National / Media | MEDIA MIX

Takeshi Kitano to abandon his 'army' of talent

by Philip Brasor

There’s a tired adage that goes, “Behind every great man is a great woman.” In Japan, you could amend it to: “Behind every great older man is a great woman making sure he stays relevant, especially if he’s in show business.” The tabloid press have had a grand time exploring how the late beloved movie stars Ken Takakura and Hiroki Matsukata were able to enjoy their twilight years thanks to younger women who took care of their personal and professional affairs, including their finances.

Add to this list veteran comedian and King of All Media “Beat” Takeshi Kitano. For several years it’s been reported that the 71-year-old Kitano has been with a woman 18 years his junior who also manages his life; so much so that Kitano established a production company three years ago called T. N Gon Inc. and put her in charge of it. The show biz media now reports that Kitano is leaving his present talent agency and production company, Office Kitano, which he founded in 1988, and taking his considerable celebrity cachet to T.N Gon Inc. in April.

According to Sports Nippon, Kitano says he wants to relieve himself of the “burden” of his famous “Gundan,” the “Army” of comedians represented by Office Kitano, in order to have more time to pursue activities important to him. Though Kitano is a world-famous, award-winning filmmaker, as well as a writer and painter, he derives most of his income from TV appearances. It’s not unusual to find his name attached to at least six variety shows a week, but it seems the only reason he works that hard is because he feels responsible for the people in his production company.

An “industry source” quoted in the March 20 issue of Cyzo says that the only reason younger comedians at Office Kitano can be sold to TV producers is that they “belong to Takeshi.” A different source told the magazine that Kitano’s fees are among the highest in the business simply because he has to pay for everyone who works at Office Kitano. Consequently, he has to do what producers ask him to do, even if it isn’t what he wants to do. In order to escape this endless cycle of uninteresting TV jobs he has decided to leave Office Kitano.

Trust the media, however, to make it about the woman, whose real name is never mentioned in any of the reports, though several have concocted pseudonyms for the sake of convenience. Why they need to do this is not clear. Kitano doesn’t seem to be as reactively pugnacious as he was in 1987, when he and some acolytes attacked the office of gossip magazine Friday for writing things about his family and an alleged girlfriend. Nowadays, he doesn’t seem to care. Several publications reprinted a quote that is now featured in a Cyzo book, saying that the woman in question shouldn’t be called his “lover,” since he “can’t get it up” any more. This is just Kitano being his usual crude comic self, but the note of sad self-effacement also indicates resignation.

If there’s any fight left in him, it’s in defense of his material well-being. One source told the weekly Shincho that in the past Kitano never concerned himself with money issues, but now he pays close attention to the salaries of Office Kitano workers and the company’s stock price. He’s even critical of Office Kitano’s president, Masayuki Mori, saying he thinks Mori overpays himself and other staff. Before T. N Gon was established, a good portion of Kitano’s fees were being directly paid to either his estranged wife Mikiko’s company or his son’s company, but now everything is going to T. N Gon, even the royalties for his paintings.

The consensus is that this change in fiscal attitude is his girlfriend’s doing, so that there would be no eventual showdown between her and Office Kitano. Another source told Shincho that a meeting between the Gundan and Office Kitano staff — but not Takeshi — in February ended with the comedians threatening to quit the company if they weren’t given more money after Kitano left. Taka Guadalcanal, one of the oldest members of the Gundan, told Shincho the “beautiful story” that Kitano had sold his stock in the company and given the proceeds to Office Kitano. A different person said this was not true at all. Yes, Kitano sold his stock, but he sold it to Office Kitano and kept the proceeds.

Not everyone thinks Kitano’s move is a wise one. Tatsuya Sumeragi, a former TV Asahi producer who has known Kitano his whole professional life, thinks it’s a bad idea for him to leave the production company.

“If he continues like this, his talent will be destroyed by that woman,” Sumeragi said to Shincho, speaking on behalf of the broadcast industry, which wants things to remain as they are.

But exactly what “talent” is Kitano squandering? His ability to inject puerile comic comments into conversations on TV variety shows? His brand of humor remains stubbornly old-fashioned, having been developed during a time when the standard comic mode was to make fun of weaker people, including oneself. (Who is lower in the hierarchy of respectable society than a comedian?) Compared to his contemporaries, Kitano isn’t as naturally witty, for example, as the equally sexist Sanma Akashiya, nor as articulate as Tamori (Kazuyoshi Morita). Since the early 1990s, Kitano gotten by on his reputation as a critically renowned movie director, even though his international acclaim has cooled significantly. His ubiquity on TV is due to inertia.

In that regard, Kitano’s main talent may be convincing TV producers he’s still relevant and popular. He said as much to another ubiquitous TV personality, professional news explainer Akira Ikegami, during a one-on-one interview on BS Japan Ikegami told him he could say anything he wanted on the show. Kitano replied that he’s been doing this for so long that he automatically understands the “line” he shouldn’t cross. When you’re young you’re naturally “outspoken,” but once you get to be his age, self-restraint becomes a habit.

“People think I can say anything I want,” Kitano said. “But I’m like a circus performer. There’s always someone there to catch me.”

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