In the West, “Beat” Takeshi Kitano is known almost entirely for his film work, both as an actor and then as a critically acclaimed writer and director, a fixture at international film festivals and on Ten Best lists.
Kitano made an impression on these shores for the first time in 1983, as the brutal WW2 prison camp enforcer who uttered the title phrase in Nagisa Oshima’s Merry Christmas, Mr. Lawrence. It was only a few years later that his early films as a writer-director began to win a passionate cult following: Violent Cop (1989), Boiling Point (1990), Sonatine (1993), and especially the sublime Hana-Bi (Fireworks, 1997), which won the Golden Lion for Best Film at the Venice International Film Festival. All of these movies were noted for a distinctive combination of deadpan satire and explosive gangster violence.
But in Japan, Kitano’s film triumphs are just the icing on the cake of a long and influential career as a multi-media celebrity. As one commentator put it, “(Kitano) has been as visible and visceral an influence on his culture as Johnny Carson, Rush Limbaugh, Frank Zappa and Oliver Stone put together have been on theirs.”
Born in 1947 on the “Lower East Side” of Tokyo, Kitano was driven through the rigorous Japanese educational system by a domineering mother. The younger brother of a university professor, Takeshi was clearly the black sheep of the Kitano family, dropping out of prestigious Meiji University (where he studied engineering) to go to work as an elevator operator in a strip club, France-Za, in the Asakusa district, where he quickly talked his way on stage as a between-the-acts comedian.
Kitano first achieved real fame in the 1970s and ‘80s, as one half of a raucous comedy duo, The Two Beats, partnered with “Beat” Kiyoshi Kaneko. Bantering comedy teams were all the rage in those days, a variation upon the obstreperous folk art performance style known as manzai, or “bickering comic dialogues.” Appearing first on TV before branching out into movies, books and pop music, comedy teams like The Tunnels, Uchan-Nachan, Downtown, and The Two Beats became the core of a new generation of entertainers that transformed Japanese pop culture. The movement represented a mainstreaming of fringe character types and points of view.
Kitano broke new ground in his comedy by mixing barbed social commentary with the bawdiness of lowbrow “burlesque show” humor. “To work in a strip joint,” writes critic William Marsh of Kitano’s apprentice period, “is to learn that shock value is bought and sold, and that people will always pay you to appall them.”
Kitano became a solo megastar in the late 1970s in a weekly TV series, Super Jockey, that spoofed Japanese spandexed heroes in the mold of Ultraman and Power Rangers. From that humble beginning a parallel career in television developed that, in Japan, still often outshines his movie work. He has at times appeared on as many as eight weekly TV series there simultaneously. One of them was modestly entitled Tennasai Takeshi no Gennki ga Deru TV (“Genius Takeshi’s TV That Gives You Courage”).
In addition, Kitano has written monthly columns for several national magazines, on subjects ranging from sports to politics, and he has published more than 50 books: spin-offs from his comedy work, collections of columns, and even serious socially-conscious novels like Kids Return, about a Tokyo youth gang, which he adapted for the big screen in 1996.
Takeshi Kitano has always made some people very angry. In his 1993 book This is Why People Hate Me he ascribes this to an inclination for blurting out rude truths, “the stuff people would never dare mention at school or in their peer group.”
Over the next decade, in addition to his burgeoning TV work, Kitano became a prolific “tough guy” character actor in Japanese crime and gangster films, playing the thug sidekicks or cop adversaries of superstars like Ken Takakura and Tatsuya Nakadai.
Kitano’s notable Japanese vehicles as an actor include Koji Wakamatsu’s Erotic Liaisons (1992), a variation on Les Liaisons Dangereuses set in contemporary Paris, Takashi Iishi’s Gonin (“Five”) (1995), a cult favorite in which he plays an expressionless one-eyed hitman, Nagisa Oshima’s gay-themed samurai epic Gohatto (Taboo, 1999), in which he co-starred with his future Zatoichi co-star Tadanobu Asano, and Kinji Fukasaku’s controversial Battle Royale (2000), in which he played the stone-faced supervisor of a futuristic reality game in which teams of teenager contestants fight are marooned on an island to fight each other for survival, to the death.
