TAKESHI KITANO (BEAT TAKASHI): HIS FILMS, ART, LIFE AND COMEDY AND TELEVISION CAREER

TAKESHI KITANO (BEAT TAKASHI)

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Takeshi Kitano, who is also known as Beat Takeshi, is one of the most influential entertainment personalities in Japan, one of Japan's most respected and controversial film directors and actors, and one of the most visible people on television in Japan. Over the years, he has launched at least a dozen of his own television shows and made appearances on dozens of others. In polls he has been voted as Japan's most popular entertainer and the "Man I Would Like Most to Talk To When I am Upset." In 1997, he won the Golden Lion prize at the Venice Film Festival for HANA-BI (Fireworks).

Takeshi Kitano is the internationally-known film director. Beat Takeshi is the comedian and television personality who is loved at home in Japan. On his dual career he told the Yomiuri Shimbun, “I take a balanced approach to my work with TV and film, so I’m never too deeply into either of them...I like them both, but I don’t have a sense of love or some sort of emotional feeling toward them. Regarding Takeshi Kitano as a person, I have him work in film, comedy and TV. But I’m the only person who holds the reins for those two [film and comedy/TV] categories.”

A Tokyo native, Kitano began his entertainment career at the France-za in Tokyo's Asakusa. As part of the comedy duo Two Beat, Kitano became a television and commercial fixture. He made his directorial debut in 1989 with Sono Otoko, Kyobo ni Tsuki (Violent Cop). New Yorker film critic Anthony Lake compared Kitano's multi-dimensional talent to Clint Eastwood triumphing as a standup comic, Jerry Seinfield making movies like Jean-Luc Godard, Quentin Tarratino writing poetry, and Howard Stern winning a major awards at a film festival, all embodied in a person who looks like a shark.

Kitano is a film director, screenwriter, comedian, radio host, director, television personality, actor, painter, video game designer, social critic and author. In Japan his books have become bestsellers, his paintings have been displayed at major galleries, and he has led roundtable discussions on political issues the day on television. In 2008, he was given a lifetime achievement award at the Moscow International Film Festival.

Takeshi writes six weekly newspaper columns and has authored 55 books of poetry, essays and fiction (his book Why They All Hate Me sold over a million copies). He occupies over seven hours of television programming a week. He once showed up at the Agency of Cultural Affairs and asked to be designated as Living National Treasure. His request was turned down. On his multi-facted career, Kitano told the Yomiuri Shimbun, "Sure, I have a lot of titles, but none that I can really be proud of," he said. "Put them all together and maybe I'd have something slightly valuable.” [Ibid]

Takeshi Kitano's Life

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Born in 1947, Kitano is the son of a house-maid and house painter (and a part time crook). He told the International Herald Tribune, "When I was growing up, I hardly knew [my father]. He gambled and drank, was either absent or violent. I was the youngest of four, and he terrified me."

Kitano was brought up in a Tokyo neighborhood dominated by the yakuza. "When we were kids the stars of the neighborhood were gangsters---they gave us candy and told us to be polite to our parents. They had a positive influence."

Kitano attended a first-rate university but dropped out during his third year and worked as a cab driver and an elevator operator in a Tokyo strip joint.

At the strip joint Kitano eventually landed a job as a comedian and emcee. Kitano began his comedy career in the Asakusa district of Tokyo and first rose to fame as part of a manzai comedy duo in the 1980s. He worked for a while in a two-man comedy duo called Two Beat, when he began using the stage name Beat Takashi. His first television appearances, in the late 1970s and early 1980s, were with Two Beats. His big break came when he was given a major role in Nagisa Oshima's film, Merry Christmas, Mr. Lawrence (1983), which also stared David Bowie.

In 1994, Kitano crashed a moped into a highway divider while going to his mistress's houses after a night of heavy drinking and partying. The accident deposited him in a hospital intensive care unit for two months. In the accident Kitano fractured his skull , was left with a partially paralyzed face and nearly died. There were rumors it was a suicide attempt. Nowadays, when he appears in television, Kitano often wears a bozo-like skull cap and another costume or prop that partially disguises his disfigurement. Kitano said afterwards, "Since I got hit on the head, I hoped that the accident might have made me intelligent or to be able to paint like Picasso, but no. Maybe I learned to be a little more reasonable.”

