With the availability of Brother, Volta celebrates the work of Takeshi Kitano, a kind of cinematic one-man-band, comedian and TV host
There isn’t anyone quite like Takeshi Kitano, also known as Beat Takeshi. Sure, plenty of actors (from Clint Eastwood to George Clooney) have successfully turned their hand to directing, and lots of television comedians have carved out film careers (Steve Coogan, Jim Carrey), but (hang on to your hyphens) has anyone other than Kitano combined, with equal success, the roles of actor, director, painter, poet, come.
In his native Japan, Kitano is best known for his light-entertainment TV work, whereas, in the West, he is renowned as the director of a series of violent, stylish crime films. It is as if Chris Tarrant moonlighted as Michael Mann.
Outside of Japan, he made his big impression in the early 1990s with the arrival of a trio of films—Violent Cop, Boiling Point and Sonatine—which he directed and in which he appears as either a cop or a yakuza. The success of these films and Kitano’s growing popularity eventually led to Brother, a film now available on Volta, in which his iconic Japanese gangster goes West (even though the trip is geographically east!) to Los Angeles.
Kitano has also strayed from the crime genre to make a number of much more inscrutably “art-house” films, including Dolls, a beautiful, almost imagistic, interweaving of three tales.
His résumé seems to suggest that there is an almost schizophrenic split between the slapstick personality beloved in Japan and the strange action-auteur figure suggested by the films that have been celebrated in the West. In fact, his best film, Zatoichi—a Kurosawa-esque tale of a blind samurai who defeats the oppressors of a small town—reconciles both aspects without any contradiction. At times, Zatoichi feels like a blissful marriage of Kurosawa and The Three Stooges. The shift of tone is as swift as the trademark twitch on Kitano’s amused face.
Contradiction seems to be at the heart of everything Kitano does. As an actor, he has a knack for playing characters who are content to be treated as fools, but have a rare grasp on how things really are. He made a strong impression in Battle Royale, a wonderfully brutal film that is an obvious inspiration for The Hunger Games, in which he plays the manipulative teacher of a group of schoolchildren who are forced to fight to the death on an island filled with death traps. His finest performances, however, are in two films by director Nagisa Oshima. Both of these roles demonstrate once more his gift for reconciling opposites and contradictions. In the grossly neglected Gohatto (Taboo), Kitano plays the only sensible samurai in a garrison that has been divided by the arrival of a new attractive, almost androgynous recruit. In Merry Christmas Mr Lawrence, where the arrival of an attractive prisoner played by David Bowie also causes chaos, he brings great humanity to the part of Sgt Hara, a prison guard who is somehow both sadistic and kind. The magic in these films is very difficult to pin down, but much of it seems to emanate from Kitano. Each film concludes with an unexpected gesture in which his character escapes the confines of our expectations and, for a moment, we have that elusive feeling of experiencing something sublime.