Sophistication from improvisation


Kitano Takeshi. London: British Film Institute, 2007, 272 pp., with photos. £16.99 (paper)

This is a brilliant book on a mercurial subject. Takeshi Kitano is an actor and film director, ubiquitous on television as well, who has become a media event. His persona has splintered and he stands Janus-faced over Japanese entertainment. He has two names (Beat Takeshi and Takeshi Kitano), is both a clown and a sage, a radical renegade and a conservative artist, a raggle-taggle TV comic and a maker of admired art-films. Protean, shape-shifting, he seems to defy description.

Accomplishing this, finding the pattern in the welter, is the task that Aaron Gerow, film critic for The Daily Yomiuri and assistant professor of Japanese cinema at Yale University, has taken upon himself, and most elegantly accomplished.

Gerow hypothesizes a necessary duality. There are not only two names for the same person, there are also two Takeshis. “One is the auteur in the traditional sense who produces a recognizable, possibly evolving text over his career; the other is a trickster who repeatedly undermines expectations and defines himself by changing style and thematics from film to film.”

Gerow sources this in Kitano’s earliest manifestation, the stupid (boke) half of a popular manzai (stand-up comedy) team “The Two Beats.” This vaudeville act (a Western equivalent might be the Three Stooges) poses the straight-man (tsukkomi) against his idiot but crafty partner. In the case of “The Two Beats,” however, the boke is also radical, subversive, even offensive, all out to break social taboos with his “poisonous tongue” (dokuzetsu). This early duality has proved a profitable vehicle for the rest of Kitano’s career. Gerow gives a full, careful listing of all its manifestations, particularly in the film work.

Of this Kitano has said: “I shoot films for my own use because I’m my own best audience.” He is also a cinematic autodidact. He now teaches film at a respected academy, but he himself has had no formal film education at all. Thus, though critics of his work sometimes evoke big names (Yasujiro Ozu, Robert Bresson), in fact Kitano has not seen much. Rather than copy, he invented his own style. And it is one very different from (and not necessarily worse than) the academic norm.

There is, for example, not much in the way of a script. “I’ve never written a word myself,” Kitano has said. His work is almost entirely oral, transcribed remarks that are worked into novels, stories, scripts. If most films are really the result of community effort, this would certainly be true of all Kitano films.

At the same time, the nature of their creation does nothing to lessen the auteur-impact allowed this body of work. The reason, to quote one critic, is that “Kitano as media figure is not just an auteur writ large . . . but a cultural production, a little industry in his own right.”

During shooting of his dictated script, Kitano will often change his mind, drop scenes that turn out not to play well, enlarge those that do. “Sonatine” originally called for a character in just one scene, but Kitano so liked the performance that he kept the actor on and the character became integral to the finished film itself.

This method of filming is similar to that of a jazz jam session, each member contributing, Kitano orchestrating, as seen in “Jam Session,” a documentary by Makoto Shinozaki about Kitano’s working methods. Improvisation is everything, the lines change every day, sets are lit from all sides to accommodate sudden camera changes, and the director rarely gives specific instruction to his actors.

This attitude toward film resembles Kitano’s attitude toward television. “Just as he manages multiple TV appearances by improvising,” writes Gerow, “so he shoots his films on the spur of the moment. It is part of his genius, but it is a genius shaped by the television industry.”

What one sees and often admires in a Kitano film is just this freedom of style where certain techniques are not used for time-honored associations, where simplicity can surprise, where ellipses and framing oddities are there adding to (rather than subtracting from) the film experience. Someone once called Kitano the Grandma Moses of Japanese cinema, and if we remove any pejorative intent, he was right. There is the same kind of directness, of freshness, even of innocence.

At the same time there is a polished sophistication about the product. If this is the work of an idiot savant, it is one who knows what he is doing.

This is my opinion, however, not Gerow’s. He is remarkably evenhanded in his investigation of all the films (except the last, “Hurrah for the Director,” which had not yet been released). At the same time he fully displays the gamut of comment and criticism with which the local press always greets a new Kitano film.

Here (and this is one of the strengths of his book) Gerow gives the reader insight into the expressed opinions of the Japanese critical establishment. Being one of the few film scholars who can actually read and write Japanese, he opens up territory that will be new to the English reader and that gives authority to the author himself.

Here too Gerow is evenhanded and even the silliest comment gets a respectful hearing. This may lend a certain solemnity to the book (particularly given the gleefully subversive frivolity of his subject), but the fairness is evident and the scholarship is most impressive.