In March 2010, Kitano received the Order of Arts and Letters---France’s highest honor for arts and culture---at a ceremony in Paris. He said receiving the award was “like a dream...I feel uneasy whether I merit this honor, but I’ll make my best effort at being worthy of it.” Kitano is well liked and respected in France, His biography was first released there and his first art exhibition was showed at the Fondation Cartier pour l'art contemporain in Paris.

Takeshi Kitano's Films

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Many of Kitano's films are violent, with story often revolving around the violence rather than visa versa. On the violence in one his films, Kitano told the Yomiuri Shimbun, “My main concern was “How should these guys be killed?” Only after I decided that did I write the story to match.”

Takeshi is known best for making and staring in violent, sometimes comic, virtually dialogueless, action-gangster films like Violent Cop (1989), Boiling Point (1990) and Sonatine. Three of his films are among the all-time best-selling foreign language films in Britain.

Kitano’s films “often juxtapose the gentle innocense of childhood with the corruption and often random, casual violence of the adult world." Critic Aaron Gerow wrote: “While pulling the rug out from under those who think they know what a Kitano film is, undermining expectations, it nonetheless repeats a lot if what we’ve seen before. How you take this conflict between continuity and discontinuity, repetition and rapture, will probably decide whether ...the cinematic tricks and gags that may be masterful to some, are a mess to others.”

Kitano deputed as a director with the film Violent Cop ( Sono Otoko Kyobo ni Tsuki ) in 1989. Takeshi won the top prize. the Golden Lion, at the Venice International Film Festival in 1997 for Hana-Bi ("Fireworks"), a film about a soulless ex-policeman, pursued by loan-sharks, who seems to shoots every yakuza member in Japan except for the ones that shoot him and his wife at the end of the film.

Kikujiro, a film Kitano wrote, directed, edited and stared in, was well received at the 1999 Cannes film festival but received no awards. It is a lighthearted road movie about a man who travels with a nine-year-old bold in search of his mother, The boy is briefly detained by a child molester who tells him "Take your pants off, and I'll take you to see your mommy."

Takeshi Kitano's Later Films

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Brother (2001) was a stylish yakuza drama about a gangster who has to leave Japan and end up in Los Angeles, where he has various run ins with street punks and gangs. It was not very good. It stared Takeshi, Omar Eos and Claude Maxi. The New York Times called it a “A yakuza spectacular...Kitano stirs up some serious anarchy.”

Battle Royal (2001) is controversial and violent staring Kitano and directed by Kinji Fukasaku. It is about 42 middle school students that are taken to an island to play a game in which they are told to kill each other off, with the winner being the only one person left alive. Kitano plays the cruel teacher who orchestrates the whole thing and helped devise the game as way of dealing with increasing street crime.

Dolls (2002) features three intertwined stories related to a bunraku play about forbidden love.

Zatochi (2003) won Kitano the Silver Lion and the best director award at the Venice Film Festival. It is a historical drama about a blind swordsman with Kitano in the title role. For some of the fight scenes Kitano draws on his experience as a tap dancer when he worked the clubs in the Asakusa entertainment district in Tokyo.

Takeshis (2005) is both a gangster film and a parody of a gangster film in which Kitano plays two roles: 1) a “real life” movie star and director; and 2) an introverted debt-ridden convenience store clerk that aspires to be an actor. The film debuted at the Venice Film Festival to mixed reviews. It features a umber of elaborate shoot outs in which it seems everybody---yakuza, samurai and sumo wrestlers---dies.

Kantoku: Banzai! is a series of scenes and stories filled with gags and tricks that often poke fun of himself and what other think of him. There are some interesting moments but its also very messy.

Kitano’s 13th film Achilles and the Tortoise was released in 2008 and shown at the Venice Film Festival. It is the life story if a boy who is told he has a talent as an artist and pursues that goal only to have his largely unsuccessful career marred by a series of deaths, many of them suicides. Each death makes the boy and then the man morewithdrawn, emotionally cold and his art more inaccessible. The films is mostly serious but has some very funny moment, Kitano wrote, directed, produced and starred in the film. The acting is very good.

Kitano’s 2012 Film 'Outrage Beyond'

Kitano’s Outrage received a standing ovation at its Cannes Festival screening in 2010. Kitano plays an aging gangster during an internal power struggle within a yakuza organization.

