Tuesday, September 20, 2011

An Appreciation: Takeshi Kitano

Violent Cop (1989) ***½ - Kitano’s debut emerges with a flurry of themes and ideas that will be processed and revisited over the years- from Kitano’s caricature of his slouched-shouldered, deadpan police detective to the subliminal editing style that cuts hard on gunshots, knife wounds and kicks, “Violent Cop” has it all. Beginning as a comedy of sorts as Kitano chases down criminals with his car and slaps a young boy into submission of owning up to his crimes, it quickly turns relentlessly bleak and ultra violent when police corruption, yakuza hit men and drug shakedowns overtake the narrative. As a debut film, its remarkable… as the introduction to an exciting new talent in Japanese cinema, it’s a watershed event. And the score, which feels like it belongs in a spaghetti western, continually brings a smile to my face. Now OOP on DVD.

Boiling Point (1990) **½ - A gangster film with a decidedly disjointed feel, Kitano arrives in the second half of the film as a sadistic yakuza member who (sort of) takes untalented baseball player Masaki (Ono Masahiko) under his wing after the young man stirs up trouble with local yakuza. Fully written and directed by Kitano, “Boiling Point” continues Kitano’s fascination with fatalistic overtones and deadpan editing. It also curves his very dark humor into some surprisingly disturbing moments, especially in a night of drinking that turns sexually ambiguous. Now OOP on DVD.

A Scene At the Sea (1991) ***½- Kitano’s ode to the silent film.. And a sweet love story at its core. A deaf mute trash man finds a broken surfboard and immediately becomes addicted to surfing. With his girlfriend in tow, Kitano’s patient film observes the small community that forms along the beaches as Shigeru (Claude Maki) teaches himself to surf. With a beautifully understated score, “A Scene At the Sea” begins to reveal the depth of feeling that Kitano can surface in his films. It’s such a sweet moment when his girlfriend lovingly folds up his clothes on the beach or the small tear that runs down her face when the two shortly break up. And the finale…. Flashing images of the actors posing for the camera or enjoying themselves on the beach is a transcendent idea of real life over fictional cinematic tragedy. Not available on DVD.

Sonatine (1993) **** - Turning back to his yakuza flicks, “Sonatine” assembles the longueurs and comedic bits that dotted his previous films and creates an entire work out of them. Kitano stars as a mid-level mob boss sent south with his clan to clean up a turf war, but ends up the target of the war itself. Forced to hide out on the beach, the men create games, play jokes on each other such as enticing each other into hidden sand traps on the beach and, for Kitano, falling in love with a woman he saves from sexual abuse. It’s all wonderfully paced and enchanting until the violence kicks in again, which imbues the ending with a magnificently crafted sense of doomed obligation. Up until this point, it’s Kitano’s most fully realized piece of filmmaking that would influence so much of his later films.

Getting Any? (1994) *½- Structured like a television sketch comedy, and with laughs that are just as varied, “Getting Any” is Kitano’s waltz back into popular Japanese TV culture with less than distinguished results. A not-to-bright man (Dankan) dreams of getting laid, and he goes about it in all the wrong ways. Poking fun at movies as diverse as “Ghostbusters”, “The Fly” and his own yakuza flicks, “Getting Any” is absurdly great at times and jaw-dropping bad at others.

Kids Return (1996) ***½- At times reminiscent of Hou Hsiao Hsien in the way it charts the progress of a small group of high school students into various life choices after school, “Kids Return” feels like an intimate epic. Narrowing its focus on two childhood friends, the film watches as Shinji (Masanobu Ando) begins a promising path into boxing and Masaru (Ken Kaneko), continuing his bully tactics from school, gets tangled up with a local yakuza gang and rises through the ranks. There are some peripheral (and equally sad) comments on several other students, but the narrative thrust of “Kids Return” stays with Shinji and Masaru as life deals them the blows. Characteristics of Kitano’s sensibilities pop up now and then, but “Kids Return” ultimately presents both lifestyles with humble authenticity and straightforward storytelling.

Fireworks (1997) ****- Kitano’s first real international success, garnering a full write up in “Film Comment” and having both this film and “Sonatine” crop up on numerous critic’s lists. The attention is well deserved. “Fireworks” (or “Hana-bi”) is a moving examination of the yakuza lifestyle juxtaposed against the irrevocable consequences of said life. In his previous films, Kitano has treated violence as something built into the daily routine of his various cops and gangsters. Here, there’s a weight given to the outcome of these choices and its handled superbly in the way Kitano spends time with his dying wife (Kayoko Kishimoto) and paralyzed partner (Ren Oshugi).

Kikujiro (1999) ****- What I wrote about this film way back in early 2001 still rings true: “Takeshi Kitano’s masterpiece, austere and picturesque. Kitano is in full visual command of the medium. Comical, tragic, serene… it’s a film that will restore one’s faith in lots of things cinematic- the road movie (although it barely covers approximately 90 miles), the children’s fantasy film and especially the silent days of filmmaking. “Kikujiro” deserved much better from an audience standpoint. Released here in Dallas for only one week during the summer, I think it’s his most accessible and enjoyable film to date. It’s not often that a man steeped in the violent yakuza tradition of a generation steps out of his realm and creates such an honest ‘family’ film.”

