Kitano Brings Fire and Beauty to America
by Mark Rabinowitz
Takeshi Kitano is enigmatic. Inscrutable. Prolific. Multi-faceted. Violent.
Peaceful. Funny. Not very funny at all. In short, Kitano is many things,
not least of which is a supremely talented filmmaker whose work has yet to
gain the respect in America that it so richly deserves. His latest work
(and seventh film as a director), "Fireworks" ("Hana-bi") opens today in
New York, Los Angeles, San Francisco, Chicago, Boston, Houston, Denver and
Detroit. The film is at once both hauntingly beautiful and unflinchingly
violent, a theme that seems to echo Kitano's own life. In 1986 a Japanese
tabloid printed a picture of him with a young woman, implying that he had a
relationship with her. According to several accounts, Kitano and several
associates entered the offices of the magazine and slapped around the
editors and staff. Violent. In another incident, he was almost killed when
he got into a scooter accident early in the morning on his way home, blind
drunk. While recuperating in the hospital, he taught himself to paint.
Beautiful. See what I mean?
Kitano's portrayal of Sergeant Hara in Nagisa Oshima's 1983 film, "Merry
Christmas Mr. Lawrence," was the impetus for my desire to meet the man,
although seeing "Fireworks" gave me a new appreciation for him as a
filmmaker. The Oshima film, one of my all time favorites, has Kitano
playing a brutal, yet sensitive guard in a World War II Japanese POW camp.
Even with two hours of cruelty and brutality, enough of Sgt. Hara's
humanity shows through to cause the audience to weep, at least I did, at
the ending of the film. As he was primarily known as a comedian, his first
screen role allowed Kitano to display the contradictions that continue to
this day. "It was difficult for me to be recognized as a serious actor,"
remarked Kitano. When "Mr. Lawrence" was released, he snuck into the
theater to gauge the reactions of the crowd, fearing that they would be
appalled at a comedian attempting serious work. "The moment I appeared on
the screen, the entire audience, including the employees, burst into
laughter, which was humiliating for me. It took me fifteen years, to be
recognized as a serious actor."
In New York for screenings and press for "Fireworks," Kitano met the
throngs of (mostly Japanese) journalists at the Japan Society near the
United Nations following a screening of the film. Kitano had many hands in
the making of the film; besides directing, he starred, wrote, edited and
painted the many paintings that figure prominently in the film. In
"Fireworks," one of the characters, a detective named Horibe, is shot and
as a result ends up in a wheelchair. One of the methods he uses in his
rehabilitation is teaching himself how to paint, much as Kitano did. Most
of the paintings used in "Fireworks" were painted during his rehabilitation
from his accident.
Always one to try something new and different, Kitano surmised that since
the scooter accident damaged the right side of his skull that it might
cause "some hormone disorder of some kind" that might lead to his becoming
a "prestigious genius painter, like Van Gogh or Renoir. But I tried to
imitate (Van Gogh's) 'Sunflowers' and it tuned out disastrous, which was
very disappointing to me." Staying in the vein of trying something new,
after a question about death ,Kitano mused that "if I were to be able to
see for myself that there is (life after death), it might be worth it to
try dying for a while."
He began his career as a slapstick comedian in Tokyo strip joints, and is
now one of the most respected directors in the world, with "Fireworks"
winning the Grand Prix at the 1997 Venice Film Festival. In between, he has
become the most famous entertainer in Japan, who as 'Beat' Takeshi
consistently tops polls with titles like: "Coolest person," "Man I'd most
like to drink with," "most admired man" and "man I'd like to talk to when
I'm upset". A regular columnist in several daily and weekly publications,
published poet, comedian, musician, television personality, actor and
director, Takeshi has managed to "avoid" mainstream success in the U.S.
despite being very popular in other Western countries. With the release of
"Fireworks," his days of anonymity in the U.S. may be numbered.
Kitano spoke freely about his films, their commercial success (or lack
thereof), his accident, and other divergent subjects. His singular sense of
humor doesn't always translate, but a few quips managed to make their way
through, especially on the subject of his success, or lack thereof, as a
director in Japan. Although his popularity remains sky-high, Kitano has had
some difficulty gaining public support of his directorial efforts in Japan.
When asked why it has taken so long for his films to be released in the
U.S., Kitano replied: "'Sonatine' was released in Japan, and wasn't open
for even a week, so how can you say that the film has a commercial
potential in America?", adding, "All six previous films that I have
directed have been total flops, commercially, whether I made them for the
international market or for the Japanese market. So with ("Fireworks"), I
targeted the film for myself only, which was torture for the producers."
His style of filmmaking is his own, and he seems unwilling to compromise.
"From what I've heard, American filmmakers do not have the right to have
the final cut or don't edit (the film themselves). Film directors in
America are more like the factory managers in a big factory, so if I were
to make films in America, I would like them to comply with my condition to
have me do the editing, because the editing process is the most important
part of filmmaking, and the part that I enjoy the most."
Kitano's star may be bright and shining in Japan, but it is just rising in
the U.S. With this week's release of "Fireworks" by Milestone Films, and
the upcoming release of his fourth film, "Sonatine" by Miramax's Rolling
Thunder label, Takeshi Kitano may finally find the recognition as a
director that 'Beat' Takeshi has found as a performer.