Yasuko Onda wrote in the Yomiuri Shimbun: “ Outrage Beyond , a 2012 film directed, written and edited by Takeshi Kitano, is the sequel to the 2010 film Outrage. However, this time around, Kitano has amped up the dramatic thrills surrounding violence and betrayal. The new film--the 16th directed by Kitano--was screened during the 69th Venice Film Festival. The sequel takes place five years after the original, which depicted the internal conflicts within the Sanno-kai, a large syndicated crime group influential in the Kanto region. [Source: Yasuko Onda, Yomiuri Shimbun , October 12, 2012]

Dissent within the Sanno-kai gives the police an opportunity to crack down on the criminal group. Meanwhile, the Hanabishi-kai--a rival crime syndicate from the Kansai region that is looking to expand its territory--also sees a chance to make its move. These developments spark new conflict between the two syndicates. [Ibid]

"I'm a comedian who, in principle, entertains people. So I generally think about how I can initially trick audiences," Kitano said. "Audiences should never ever be able to guess the twist halfway through the film. But if they're left wondering why the story ends the way it does, that's also a failure. So it was very hard for me to keep the twist hidden but remain convincing. I found directing [this film] surprisingly difficult.” [Ibid]

In the original film, audiences were drawn in by its vivid depictions of violence. The sequel also features scenes with graphic violence, but also highlights a "war of words." Kitano leaves his mark on the new film with fast, rapid-fire dialogue between characters. "In the previous film, only violence and killing attracted people's attention. But that's necessary [for the new film, too], as it's a yakuza film. Then, I thought about what else I could use," Kitano said. "I came up with depicting characters threatening each other with words. That's another form of violence. I thought it would be interesting to hear some characters speak in the Kansai dialect while others speak in the Kanto dialect during big quarrels, like in manzai [comic dialogue].” [Ibid]

According to Kitano, the new film features twice as much dialogue as the previous film. As a result, scenes of graphic violence were reduced. To that extent, many things have been eliminated in the Outrage series to emphasize the film's essence.Actors from the original film, including Tomokazu Miura, Ryo Kase, Hideo Nakano and Fumiyo Kohinata, as well as Kitano himself, have returned for the sequel. New to the cast are veteran actors such as Toshiyuki Nishida, Akira Nakao and Shigeru Koyama. Despite such a star-studded cast, the only explanations about their characters were that they all portray bad men who cannot easily distinguish friend from foe. Also, unlike past yakuza films, there is no masculine pride or catharsis either. [Ibid]

To set the mood, Kitano aimed to make the film's color palette as close to monochrome as possible. As a result, a method called "bleach bypass" was applied during filmmaking. The method skips the bleaching process for color films so that silver is retained in the film. "We just omitted various elements to create a much drier, [more minimalistic] world. In that world, what we call violence may be nothing out of the ordinary," he said. "To say it in a different way, no one thinks of an ant carrying another insect as violence. You could say [my new film] depicts an ordinary moment in somebody's life.” [Ibid]

While many films superficially illustrate love and other bonds between people, this violent film stares rather calmly at human nature. "After all, I like to make all my characters bad guys. They'd probably be good guys in the animal world as they are honest with themselves," he said. "From an animal's viewpoint, they live very seriously and earnestly.” [Ibid]

Takeshi Kitano and Television

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Kujiro
Kitano is also one of Japan's most familiar television personalities. Known by the stage name of Beat Takeshi, he regularly appears in seven or eight different television shows a week.

Many of his extremely popular television shows are notorious for their cruel, humiliating and violent treatment of guests. Super Jockey, for example, featured guests receiving painful blows by karate experts, forced to sample disgusting flavors of ice cream, and attacked and stripped to their undergarments by members of the opposite sex. Hosted by Takeshi Kitano, the show ended with several women, each representing a sponsor, being immersing in scalding hot water, with the sponsor of the woman who stays in the longest (usually only three or four seconds) being allowed to do a commercial.

Takeshi occupies over seven hours of television programming a week.Among the shows that Kitano has created are We Are Wild and Crazy Guy, which many people have said was outrageously funny; Anyone Can be Picasso, which gives little known artists a chance to show their stuff on television; and Strong Things About the Japanese.

Television critic Wm. Penn wrote in the Daily Yomiuri, “Beat Takashi's most enduring and far-reaching contribution to the entertainment world just might be a funny little reality game show he launched in 1986 called Assault on Takeshi’s Castle , in which dozens of challengers ran an obstacle course for a chance to face off against Beat in a water gun battle on golf carts. It’s been off the air in Japan for over 20 years, but TBS has successfully licensed the concept in 159 countries since then. The latest recruit was Serbia’s PRVA in 2010.”

