Sunday, June 23, 2013

Dead Man Talking: The Films of Takeshi Kitano

Takeshi Kitano
Over the last thirty years, Takeshi 'Beat' Kitano has had an illustrious career directing and starring in comically violent gangster melodramas, such as the international hits Sonatine (1993), Hana-Bi (1997) and Outrage (2010). With a sense of humour as stoic as that of a statue, Kitano carved out for himself a deadpan action figure who's bemused by the utterly chaotic world around him. He also packs into his characters plenty of that Clint Eastwood character armour while adding a pinch of Charles Bronson's rugged muscularity. (His inexpressiveness is so imposing that when he speaks it's as if those taut muscles have created logjam in his throat.) But Kitano's impersonal and non-communicative qualities aren't just part of the current chic of being cool and ironically detached. There's also something rather maudlin at work in this facade. Likewise, his brutality isn't an expression of latent, unexplored psychopathic tendencies; it supposedly comes from some deeper, nobler place. He might shoot, maim and kill – but that's okay, because he's acting for the love of a dying woman (Hana-Bi), or the honour of a good friend (Violent Cop). His 2000 comedy, Kikujiro, has been described as a departure from the earlier mold. Well, it is, and it isn't.

Kikujiro doesn't feature Kitano and Yakuza gunman shooting up the landscape, as in Outrage, but he hasn't abandoned the sentimental side of his work, either. There isn't a mortally ill woman giving his life meaning this time, but in Kikujiro, she's been replaced by a young boy longing for his mother. Kikujiro (played by Kitano) is a deadbeat loser whose wife (Kayoko Kishimoto) urges him to help this rather sullen and lonely boy, Masao (Yusuke Sekiguchi), find the mother who abandoned him years earlier. Living with his grandmother, Masao one day comes across some family photos of his late father and mother. He also finds a possible address for her. Because it's summer, and all the boy's friends have gone away, Kikujiro is urged to help Masao find her. But Kikujiro is the least likely candidate for the task. Besides being both a narcissist and an obnoxious idiot, he's also a loud-mouth and insensitive to everybody – including the boy. I can only guess that we're supposed to find all of this misanthropy funny (and endearing) because we ultimately discover that, deep down, Kikujiro is really a decent fellow. If Takeshi Kitano has been Dead Man Walking through most of his action dramas, in Kikujiro, he's turned into Dead Man Talking.

Takeshi Kitano & Yusuke Sekiguchi

The unholy mixture of violence and bathos in his action pictures works at taking the edge off the brutality. But the slapstick and sentiment in Kikujiro makes instead for a queasy sanctimoniousness. It also makes the story less comprehensible. You don't have a clue as to why Kikujiro's wife would ever trust her boorish husband with such a delicate journey. Sure enough, the first stop for Kikujiro and Masao is the betting track, where Kikujiro blows all of Masao's travel money on the bicycle races. (He even blames the boy for making him lose.) Kitano also throws in a deeply unfunny – and jarring – slapstick scene involving a pedophile who tries to attack the boy. And although Kitano provides endlessly quirky scenes involving the many people they meet on the road, the whole movie quickly becomes tedious because there is very little chemistry between Kitano and Sekiguchi. At times, the boy seems as repulsed by him as we do. And the continuing list of characters that turn up do little to help. Two bikers, nicknamed Baldy and Fatso, appear to be a good luck charm for the boy. But charm isn't the word you'd use to describe their presence on the screen. (Before Kikujiro and Masao are to return to Tokyo, Masao inexplicably dreams about them appearing over the Milky Way.)

The only concession to lyricism in the picture, where traces of the dreamy magic that the best road journeys inspire are present, comes when Kikujiro and Masao meet a juggler (Fumle Hosokawa) and her boyfriend (Nezumi Mamura). Their elegant mimicry briefly brings the boy – and the movie – to life, making you wish he'd run off with them. Despite the coarseness of the material, Kikujiro is also surprisingly well shot. Cinematographer Katsumi Yanagishima, a regular collaborator with Takeshi Kitano, brings out the rich, impressionistic colours of summer in a country coming into full bloom. Back in 2000, when Kitano told the press that "this film belongs to a genre which is outside my speciality," he wasn't being coy. Judging from Kikujiro's overzealous slapstick, coupled with its smarminess, Takeshi Kitano tries here to become Japan's answer to Roberto Benigni. Now that's a fate I wouldn't wish on anyone I cared about.

 Kevin Courrier is a freelance writer/broadcaster, film critic and author (Dangerous Kitchen: The Subversive World of ZappaRandy Newman's American Dreams33 1/3 Captain Beefheart's Trout Mask ReplicaArtificial Paradise: The Dark Side of The Beatles Utopian Dream). Courrier teaches part-time film courses to seniors through the LIFE Institute at Ryerson University in Toronto and other venues. His forthcoming book is Reflections in the Hall of Mirrors: American Movies and the Politics of Idealism.    

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