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Friday, Nov. 18, 2005
Kitano beats his own drum
In 1967 Seijun Suzuki made "Koroshi no Rakuin (Branded to Kill)," a violent, surreal fantasy about a hit man trying to climb the hit-man hierarchy, who ends up in a mad struggle for his life. Pronounced "incomprehensible" by Nikkatsu president Kyusaku Hori, it was a spectacular flop and got Suzuki fired from the studio.
Now Takeshi Kitano has released "Takeshis'," a violent, surreal fantasy that beats "Koroshi no Rakuin" in the incomprehensibility department -- Suzuki didn't play Kitano's free-form games with dream and reality. Instead of being DOA at the box office, however, "Takeshis' "is getting a wide release and doing good business. It debuted at No. 5 on the major city box-office chart, ahead of "Corpse Bride" and "Saw 2."
"Koroshi no Rakuin" is now regarded as Suzuki's absurdist masterpiece. Will "Takeshis' " join it in the pantheon? Early signs are mixed. Selected for a "surprise screening" at this year's Venice Film Festival, the film got a cool reception from the audience (one man reportedly shouted, "We love your dreams, but get a therapist") and left without a prize, though a few sympathetic critics praised it as Kitano' s latest triumph.
It is certainly the strangest of his 12 films and the most personal. It stars Kitano in double roles -- one as the celebrity "Beat Takeshi" and the other as the convenience-store clerk/struggling actor "Takeshi Kitano" -- while heavily referencing previous Kitano films. For fans who know those films, "Takeshis' " will be something of a "best hits" compilation. Kitano has described it as a kind of "death" (pronounced in Japanese, the title is "Takeshisu" or "Take[shi] dies"), in which he shakes off the mortal coil of his first 11 films and prepares himself for the next stage of his career. (He says he wants to make a film that challenges Kurosawa and other Golden Age masters -- whatever that means.)
"Takeshis' " recalls Chinese sage Chang Tzu's comment on awakening from a dream: "I do not know whether I was a man dreaming that I was a butterfly, or a butterfly dreaming that I was man." The film is mostly Takeshi Kitano's dream of being Beat Takeshi -- a TV and film star he idolizes (a film poster showing Beat in one of his [fictitious] yakuza roles is on the wall of his shabby flat).
Takeshi, in clown makeup, has a brief encounter with Beat at a TV station. Later, back in his street clothes (and sporting a blonde dye job), he sheepishly asks Beat for an autograph, with a tarento buddy (Susumu Terajima) egging him on. Beat's sparkly-eyed, luscious-lipped lover (Kotomi Kyono) notices the resemblance right away, but Beat doesn't get it -- and that is apparently that.
Takeshi returns to his humdrum round of convenience-store clerking and auditioning for bit roles -- and inevitably failing to get them. Adding to his woes, a middle-aged woman (Kayoko Kishimoto) harasses him at every opportunity in various incarnations (convenience-store customer, audition judge, etc.). She is clearly an archetypal figure: the Female as Eternal Nag.
Meanwhile, a gangster neighbor (Terajima again) mocks Takeshi's acting ambitions to a giggly, squirrely girlfriend. (Kyono again, this time as an object of hopeless desire for the woman-less Takeshi.)
A new job as a taxi driver, secured for him by a cabby pal (Ren Osugi, who also plays Beat's manager), quickly becomes a nightmare when passengers, including two sumo wrestlers, cram in and he has to drive them past dozens of accident victims lying on the road, like a human obstacle course.
Is most of the above merely Takeshi's dream? The film gives us clues -- shots of Takeshi nodding off and, later, waking up while on duty at the convenience store -- but few certainties. The film's framing device -- opening and closing scenes of Kitano as a wounded Japanese soldier being eyed by a menacing GI with a rifle -- raises the possibility that the entire film is a dying man's scrambled vision of alternative futures (though how and why he projects himself into the early 21st century is anyone's guess).
The simplest interpretation is that Kitano, ever the insecure comic, is imagining what his life might have been like if, a quarter century ago, he hadn't hit the big time as "Beat Takeshi" -- half of a popular manzai duo. He plays the schlumpy, beaten-down Takeshi -- who responds to kicks in the pants with an embarrassed grin -- less like a character than an alter ego.
He also kids about his power and fame: Beat rides in a chauffeured Rolls, has a hot young girlfriend and is waited on hand-and-foot by network minions, but is dissed by a haughty old tranny chanteuse (Akihiro Miwa). Truth is, however, that Kitano moves in the sort of celebrity bubble more familiar to Tom Cruise than the average Japanese director and has done so for decades.
Which points to the film's central problem: It exists entirely in this bubble called "Kitano" -- and as self-revealing and quirkily brilliant as Kitano is in "Takeshis'," his absorption in private fantasies, whose logic only he understands, makes it feel self-indulgent and finally silly.
In the end, transformed into a gangster god of vengeance, Takeshi fires clip after pay-back clip at a crowd of cops, gangsters and sumo wrestlers, while shrugging off round after fatal round, like so many insect bites. Suzuki's hero, on the other hand, went down alone in a boxing ring, battling his own fear and a mocking, unseen, all-powerful opponent. Which is a truer metaphor for the lives of, not ego-blinded megastars, but the rest of us in this all-too-real world?