Brother (2000) **½ - At some point, Kitano’s first feature shot and co-produced in the States becomes a highly stylized satire of his own films. Banished out of Japan after a turf war wipes out a majority of his clan back home, Kitano quickly finds his half-brother and drug dealing partner Omar Epps and promptly builds his own empire in Los Angeles. Along the way, Kitano guides his Latino, African-American and Asian thugs as they wage war with numerous groups, pulling out all the violent stops in skirmishes that range from the quiet bathroom stabbing to the strobe-lighted machine gun battle underneath an overpass. It’s clear Kitano is having fun, yet “Brother” meanders a bit towards the end and fails to fully realize the potential that a setting such as L.A. could have brought to the effort. It also features some very bad acting at times and its emotional connection between Kitano and Epps feels strained.

Dolls (2002) **½ - It’s amazing how moving a simple slow zoom can be, and Kitano uses that optical movement to full effect in “Dolls”. Weaving three stories about love being deaf, dumb and blind, Kitano’s desire to create something mature works well in spurts. The most prominent of the three tales is the first story concerning a man whose unwise choice to leave his girlfriend and marry the boss’s daughter results in her attempted suicide. To atone for his act, he binds himself to the mentally challenged ex girlfriend and lives out a wandering existence around Tokyo. The second tales, about unrequited love (and stalking) of a pop singer and a yakuza’s fateful trip down memory lane feel less acute and almost forced. The narrative concerning a woman dutifully waiting with lunch everyday on a park bench for her estranged lover is especially maudlin…. Something one would discover in a Nora Ephron rom-com. “Dolls” doesn’t gel as a cohesive whole, but its still an interesting effort from Kitano.

Zatoichi (2003) ***½- Based on the classic Japanese tale of a traveling blind swordsman, Kitano takes this antique story and gives it his own post-modern and highly entertaining spin through brilliantly staged sword fights and some gory CGI bloodshed. Weaving together several tales- Zatoichi (Kitano himself) wandering into town and making friends with an old lady, a young gambler who becomes his sidekick, and two geisha girls hellbent on violent vengeance- the film zips along. And years before “Slumdog Millionaire” ended on an upbeat and self-reflexive dance number, Kitano uses the same trick with zest and color.

Takeshis’ (2005) *** - This is perhaps Kitano’s “8 ½”. Or maybe his “Mulholland Drive”. Whichever, “Takeshis’” is a unique and puzzling experience as Kitano plays two separate (?) men living in Tokyo… one a quiet convenience store clerk with dreams of yakuza grandeur and the other himself, pop star actor Beat Kitano. Opening with the boredom of Beat Takeshi on the set of his new film jokingly titled ‘Hell Beat“, he meets his look-alike in the hallway and signs an autograph for him. The look-alike clerk returns home and begins to fantasize about hit men running into his store, stealing guns and morphing into an invincible yakuza gangster ala the “Sonatine” years. Blending elements from all his previous films and with characters that emerge and then re-emerge as someone else later like a fever dream, “Takeshis” is a real mind screw. There are hints at the end of it all being an actual dream, but I personally love the aspect of it being an absurdist Takeshi extravaganza that replays itself in your mind long after its over. Not available on DVD.

Glory To the Filmmaker! (2007) **- The cheekiness of Kitano continues. Following up the self reflexive nature of “Takeshis”, Kitano returns to a sketch comedy free form cinema more in tune with his mid 90’s “Getting Any”. Again playing himself, the first half of “Glory To the Filmmaker!” shows us the director at a critical crossroad in his career…. Unable to devote himself fully to any project. Instead, we get snippets of failed projects including “Noh Theater”, a horror film and “Retirement”, a sly black and white tribute to the films of Ozu. The second half of “Glory To the Filmmaker!” shows us the film that Kitano settles into- a wild, weird mixture of religious cult brainwashing, sumo wrestlers and a mad scientist. In between all this genre-hopping, Kitano turns into a wooden doll whenever the troubles in life get too heavy. As a parody, “Glory To the Filmmaker!” occasionally hits its mark and taken with “Takeshis”, its evident Kitano has his knives sharpened against not only himself but the entire Japanese film industry. As a stand alone film, though, “Glory To the Filmmaker” is all over the map with a screeching sense of humor and satirical jabs that seem to be lost in translation. Not available on DVD.

Achilles and the Tortoise (2008) ***- The last film in Kitano’s gentler period traces the life of a below average painter from his tragic childhood to married with children. Kitano takes upon the lead role himself, imbuing the film as more a humanistic comedy than drama, choosing to give the limelight to his own weirdly inspired paintings. If one doesn’t take the film too seriously, its probably the closest we can come to having an autobiography of the great artist. Not on DVD.

Outrage (2010) ***½ - It’s best to give in and go with the flow of Kitano’s return-to-gangster-form with “Outrage”. The first 75% of this film is head spinning in the way it shuffles between nameless yakuza hitmen and mob bosses wheeling and double dealing each other to take over territory. The final third of “Outrage” culminates in a series of violent vignettes as each man meets his bloody fate. There are bathroom stall shootings, chopsticks to the ears, dental drills to the face…. And of course good old fashioned gunfights. At one point, “Outrage” resembles Alan Clarke’s nihilistic and angry “Elephant” as the bodies pile up in quick, gruesome set pieces with little regard to identification or motivation. All of this sounds like a bad idea, but Kitano’s violent yarn is liberating in a way. There are subtle streaks of humor, but “Outrage” is mostly serious stuff. I understand Kitano is working on “Outrage 2” which, in and of itself, will be a miracle since no one is left standing here. Not yet available on region 1 DVD.

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