On rare occasions Kitano has also played solid citizens, winning especially strong reviews for his work in Awashii Kibunnde Joke (“Joke at a Time of Sorrow”), as the devoted father of a 10-year-old boy dying of brain cancer, and in his own Kikujiro (1999), in which he played a seemingly hard-bitten fellow who befriends a fatherless boy.
Given his rough-hewn background and the fact that many in Japan had come to take him for granted as a prime time personality, it is perhaps not surprising that “Beat” Takeshi had a hard time getting taken seriously when he tried to palm himself off as the movie director Takeshi Kitano.
“I wear a lot of hats,” Kitano admits, “that of director, comic, and actor. They’re very different roles. I’ve spent a lot of energy looking for acceptance in these different roles. I had a lot of trouble making people believe that the comic “Beat” Takeshi could play a gangster. And it took a lot of time before I was recognized as a director.”
He began directing by accident: In 1989 he was selected by producer Kazuyoshi Okuyama and director Kinji Fukasaku (Black Lizard) to play Tokyo’s answer to Dirty Harry in the action programmer Violent Cop. When Fukasaku fell ill and was forced to abandon the project, desperate Okuyama entrusted Kitano with the director’s job, also permitting him to extensively re-write the screenplay. Kitano portrayed the policeman Ryosuke, a detective whose crusade against a drug lord becomes an increasingly personal quest for vengeance, as a stunted personality who can barely interact with the outside world except through violence.
In August 1994, Kitano was involved in a near-fatal motorcycle accident in Tokyo, suffering a fractured skull and partial facial paralysis, and was isolated in intensive care for two months at Tokyo Medical College Hospital. While bed-ridden he added yet another creative arrow to his quiver, taking up oil painting and turning out dozens of accomplished canvases.
“After the accident,” Kitano told Chris Dafoe, “the doctors thought I was dead. And when I survived, the entertainment community thought I could never return. I have returned, but my personal experience has changed my views in certain ways. In my previous films, death has been an answer for the characters. They are looking for the right way to die. In (my subsequent films), they choose to live. Deciding to live is in some ways the harder choice.”
In the years following his recovery Kitano resumed his bustling media career and made two films that were significant stylistic departures: Are You Getting Any? (1995) was a raunchy and surreal comedy, cast largely with TV comedy stars, that harked back to the take-no-prisoners spirit of The Two Beats. Kids Return (1996), based on Kitano’s novel, was a downbeat saga of an aspiring teenager boxer on the fringes of the yakuza gangster scene. It was the first Kitano film since A Scene by the Sea in which the writer-director did not also appear.
Kitano’s paintings became a visual motif in the third film he directed after the accident, the award-winning Hana-Bi, in which a policeman, bedridden after a shooting incident, pulls himself back from the brink of suicide by taking up art. Hana-bi marked a return to the volatile black-comic style of Sonatine.
—Courtesy of Miramax Films, All Rights Reserved.
2003 ZATOICHI — director, writer, editor
2002 DOLLS — director, writer, editor
2000 BROTHER — director, writer, editor
1999 KIKUJIRO — director, writer, editor
1997 HANA-BI (FIREWORKS) — director, writer, editor
1996 KIDS RETURN — director, writer, editor
1995 GETTING ANY? — director, writer, editor
1993 SONATINE — director, writer, editor
1991 A SCENE AT THE SEA — director, writer, editor
1990 BOILING POINT — director, writer, editor
1989 VIOLENT COP — director
2003 BATTLE ROYALE II (Kenta & Kinji Fukasaku)
2001 BATTLE ROYALE — (Kinji Fukasaku)
1999 TABOO (AKA GOHATTO) — (Nagisa Oshima)
1998 TOKYO EYES — (Jean-Pierre Limosin)
1997 HANA-BI (AKA FIREWORKS)
1995 FIVE OF THEM (AKA GONIN) — (Takashi Ishii)
1995 GETTING ANY?
1994 JOHNNY MNEUMONIC — (Robert Longo)
1993 SONATI NE
1993 MANY HAPPY RETURNS (AKA KYOUSO TANJOU) — (Toshihiro Tenma)
1990 BOILING POINT
1989 VIOLENT COP
1983 MERRY CHRISTMAS, MR. LAWRENCE — (Nagisa Oshima)
“Beat” Takeshi Kitano is the commercial spokesman in Japan for the super-caffienated soft drink Jolt! Cola. A natural gig for a man who rarely seems to rest.
Kitano MidnightEye interview