Film | Heisei Icons

Takeshi Kitano: From manzai comic to giant of Japanese film

by Mark Schilling

Contributing Writer

This is the fifth in a 10-part series on influential figures in the Heisei Era, which began in 1989 and will end when Emperor Akihito abdicates in April. In Heisei, Japan was roiled by economic excess and stagnation, as well as a struggle for political and social reform. This series explores those who left their imprint along the way.

Many Japanese filmmakers try to promote their films and talents abroad but stumble more than they succeed: Either Cannes rejects their latest masterpiece or Hollywood turns down their J-horror script.

By contrast, Takeshi Kitano, the country’s most internationally celebrated director of the 1990s, began his rise almost by accident.

He also became a leader in what came to be called the Japanese New Wave of the 1990s — a movement of younger Japanese directors who rejected or subverted the conventions of their studio-trained forebears. Although some of these filmmakers — Jun Ichikawa, Shinji Somai, Sogo Ishii, Hitoshi Yazaki and Shinya Tsukamoto — began making films in the 1980s, it was in the Heisei Era, which is set to end April 30, that their careers and their visions truly began to take flight.

In the 1980s Kitano became a ubiquitous media presence, first as a member of the popular manzai (comic duo) act The Two Beats and then as a ferociously productive, fearlessly iconoclastic multitalent.

The Two Beats, comedy duo
The Two Beats, comedy duo ‘Beat Takeshi’ (left) and ‘Beat Kiyoshi,’ are pictured in January 1981. | KYODO

As “Beat Takeshi,” the stage name he adopted for his manzai career, he played the sharp-tongued wisecracker, be it as the emcee of a current affairs program or the titular host of “Takeshi’s Castle,” a wacky game show in which contestants competed in various challenges, with Kitano presiding as the mock castle’s “count.” The show aired from 1986 to 1989 on the TBS network and had a long afterlife through many international versions.

Alongside those roles, Kitano was acting on TV and launched his film career in earnest with a part as a brutal guard at a prisoner-of-war camp in Nagisa Oshima’s “Merry Christmas Mr. Lawrence” (1983).

“Whenever I appeared on screen, audiences would start laughing no matter what role I was in,” Kitano told me in a 1998 interview. “It took about 15 years for audiences to regard me as something other than a comedian.”

In 1989, producer Kazuyoshi Okuyama asked Kitano to direct “Violent Cop,” a hard-boiled film veteran director Kinji Fukasaku had exited due to a scheduling conflict. Kitano accepted the offer, though he had never before sat in the director’s chair.”In the beginning I didn’t know very much how to move the camera and so on,” he commented in the same interview. “So (‘Violent Cop’) turned out looking like a souvenir snapshot.”

But the critics raved about the film, which starred Kitano as a violence-prone, revenge-seeking cop, and he was awarded the best director prize at the Yokohama Film Festival. “Violent Cop” also earned ¥780 million at the box office — not bad for a first-time director, but perhaps a byproduct of Kitano’s national celebrity.

In the films that followed, Kitano developed a distinctive style characterized by long takes, limited camera movement, dry humor, clipped dialogue and, in films featuring gangsters and cops, sudden outbursts of violence.

Unlike the many Japanese directors who filmed tough guys rising phoenix-like after seemingly knockout blows in street fights or fatal wounds in gun battles, Kitano showed such characters falling like puppets whose strings had been cut.

This, Kitano once told me, was simple realism. Growing up in a tough Tokyo neighborhood, he said, he would often see yakuza fighting each other.

“Usually it would be over in one punch,” he added.

Kitano reacts after winning the Golden Lion for his film
Kitano reacts after winning the Golden Lion for his film ‘Hana-Bi’ at the Venice Film Festival on Sept. 6, 1997. | AP / VIA KYODO

In his films, Kitano usually took the starring role, be it as the psychotic gangster in “Boiling Point” (1990) or the sardonic gang subboss in “Sonatine” (1993), and was usually the one delivering the blows. Call it directorial ego-tripping, but Kitano was a strong on-screen presence: cool but intense, stoic but volatile. After a 1994 scooter accident that nearly killed him, his damaged face served as a mask that could frighten or intimidate, though his puckish sense of humor never left him.

Abroad, however, Kitano and his films were largely unknown until “Sonatine” screened in the Un Certain Regard section of the 1993 Cannes Film Festival and in that year’s London Film Festival.

Some viewers were unimpressed. French star Alain Delon complained that “(Kitano) is not an actor — he only has three facial expressions,” while others praised Kitano’s film about a gang war in Okinawa, which mixed comedy (gangsters sumo wrestling on a beach) and violence (Kitano’s mad dog character taking out an entire banquet hall of gangsters with an assault rifle) in ways that were fresh and disturbing. Kitano acquired an enthusiastic overseas following, including director Quentin Tarantino, who later released the film on his own DVD label.

