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TAKESHI KITANO

Filmmaker, writer, little boy

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Boy, by Takeshi Kitano, translated by David James Karashima. New York: Vertical Inc., 80 pp., $17.95 (cloth).

These three stories by one of Japan’s most popular film directors (aka Beat Takeshi, one of Japan’s most popular TV comedians) were originally published in 1987. They thus antedate the first of the films (“Violent Cop,” 1989) and the most extreme of the TV appearances, but they are made of the same material — the childhood and youth of Kitano himself.

Here, the father is either abusive or absent — just as he is in “Kid’s Return” (1996), “Kikujiro” (1999), and other later films. Kitano told a Cannes Film Festival audience that “as a small boy I hardly talked to him. He was drunk, violent, and I’d hide under the bed.”

To compensate, he became close to his brothers — as in later films such as “Sonatine” (1993) and “Brother” (2000). He also intensified this closeness by merging the two siblings into characters who complement each other to the extent that they become something like ego and alter ego.

This is true of these stories (two of which have “brother” in the opening line) and of a number of his films. “Hana-bi” (1997) is about the brotherlike relationship between two men and the film “Takeshis” (2005) is about this sibling-like relationship within the director himself — those twin “brothers,” Takeshi Kitano and Beat Takeshi.

A little boy in such an unprotected position will (particularly in Japan) encounter bullies, and this happens in all three of these early stories. It is a theme also seen in his films: “Violent Cop” is about a bully, and “Boiling Point” (1990) is master-class in this art of violent persuasion. But just as the small protagonists of Kitano’s written stories about bad fathers, good siblings and awful bullies yearn for something more — something like sentiment, like love — so do the heroes of Kitano’s films.

He told the Cannes audience that he got tired of violence. (“You get fed up with the same food all the time.”) What he wanted was an alternation with something more peaceful. And this has proved to be the pattern of his production. After the mayhem of the early films came the quiet and affecting “Scene by the Sea,” (1992); after the violent shootouts of “Sonatine,” “Kids Return”; after the ultra-violent “Brother,” the slow and sentimental “Dolls” (2002).

All this work (these stories, films, even painting since he paints as well) share a single style, one that Kitano himself contrived, and one that seems to come from no single source.

In these early stories one notices a sure eye for the precise detail: “What a nice smell, I thought, drinking in the scent of new cotton, veneer drawers and camphor balls.” And for the humorous: A boy runs off to Kyoto to see, among other things, the great bell at Chion-in temple. He tells a girl he runs into how much it weighs and she says: “You’re not from Kyoto, are you? Kids from around here wouldn’t know something like that.”

Such talent is equally apparent in his film work, the camera in the very midst of storytelling directing our attention to a detail and doing it in so peremptory a fashion that critics have accused Kitano of violating cinematic rules.

He might well answer that cinematic rules, like all other rules, are meant to be violated. In any event, he is forging his own style by creating his own grammar in both literature and film. “I was no cinephile as a child,” he once said. “My family weren’t rich enough to take me to the movies. Even now I watch as few films as possible.”

The result is a personal if untutored style. And while critics can and do compare Kitano to Yasujiro Ozu, Robert Bresson and Martin Scorsese, he describes his movie/TV self as “David Letterman plus Woody Allen plus Howard Stern.”

As for Ozu and Kenji Mizoguchi, he only learned their names when European journalists asked him about them. Kitano later watched part of one Ozu picture, asked if they were all like that, and turned it off. Yet, it is not beside the point to compare the two.

Both Ozu and Kitano were forging highly personal styles and both based their choices on experience. Both discovered the power of small image size and protracted duration (characters are shown in static compositions) and both directors demanded emotionless acting.

Once, Kitano, arguing with a friend, said he preferred Buster Keaton to Charlie Chaplin. His given reason was that Keaton was “less political,” but another might have been this comedian’s famously expressionless expression, the deadpan across which no emotion is allowed to flit. (Kitano as an actor himself accidently emulates this. After his famous motorbike accident of 1994 his face remains partially paralyzed and visible emotion seems difficult.)

Despite their many differences, however, both Ozu and Kitano share a style that is based on negation. Ozu doesn’t show you the wedding; Kitano does not show you the showdown, and his elliptical narration allows emotion, just as the expressionless face invites empathy.

Once written, anything of Ozu’s was as though cast in stone — no changes, ever. Kitano, however, has said: “I don’t have much in the way of a screenplay — I just film the script as it happened.” Nonetheless, both create highly idiocentric works that show similarities.

Kitano has said he thinks his work is “profoundly Japanese” — “I preserve a certain distance between my characters and I’m comfortable with this. It’s not a Western style where the characters get close to each other and show off their emotions.” Ozu could not have said it any better.

The beginnings of Kitano’s intense and personal style can be seen in the three early stories contained in “Boy.” They offer insights into the later films and they have been extremely well translated by David James Karashima, who beautifully captures both the deadpan drollery and the wistful sentimentality.