Nearly Fatal Accidents Makes Takeshi Kitano an Artist


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Shoji Ichihara wrote in the Yomiuri Shimbun, “A 1994 motorcycle accident left him at death's door. To kill time while recuperating, he turned to the canvas, and was soon engaged in full-fledged production. Some thoughts still make him shudder. "If I woke up tomorrow and I was back in that hospital room, what would I do?" Kitano said. "Is this moment, right now, just a dream? Am I really just flat on my back in a coma?"

This hazy line between dreaming and reality is reflected in Kitano's work. While Kitano wants others to enjoy his work, he also wants making art to be something truly pleasurable for himself. He has learned that man's No. 1 enemy is "habituation." Naturally right-handed, Kitano uses his left hand when making art--and even blindfolds himself while drawing. Although clumsy and lacking in smoothness and skill, his painting is filled with earnestness and effort. [Ibid]

Kitano said he has no intention of selling his works--his true intentions lie elsewhere. "Taking money for them would be like a scam," he said with a laugh. He makes his living from TV and movies. Drawing pictures is "purely for fun," and he doesn't want to turn his art into work. "If I started thinking, 'I want to paint something I can sell,' it wouldn't be fun anymore," Kitano said. [Ibid]

That's probably why he has given his pieces away for free to people who want them. Kitano said he is currently considering if graphic techniques for painting could be applied to filmmaking. He has even named this idea "cubism in the movies." He wonders if he could take each scene in a movie, say Mito Komon, and switch the scenes around to make a nonlinear film. For example, suddenly starting out with the climax. "If I could make an enjoyable movie where the scenes were mixed up roughly, wouldn't that be kind of like a Picasso painting?" he said. [Ibid]

Takeshi Kitano Art Exhibition


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On a Tokyo exhibition of Kitano’s work,Shoji Ichihara wrote in the Yomiuri Shimbun, One step inside the venue at Tokyo Opera City Art Gallery, my first thought was, "Huh? Takeshi Kitano's here?" But no, it was not the artist himself, but his life-sized figurine. The figure titled Who are you, looking at me? holds his own brain in his right hand--typical Kitano black humor. The sight would surprise anyone. [Source: Shoji Ichihara, Yomiuri Shimbun, June 8, 2012]

Many of the works, such as a self-portrait wearing a beret, or a man and woman having tea inside a whale, are explosions of primary colors. And there is simply something strange about Animal Flower Vase, a work which features a lion's body with a sunflower for a head. The other piece depicts a woman in a Japanese-style bridal gown with a white lily sticking out from her head instead of the typical bunkin takashimada hairstyle. [Ibid]

The 3-D piece titled Discovered! A huge unearthing of secret weapons diagrams from the former Imperial Japanese Army! features an elephant with a gun muzzle and missile coming out from the tip of its nose. Completely unexpected! The more I see, the more I feel like I'm confused: This is no museum, it's more like an amusement park. "In the end, my paintings are on the same level of those that could be displayed at the Hanayashiki [local amusement park] in [Tokyo's] Asakusa," he said dryly. "My pictures are about the level of what a 6- or 7-year-old child would paint.” [Ibid]

The exhibition is called Gosse de Peintre (kid painter). Kitano said he didn't want an austere space where people could "appreciate" his work. When looking at his freewheeling creations, "I just want people to have fun, that's all," he said. [Ibid]

At Kitano's exhibition in France in 2010 the hall was packed on opening day, and local media gushed with praise, "Takeshi Kitano--a master of many art forms," and, "A genius, it's like he never rests." The show was a smash, with about 130,000 people visiting over its run. Despite all the lavish praise, Kitano's humility remains intact. "I can't help but think [my work] is being overvalued. It embarrasses me when they call me an artist," Kitano said. [Source: Shoji Ichihara, Yomiuri Shimbun, June 8, 2012]

Image Sources: 1) Japan Zone, 2) Bright Lights, 3) Sense of Cinema, 4) Hollywood and Japanese studios; 5) YouTube

Text Sources: New York Times, Washington Post, Los Angeles Times, Daily Yomiuri, Times of London, Japan National Tourist Organization (JNTO), National Geographic, The New Yorker, Time, Newsweek, Reuters, AP, Lonely Planet Guides, Compton’s Encyclopedia and various books and other publications.

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© 2009 Jeffrey Hays

Last updated January 2013

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