Beat Takeshi

Louis Proyect lnp3 at SPAMpanix.com
Tue Dec 26 15:01:09 MST 2000


NY Times, December 26, 2000

ARTS ABROAD

A Japanese Man of All Parts Turns Violence on Its Ear

By HOWARD W. FRENCH

TOKYO — Whatever happened to tranquil Japan, that quiet, crime-free and
pacifist (since 1945, at least) country where social harmony comes as close
as anything else to being a national religion? This season moviegoers might
be tempted to answer that question with one name: Takeshi Kitano.

It would be hard to exaggerate the mark being made on Japanese popular
culture by this smallish, square-shouldered man with the scarred, often
enigmatic face. But with the near-simultaneous release of two films — he
plays the lead in one and wrote, directs and stars in the other — it is a
mark in blood red.

The first film is a preview of a coming dystopia, "Battle Royale." The
movie, directed by Kinji Fukasaku, a maker of yakuza, or Japanese gangster
films, opened to howls of protest from politicians. Others warned of the
potential effect that the almost nonstop killing depicted would have on the
nation's youth.

Mr. Kitano plays a sadistic schoolteacher who supervises a new government
program for dealing with troublesome students: putting 42 of them on a
small island, arming them and forcing them to whittle their number down to
a sole survivor.

Mr. Kitano got his start as a stand- up comedian, and he still performs
comedy under his original stage name, Beat Takeshi. True to these roots, he
pulls off this grim film role with flashes of humor, like the wicked but
tiny flicker of self-satisfaction he manages after killing a girl by
throwing a knife across the classroom and hitting her in the forehead. The
actor's habitual tic, like the slight disfiguration to his face, suffered
in a near-fatal motorcycle accident several years ago, add to the menacing
effect.

In an interview in a tatami-floor dressing room at a Tokyo television
studio, the chain-smoking Mr. Kitano lamented that audiences frequently
misunderstood his work, settling only on the surface action, which often
involves yakuza and wayward cops. There would seem to be a clear risk of
this with "Battle Royale," with its blistering youth violence, which he
acknowledged may seem senseless to many viewers. But since the film is not
properly his own, he declared himself unconcerned with such matters.

Mr. Kitano's biggest reservations were directed at those in the government
who have discussed the possibility of censoring the film beyond its current
R-like rating. "Whether a film is good or bad is up to the judgment of the
viewer," he said. "It is kind of silly for the government to interfere in
the matter. They should leave it to the audience to decide whether they
want to see the film or not."

Although many might dismiss it as such, "Battle Royale" is not merely a
free-fire action movie. The film carries chilling messages about Japan
itself, from the crushing weight of commercialism and the aimlessness of
everyday life for many young people to the totalitarianism of the
not-so-distant past, which it subtly suggests may have left vestiges in the
present.

The second film, "Brother," the latest entry in Mr. Kitano's growing
directorial oeuvre, covers the familiar ground of Japanese gangland. But by
filming much of its action in Los Angeles, the movie also represents a bold
and somewhat risky departure for Mr. Kitano, who has achieved international
recognition, winning the best-picture award at the Venice International
Film Festival in 1997 for "Hana-Bi" ("Fireworks"), but who has largely
limited himself to working in Japan.

"Brother," which will be released in Tokyo in late January and in the
United States in April, is a violent film. And here again, there is a
concern that audiences will become so engrossed in the movie's action, its
clever gags and its sometimes stunning cinematography that they will miss
much of the movie's rich and bittersweet historical subtext.

"Brother" was shown at the New York Film Festival last fall. Elvis
Mitchell, reviewing it in The New York Times, wrote, "Despite the violence
in his films, Mr. Kitano is a rigid moralist, and a karmic retribution
usually takes place in most of his work."

Mr. Kitano said: "Basically I try to make all of my films so that they can
be interpreted at opposite extremes of the spectrum. Each viewer is
different, and comes from a different age group, with a different academic
background. However, there are some viewers who just watch the images and
don't get any of the thoughts. They are at a level where they can't get the
ideas, and I sometime get irritated by responses from this audience."

Hiding barely under the skin of this entertaining if somewhat unrealistic
Los Angeles gang war, "Brother" is above all an allegorical meditation on
Pearl Harbor and the heavy price that Japan has paid ever since for its
wildly miscalculated overreach.

In the end, Mr. Kitano's character, Yamamoto, lies dead, having taken on a
cluster of American Mafia hit men armed with submachine guns with nothing
more than a pistol. Beforehand, Yamamoto has taken care to leave a large
fortune in cash with an American character he has bonded with.

Mr. Kitano said that although he had taken pains to name the Japanese
characters in his film after historical figures involved in the attack on
Pearl Harbor, he feared that the connection would be lost on many viewers.
"Not many people recognize this, so I don't talk about it very much," he
said with a sigh.

Adm. Isoruku Yamamoto, a pioneer in the development of long- range bombers
used by the Japanese navy at Pearl Harbor, was also commander of Japan's
Combined Fleet, and led the attack. Other characters in the film have names
of important figures in the military history of the period.

Despite the surface difficulties with the Los Angeles gang-war story, scene
after scene in "Brother" bear Mr. Kitano's signature: yakuza vignettes,
particularly those shot in Tokyo, that achieve a Scorsese-like feel of
authenticity; the recurrent treatment of the issues of honor and loyalty
(and their constant companion, betrayal); suicide and self-sacrifice.

Above all, there is the Kitano persona: part James Dean, part Charles
Bronson and part devotee of Bushido, the warrior's code. Mr. Kitano
swaggers yet still manages cool understatement in the role of the big
brother who finds his long-lost, younger brother, now a small-time hood in
Los Angeles, after years of separation. Together they try to take over the
city.

Mr. Kitano has likened the element of shock in well-executed screen
violence to the surprise delivered by a well-told joke, and many of the
scenes both stun and amuse. Still, in an interview at the Tokyo television
studio where he is host of several regularly broadcast variety shows, he
insisted that the death and violence running through his work were never
gratuitous.

"If you depict violence without showing pain, if you depict in a kind of
way that is gay, I don't think that is a good thing," Mr. Kitano said,
adding a moment later: "I portray painful things as painful, and some
people feel disgusted by the violence. But I think that people are not
going to emulate the violence."

As he awaits the critical and popular reaction to his latest film,
particularly in the United States, practically virgin territory for him,
Mr. Kitano, who is given to macho truculence in so many of his roles,
acknowledges more than a little anxiety.

"I've never thought I would be world famous," the man who has become one of
Japan's most famous artist-entertainers said with a chuckle. "I don't have
many expectations. All I want is to be sure to make another film. I am
hoping it won't fail so disastrously that I wouldn't be able to make
another film. I've been walking a tightrope so far."


Louis Proyect
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