At home, though, “Sonatine” was a flop, earning back less than one-fifth of its ¥500 million budget, although composer Joe Hisaishi, who would become a frequent Kitano collaborator, received a Japan Academy Prize for his minimalist score.

Kitano next released “Getting Any?” (1995), a goofball comedy about the quest of the halfwit hero, played by Kitano disciple Minoru Iizuka (better known as Dankan), to have sex by any means necessary, and “Kids Return” (1996), a poignant drama about two buddies who drop out of high school — one to become a boxer, the other a gangster — but are held back by their personal demons.

With his seventh film, “Hana-Bi,” Kitano broke free of the “cult director” label and ascended to the upper echelon of international cinema. A spare, violent, elegiac drama about a cop (Kitano) who goes rogue after his partner (Ren Osugi) is half-paralyzed by a gangster’s bullet, “Hana-Bi” won the Golden Lion prize at the 1997 Venice Film Festival.

This accolade, which had last been awarded to a Japanese film in 1958 (Hiroshi Inagaki’s “Rickshaw Man”), made Kitano a globally celebrated auteur, while raising his critical stock at home. The Kinema Junpo magazine’s critics’ poll named “Hana-Bi” the best Japanese film of 1998 and Akira Kurosawa included it in his list of 100 best films of all time — a symbolic passing of the torch from a giant of Japanese cinema’s Golden Age to the Heisei Era’s now-leading director.

Kitano’s own assessment of the film was more modest. Comparing “Hana-Bi” to an entrance exam for a public university, he told me, “I think I scored an average of 60 points on all the subjects and passed.”

That has since proven to be his highest score, at least as far as international awards go. Several of his later films were selected for Cannes and Venice, but none walked away with the biggest prizes.

Director Takeshi Kitano arrives at a screening at the Venice Film Festival in September 2005.
Director Takeshi Kitano arrives at a screening at the Venice Film Festival in September 2005. | KYODO

Kitano finally hit the box-office jackpot with “The Blind Swordsman: Zatoichi,” his 2003 take on the Zatoichi franchise about a wandering blind swordsman. With Kitano playing the blonde-haired lead, this quirky, action-packed film earned ¥2.85 billion — a career high and the fifth-best haul among domestic releases that year.

And though his one attempt at an “international” film — the 2001 yakuza-goes-to-LA actioner “Brother” — was a commercial disappointment, Kitano found more success with the “Outrage” trilogy about gang wars with high body counts. The final installment, 2017’s “Outrage Coda,” which starred Kitano as an old-school gangster who kills with all the emotion of a roach exterminator, made a respectable ¥1.59 billion.

It also recycled familiar tropes from earlier Kitano films, including the take-no-prisoners persona of its hero.

In recent years others have contested Kitano’s crown as Japan’s most eminent working director, with Hirokazu Kore-eda arguably overtaking him by winning the Cannes Palme d’Or for his 2018 family drama, “Shoplifters.”

“(Kitano) is still a filmmaker worth following,” said Aaron Gerow, a Yale University professor and Japanese film scholar who wrote a 2008 book on the filmmaker. “But one doesn’t see him leading Japanese cinema like he used to, and fewer young filmmakers appear who want to emulate his recent work. He is not radically questioning Japanese film like he did before, and thus his work doesn’t speak on a meta-level like it used to.”

In other words, don’t expect a Palme d’Or to grace Kitano’s trophy case anytime soon.

But no one can take away that Golden Lion.


Did you know …?

  • “Kikujiro,” Takeshi Kitano’s 1999 road trip movie about a former gangster who accompanies a neighborhood boy on his quest to reunite with his mother, took its title from the first name of Kitano’s own father, a house painter and alcoholic.
  • Kitano first appeared on screen as an extra in the films of underground pioneer Koji Wakamatsu, including “A Womb to Let” (1968) and “Shinjuku Mad” (1970).
  • At the insistence of his education-minded mother, Kitano studied mechanical engineering at Meiji University but dropped out. In 2004, Meiji awarded him a “special graduation” certificate.
  • On Dec. 9, 1986, Kitano and 11 of his comic disciples (called “Takeshi’s Army”) raided the newsroom of tabloid magazine Friday and attacked the staff with fists, umbrellas and other nonlethal weapons. The reason: A Friday reporter had physically harmed a woman Kitano was reportedly dating, causing neck and back injuries. Hit with a six-month suspended sentence by a Tokyo court, Kitano took an eight-month break from show business.
  • In Kitano’s personal list of 10 all-time favorite films only two are Japanese: Akira Kurosawa’s “Seven Samurai” and Sogo (now Gakuryu) Ishii’s “Crazy Thunder Road.” At the top of the list is Marcel Carne’s “Children of Paradise.”

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