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Takeshi Kitano: Playing God to fans
TAKESHI KITANO may not be an Akira Kurosawa. Neither in his work nor in the way he is known outside Japan. But Kitano enjoys rare reverence within his country. People hold him in sheer awe, which often translates into virtual worship. And in a nation of largely non-believers — who are, yes, Shintos or Buddhists, but as a matter of mere form — the Kitano phenomenon appears hard to explain.
Everybody, just everyone, when told that I had met this Japanese film director and actor (during my six-month stay in Japan in 2001-2002, when The Japan Foundation, Tokyo, sponsored my research into contemporary Japanese cinema) looked at me with new respect. ``You actually met him, and spoke to him!'' they were surprised and even shocked, but invariably excited and elated at having met the man who met, let us say, God. A part of this amazement can perhaps be explained by Kitano's meteoric rise from nondescript beginnings.
A strict upbringing — he and his brothers were not allowed to see movies or read novels and comics — pushed Takeshi into an engineering college. ``My dream was to join Honda,'' he says. But the students' movement in the late 1960s that was inspired by Marx and Lenin, albeit a French variation of these, spawned radical ideas in the young Kitano, who dropped out of college. Or was he sacked? Political isms were not the only consideration, though: ``I felt that by joining these free thinking students, I could also meet a lot of girls.'' Did he? One is not quite sure about that, but he began working in a striptease joint as an elevator boy after a short stint as a janitor and a coffeehouse waiter. The lift catapulted him into another world: in the early 1970s, he met a television producer, who felt that he and Kitano could form a cross-talk duo (called ``manzai'' in Japanese). They began a serial, ``Two Beats,'' a rip-roaring comedy which gave Kitano a new life, even a new name. He is popularly known as ``Beat'' Takeshi, a title he uses when he is acting. However, it was Nagisa Oshima, one of Japan's renowned auteurs, who steered Kitano away from comedy. Oshima said that Kitano could be great playing a gangster. He did that, and his television programme, where he played a killer, was a hit with viewers.
Although his big screen debut was in an insignificant work (``Danpu-Wataridori'' in 1981), Oshima's ``Merry Christmas, Mr. Lawrence'' -- where he portrays a brutal Japanese jailer of a concentration camp, a characterisation he would repeat in self-directed ventures -- in 1983 won him international attention. Kitano still had a long walk ahead of him. Another opportunity which helped him to cover this distance quickly came as unexpectedly as the one in the elevator. Kinji Fukasaku (who hit the eye of the storm with his latest, ``Battle Royale,'' where a teacher -- Kitano -- goads schoolchildren to kill one another) dropped out of directing ``Violent Cop'' in 1989. Kitano, who was only to act in it, was also asked to direct it.
His directorial debut was a disaster. He had never studied direction, and he was often at loggerheads with his crew, which was familiar with the Hollywood ways of making a movie. ``I wanted to move the camera often, and loved to shoot from different angles. But the problem in Japan is that when you move the camera, you always get something you do not want in the frame,'' explains Kitano to me. When ``Violent Cop'' was released, it was natural that an audience fed on Western styles thought that Kitano did not know how to make a film.
Yet, ``'Violent Cop'' established a pattern that became almost second nature to its maker: lean directorial style, punctuated by long takes, stark compositions and minimal dialogue. He himself would develop a fascinating persona: an anti-hero, who rarely smiled, and invariably spoke with his fists, an image that contrasted with the one on television, where he continues to mimic, clown, laugh and talk nineteen to a dozen.
Kitano's ``Sonatine'' in 1993 perfected and added to what he had laid down in ``Violent Cop.'' Getting into the shoes of a highly successful ``yakuza'' (gangster), Kitano acts and directs with a certain flourish. When he is sent to Okinawa, he realises that his end is almost there, and Kitano shows with verve and conviction what goes through the mind of a man who knows he is about to die.
He experiments with sound and visual styles here. Breaking off from the limitations of narrative cinema, he plays with a still camera to produce the magic of motion. A dramatic juxtaposition of images and noise creates a spellbinding effect. Often, the story seems still, and the pieces of celluloid appear to be dangling till in an almost poetic burst of sight and sound they begin to roll. Kitano's sparseness has a certain uniqueness, which, all said and done, is captivating.
``Sonatine'' has been called the rough framework for the 1997 ``Fireworks'', a violently moving tale of an ex-cop (Kitano) who kills his terminally ill wife and himself. Strictly speaking, ``Fireworks'' -- which won Kitano the top Golden Lion Award at Venice -- pushed the director to the global centre-stage.
If ``Fireworks'' turns your stomach with its gory shots, it also tugs at your heart with its guileless exploration of devotion and grief. The policeman is devastated by the death of his daughter, and he watches in stony silence as his wife is slowly dying of cancer. His love for her illuminates one side of the man, while his hatred for some others darkens the other side. Later films like ``Kikujiro'' (1999) and ``Brother'' (2000, shot in the U.S.) provide the variety -- in the form of story and setting -- that his fans sought. In ``Kikujiro'', he takes a little boy on a long journey to find the mother the lonely lad had never seen.
It is sentimental and shorn of the Kitano trademark, violence. Kitano's own life was no less dramatic and eventful. A nasty motorcycle accident in 1994 almost killed him. Its scar remains: a minor facial paralysis is still apparent, but the damage to his psyche was probably more severe. We would never know for sure, for Kitano seldom talks about it. He took to painting and writing to while away the long convalescence. ``The secret of my recipe is that I do not consider any of these as a job. If I had done that, it could have been nerve wracking. It would have been very tiring, then, to have accomplished so much...I look at, let us say, scripting or directing or acting as playing baseball today or golf tomorrow or some other game the day after. That is the key to my success,'' he says.
But, it must be far more difficult to carry on with the split image between television's comic face and cinema's stern mask? Kitano smiles: ``To me these two facets are like two different kinds of food. Someday, you may want something exotic like Italian cuisine. But another day, you are in a mood for something simple, and more down to earth like Japanese ``sushi'' (fish meal)''.
``I have no particular preference for either of them. I like both''. ``To me, both these faces are the two ends of a pendulum, and both ends are equally important. I have to reach one end to feel a sense of elation and satisfaction. And I have to reach the other end to feel the same degree of contentment and joy.''
Kitano dismisses some of his great qualities and achievements with disarming modesty. ``Maybe I seem to be a great success, but that is probably because the standard of Japanese entertainment is very low, the criteria for judging it even lower.''
Maybe. But few critics in Japan or elsewhere will ignore him. One of them goes to the extent of calling 1989 a landmark year.
``It was when the Berlin Wall fell, it was the end of the Showa Emperor in Japan and it was when Kitano appeared with his first directorial venture, `Violent Cop'...'' Telling, is it not?
(This story appeared in The Hindu dated February 22 2002)