A grand personal indulgence or an exploration of the mind and thought process of one of Japan’s greatest filmmakers? Courtesy of YesAsia, Noel Megahey reviews the Japanese Region 2 edition of Takeshi Kitano’s surreal autobiographical film – as unique and ambitious as the man himself.
A former comedian and Japanese TV game-show host turned serious actor, “Beat” Takeshi Kitano has achieved worldwide recognition, acclaim and awards for his performances and direction of some of the most idiosyncratic, challenging, adventurous and entertaining films to come out of Japan in the last decade, covering everything from violent yakuza films to comedy, light entertainment, musical period swordplay drama and arthouse sophistication. Regardless of the enterprise or genre, Takeshi Kitano’s films are nevertheless characterised by an intelligent self-awareness – of himself as an actor and director, as well as for the genre he is working in. It’s this ability to transcend the genre and the material, while treating it with utmost respect and diligence, that makes Kitano’s films something special – never stooping to knowing pastiche or mockery, but working within the conventions with a unique playful sensibility.
In Takeshis’, the writer/director/actor takes this self-awareness one step further, making a fictional film about what it is like to be Takeshi Kitano. To do this the director splits his personality into two – although arguably every character in the film is to some extent an extension of his own personality. On the one hand we have the famous filmmaker Takeshi Kitano, who has just completed his latest explosive yakuza film and has to cope with the harassment of fans, hangers-on, real-life gangsters and people who all want to be cast in his next film. On top of this he has to cope with the personal issues of the women in his life and his problems with money and gambling. On the other hand, we have a blond-haired look-alike, also called Kitano, who works in a convenience store and constantly and unsuccessfully auditions for parts in films.
One of Kitano’s great talents as a director is that he has the unerring eye of a great talent scout. He can recognise great talent and identify seemingly incongrous elements, ideas and techniques that he can make work by presenting it from his own uniquely personal perspective. From this viewpoint, Takeshi Kitano is certainly an auteur. In Takeshis’ (I have really no idea why there appears to be a misplaced apostrophe in the title), he manages to take this opportunity for auteurist self-reflection and delves into something much deeper. Through his appearance as the blond-haired look-alike, he is allowed to express not only who he is, but an alter-ego of who he could have been or of the real Takeshi Kitano who lies beneath the surface – an ordinary guy who could be working in a convenience store, but always dreaming and striving to get into show business and make an impression. And that’s the bottom line here – Kitano is someone who wants to and needs to entertain.
Various other characters litter the subconscious and dreams of the Takeshis in the film. The blond-haired look-alike is a dream extension of the movie-star Kitano, and he in turn dreams other characters up from his subconscious – like the two characters who wait for him in the corridor outside his apartment, personifications of his own self-doubt, laughing at his failure and his incompetence. He eventually empowers himself to overcome these doubts, but they won’t die easily and are supported by other complexes and fears. The spectre of the clown remains ever present, as do strong powerful women, stalking him, grasping for his money and fuelling his sexual fantasies. In one nightmarish dream (one of many), Kitano appears as a taxi driver trying to drive down a road littered with dead bodies, weighed down by the baggage of other people and their aspirations, trying to get along on his coattails.
This is all deeply personal stuff, but the almost certainly heavily autobiographical material is presented in a manner that is anything but conventional. And coming from Takeshi Kitano, would you really expect anything different? Here reality and imagination mix in the fertile mind of the director and give a strong indication of how his thought processes work and how images and characters spark off ideas that make their way into his films. In many ways, the split personality structure, the dream within a dream and the bizarre and threatening characters that hound Takeshi are very much like something out of a David Lynch film. It is only here that the film fails by perhaps not going far enough into the personality of the man himself and relies on …well, certainly not conventional means of expression, but a means of expression that is perhaps a little too obvious in its symbolism and significance. Essentially, it comes down to the director empowering himself – professionally, personally and sexually, through the gunplay fantasies of his yakuza movies and blowing them all away. I would have liked to see Kitano take his considerable talent, his fierce intelligence and self-awareness a little bit further and deeper than this.
DVDTakeshis’ is released in Japan by Emotion. The DVD is encoded for Region 2 and is in NTSC format. It can be obtained from the YesAsia link at the bottom of this page.
VideoThe image quality is of a fairly high standard and shows little evidence of any serious flaws. Colour tones and contrast are a little on the light side, as Japanese DVDs in my experience have a tendency to be, but other than a little flatness that this seems to give to Asian NTSC transfers, this nevertheless looks fine. There is a fine level of grain visible throughout and occasional evidence of compression artefacts which result in there being a slight flicker in the image and not so smooth movements. These are minor issues however in an image that is largely strong, stable and well-defined.
AudioThere is a choice of Dolby Digital 2.0 and Dolby Digital 5.1 mixes for the film. The surround mix is particularly dynamic and strong, making full use of the rear speakers for the explosive gunplay sequences in the film, although it can seem a little forced and artificial in places.
SubtitlesOptional English subtitles are included and are clear and readable with flawless grammar.
ExtrasNone of the extra features are subtitled in English, although it’s only the making of featurette Takeshis’ Takeshi (27:01) that loses out. An apparently well balanced making of, it includes behind-the-scenes footage, interview clips with Takeshi Kitano and other cast members and the inevitable Japanese narration. The other features are made up of Takeshis’ PV (3:22), a music video mixing clips from the film with rather rudimentary computer graphics, a TV Spot (0:37) and a Trailer (1:38), both of which promise 500% Kitano!
OverallThere is no doubt that Takeshis’ is very much a grand indulgence of the director – this is Takeshi Kitano delving into his own mind and subconscious, feeling no necessity for a plot or for any commercial considerations. For any fans of the man or anyone who has been intrigued by the charismatic personality evident in any of his films, this can however be utterly fascinating and compelling viewing, affording a tremendous insight into “Beat” Takeshi’s thought processes. There are few movie stars or directors who would risk such an indulgence in such a personal way, but Kitano is a filmmaker who is quite capable of making something like this work. The film is however more than a little repetitive and recycles psychoanalytical dream imagery that is rather too obvious and Freudian for its own good. But the underlying message is clear – Takeshi Kitano is a man born to entertain and in possession of a brilliant talent for doing so. Takeshis’ offers some insight into just how that mind works, draws a line under what he has done so far and gives us reason to expect much more from him in the future.
It’s the end, but the moment has been prepared for…
Continue the conversation over on The Digital Fix Forum