibly bring it off.

Of course, he did bring it off well enough -- "Kikujiro no Natsu" was generally well received at Cannes, though it did not win a prize (given the predilections of the jury, any film with more than one laugh in it was doomed from the start). In Japan, the film has not been the mass-audience hit he had hoped for -- his artsy image is still too firmly embedded -- but reviews have been positive, the box office returns, fair.

Meanwhile, "Jam Session" remains as a conscientiously reported, insightfully edited portrait of not only a film shoot, but an artistic personality. "So much of my work on TV and elsewhere is fabricated," Kitano tells Shinozaki. "In films I can't help but get closer to the truth. Though it may seem that I'm just playing with toys, in films I can't help but reveal my nature, my essence . . . Changing my films means changing myself."

"Jam Session: Kikujiro no Natsu" is playing at Box Higashi-Nakano.


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