Kitano 'Beat' Takeshi
(Tokyo, 1947- )
The contrast between the image of Beat Takeshi, TV clown in Japan and that of Kitano Takeshi, acclaimed movie director abroad is striking. But they're one and the same man. A former strip club MC and one half of the long defunct comedy duo Two Beats, Takeshi has dominated the Japanese TV scene for over fifteen years. Ever ready to dress up as a schoolgirl or poke fun at minorities, Takeshi has constantly tested the limits of what can be said and done on TV. For more than twenty years, Takeshi was renowned for his acid wit and vulgar sense of humor. Although his movie-acting debut was in 1983's 'Merry Christmas Mr Lawrence', only in the mid-90's did the world sit up and take notice of his acting and directing ability.
Crude slapstick humor, a la Benny Hill, has always been popular in Japan and in the late 70's and early 80's Two Beats ( Beat Takeshi and Beat Kiyoshi) were at the forefront of the manzai boom. The manzai style of comedy, which originated in the Kansai area, involves a straight man (tsukkomi) and a dumb guy (boke). The straight guy feeds a gag line to his partner, gets the funny response and then usually smacks the guy over the head for his trouble. Takeshi's use of crude material may have upset some of the older manzai purists but it was a huge hit on TV. Even after the boom ended, Takeshi's intelligence and razor-sharp humor kept him on the airwaves. Shows like Oretachi Hyokinzoku, and Genki Ga Deru Terebi topped the ratings and helped build Takeshi into something of a showbusiness god.
Once established as a mainstay of the geinokai (entertainment world), Takeshi started to branch out into other fields. He presents serious (with a twist of humor) discussion shows, appears on science and art shows, writes books and magazine articles, acts, directs and paints - he used his own paintings in his 1997 movie Fireworks (Hanabi). An almost fatal motorcycle accident in 1994 left the right side of his face partially paralyzed but Takeshi bounced back, albeit a bit more subdued, and was soon presenting six regular weekly shows on TV. Recently, the show Koko ga Hen Dayo Nihonjin (Strange Japanese Habits) which features a panel of 50 or more Japanese-speaking foreigners letting loose on a wide variety of topics, has become something of a phenomenon. Hosted by Takeshi, whose intelligent remarks are balanced with lurid gags, the show often highlights the huge gaps in attitudes, awareness and understanding between Japan and the rest of the world, even its closest neighbors. Like many successful Japanese, Takeshi clearly wants to be seen making his mark on the outside world.
Kitano Takeshi - Movie Director
Foreign audiences first started to take notice of Kitano Takeshi in 1993, when Sonatine became an critical success in the UK. But Kitano made his well-received movie acting debut in 1983's Merry Christmas, Mr. Lawrence. His directorial debut, Violent Cop (Sono Otoko, Kyobo ni Tsuki, 1989) a kind of ultra-violent Japanese Dirty Harry, set the tone for many of the films which followed and when the nihilistic Sonatine was released, comparisons were made with Scorsese and Tarantino.
Shortly after his appearance in the Keanu Reeves film Johnny Mnemonic, Kitano was almost killed when he ran his scooter off the road in Tokyo. The accident left him with partial paralysis of the right side of his face. After seven months of rehabilitation during which he took up painting, he returned to work, appearing regularly on TV and releasing his first screen comedy Getting Any? (Minna Yatteruka?). In 1996, he made his first-ever domestic box-office hit, Kid's Return, about two school friends who take diverging paths into the adult world. But it was Kitano's 1997 film Fireworks (Hanabi) which helped him finally cross the line and be recognized at home as a world-class director (poster). The movie took the Golden Lion Award at the Venice Film Festival (above) and good old Beat Takeshi was now being called Sekai No (World-class) Kitano. This success ensured a good reception for his softer approach in Kikujiro's Summer (Kikujiro no Natsu, 1999) which also received rave reviews in Europe. He dedicated the film to his mother, who died later in the year. In 2001, he released Brother (poster), a movie about a Japanese yakuza in the US and his first made in Hollywood and featuring US actors.
Brother marked what Kitano referred to as his last film about reconciliation, a theme he had explored since his brush with death. His next directorial feature was Dolls in 2002, a complex and visually arresting piece based on stories by famous 17th-century playwright Chikamatsu Monzaemon (sometimes called Japan's Shakespeare). The film features elements of the tradtional bunraku doll theater - for which Chikamatsu's wrote his most important works - something of a forgotten art form for most young Japanese.
In 2004, a bleach-blonde Takeshi came up with his very original take on an old samurai classic, the story of the blind swordsman Zatoichi. The role was immortalized by the late Katsu Shintaro on TV and the big screen and many people were taken aback that anyone would try to fill Katsu's considerable shoes. That Kitano not only managed to do that but also made the character his own speaks volumes about his creativity and confidence as a filmmaker. He even added musical and dance elements that echoed his own humble showbusiness beginnings in vaudeville. He showed again that, despite his status as perhaps the greatest living Japanese entertainer, he is still a man of the people.
And a man who has the self-awareness and artistic integrity to call a piece of crap as it is. Even if it's one of his own making. Takeshis' was a project that he had been wanting to do for 12 years. He plays dual roles in the movie, one of them as himself, as well as directing it. And maybe that was just too much for him to handle. He says watching the film at the Venice International Film Festival in 2005 made him physically sick, and he was very open about the fact that he fully expected at least half of movie viewers to ask for their money back. But we can expect his clear disappointment in this work to propel him on to much greater things.
- The most authoritative online resource on Kitano Takeshi has to be kitanotakeshi.com
- See our profiles of other Japanese movie directors
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