Takeshi Kitano takes on a different beat

by Mio Yamada

Staff Writer

“I want you to have fun. It’s the only aim of this exhibition,” said Takeshi “Beat” Kitano when “Gosse de peintre” originally opened at Fondation Cartier pour l’art contemporain in Paris two years ago. For an artist, that’s quite an unusual goal — but then Kitano is not your usual artist.

In fact, the famous comedian, actor, filmmaker, presenter, screenwriter and author has repeatedly expressed embarrassment at being defined as an “artist,” and in the video presentation accompanying the show — which has now been brought to Tokyo Opera City Art Gallery — he says, “If some people feel it’s not art, I won’t be offended.”

Whether you think that’s disingenuous or not depends on whether you hear it coming out of the mouth of Beat, the mischievous prankster, or Kitano, the Yohji Yamamoto-wearing cineaste who put himself on the international film map with serious art-house violence. He may not have attended an art school, but he clearly has an artistic eye.

Kitano took up painting after being seriously injured in a motorcycle accident in 1994, and his brushwork was first seen in the 1997 film “Hanabi,” in the surreal paintings of a detective confined to a wheelchair after a tragic shooting. His paintings were also included in the more recent black comedy “Achilles and the Tortoise,” the final part of the director’s loosely autobiographical trilogy of films, in which he plays a self-absorbed artist.

While Kitano has been painting for some time, “Gosse de peintre” is his very first major solo art show.

“Since the accident,” Kitano says in the video, referring to the crash that left his face partially paralyzed, “I have had no hangups about showing anything.” And he proves it. His work ranges from the darkly humorous (a life-size model of a criminal who comically escapes death by hanging by chomping down on the noose around his neck) to unabashed kitsch (brightly colored animal vases that sport tropical flowers instead of heads) to downright nonsensical — why cross a fish with a hippopotamus and create a cage-full of other strange hybrid creatures?

All the works, though, remain true to Kitano’s objective: Displayed as an amusement park of installations, paintings, sculptures and video clips, they are indeed entertaining and fun.

“Gosse de peintre” can be read two ways: It introduces us to the “Painter’s Kid,” Kitano as a house painter’s son, who still has a sense of childlike wonder; and the “Kid of Painting,” Kitano as an artist compelled to produce artworks.

His carnival of comic pieces will be familiar to fans who remember Kitano as Beat Takeshi, one half of the 1970s comedy duo Two Beat and as the funny TV presenter whose bizarre shows in the 1980s included “The Manzai” and “Takeshi’s Castle.” His commitment to making art more accessible is also common knowledge, as seen in his 12-year stint as a cohost on “Anyone Can Be a Picasso,” an art-battle show for up-and-coming talent.

For many, however, Kitano is best known as Takeshi Kitano, the visionary director of violent yet poignant films and as the actor with that impenetrable poker face. That darker side of Kitano is definitely here — in the exposed brain of a sculptural self-portrait, the weird anatomical figures of animals harnessed to Japanese military weaponry, and in his humorous depiction of failed capital punishment.

It would be impossible not to interpret some meaning from his work here, or from his other pieces that appear to mock modern and contemporary art: His “Monsieur Pollock” is a mechanical ball that spats paint as it rolls around on a canvas, and his giant T-Rex statue has been colored by an equally massive paint-ball gun. But even then, Kitano warns us not to try too hard.

“I wanted to be sincere. I know you are going to wonder (about) the meanings of these works” he says, “Don’t. Just enjoy.”

“Gosse de peintre: Beat Takeshi Kitano” at Tokyo Opera City Art Gallery runs till Sept. 2; open 11 a.m.-7 p.m. (Fri. and Sat. till 8 p.m.). ¥1,300. Closed Mon. and on Aug. 5.