Wednesday, June 10, 2009

Book Reviews: 'Beat' Takeshi Kitano/ Beat Takeshi Vs. Takeshi Kitano

"'Beat' Takeshi Kitano", Brian Jacobs (ed.), Publisher: Tadao Press, ISBN: 0952795116/ 104 pages, Published: 1999

"Beat Takeshi Vs. Takeshi Kitano", Casio Abe, Publisher: Kaya Press, ISBN: 1885030401/ 272 pages, Published: 2002

Reviewed by Eric Evans

Much to my mother's chagrin I was an Ultraman and Godzilla junkie from when I was old enough to change the channel, but it wasn't until I saw "Sonatine" that I developed a healthy adult interest in Japanese film. Oh sure, I'd seen the classics in college film courses, but for years I labored under the assumption that all Japanese film were chambara or deeply sober or both. Not that there's anything wrong with sobriety or period pieces, but the younger me wanted to see Scorsese-esque drama and realism played out in a contemporary setting. So you can imagine the effect Takeshi Kitano's directorial work had on me.

I'm also the type to immerse myself in whatever intrigues me, so once I tracked down all the available (and, um, commercially unavailable) Kitano DVDs I could, I went looking for books on the guy's films. My thought was that any artist with Kitano's output must have inspired a legion of critics and theologians whose many books would quench my desire to learn everything I could about him. However, it was slim pickings--especially in English.

The first volume I found was "'Beat' Takeshi Kitano", a magazine-sized catch-all volume covering Kitano's biographical information, reviews of his films, interviews with collaborators, festival coverage, and--most interestingly for this reader--a well-illustrated chapter on Kitano's paintings. Featuring multiple authors (including Tommy Udo, who provides most of the films reviews, and a few contributions from Casio Abe), the book struggles to find a consistent tone but is nevertheless a useful primer. At the time of purchase I recall thinking "this a treasure trove of information!" but there's little here that would prompt a re-read; I devoured the book in a sitting and never consulted it again. It's slight. For example, most of the film reviews run quite short: a page, two pages tops. "Scene At The Sea" merits one page, about 600 words. Further, there's something about the book that seems juvenile, as if it was published to appeal to a teen crowd. Certainly that's not the case, but it has the look and feel of one of those publish-it-quick-to cash-in biographies of teenage pop stars. Unfortunate.

The second Kitano book I discovered is "Beat Takeshi Vs. Takeshi Kitano", Casio Abe's scholarly examination of the two Takeshis: The TV star and comic who delights in scatology and pranks, and the director whose soulfulness and insight into worlds of crime and pain set the bar for Yakuza pictures. Casio's treatment is nuanced and his research is exhaustive; one cannot fault the book's depth or Casio's palpable respect for his subject. But while I recognize the appeal of the dueling Takeshis as a solid thematic hook on which to hang a book of essays and observations, I think the premise itself is flawed. Yes, Kitano is as comfortable with comedy as he is with drama--but does that mean he's at odds with himself, a Jeckyll and Hyde figure? It seems to me that many classic Hollywood actors and directors have done both comedy and drama to some acclaim, and the specialization (or is it typecasting?) of some directors as "dramatic" and others as "comedic" has less to do with artistic shortcomings and more to do with market forces and playing the odds with increasingly massive budgets.

In the Japanese film market, Takeshi Kitano exists in a Woody Allen role. OK, on the surface that's absurd, but stay with me: Allen started out in TV comedy, shifted to film comedy, then branched out into serious, and in some cases violent, drama. He was able to do so because his films are inexpensive enough that his investors recoup expenses and earn a bit of profit. In return for keeping the budgets low, Allen gets the creative freedom to make whatever films he wants. Sound familiar?

There is more of a demarkation between Kitano's TV and film work, but no one can argue that Kitano's best dramatic film work is humorless. "Sonatine" has highly effective pratfalls; "Hana~Bi" has darkly funny moments; "Kikujiro" is essentially a road movie with plenty of levity. As a result of these observations, I had a resistance to Casio's argument from page one. However, there's a degree of scholarship to this book that demands a fully engaged reader, and depending on where you're sitting, the work either transcends the "Takeshi Vs. Kitano" premise or proves quite persuasive. The essay chapters will inspire you to sit and re-watch the specific films, looking for things unseen or at very least subtle: nuances in shot construction, lighting composition and more. Casio is clearly passionate about Kitano's work to a degree unusual in a book like this. I've described it as scholarly several times, but that's not lexiconical laziness. This volume has much more in common with a college upperclassman's textbook than your standard film personality biography. If that sounds appealing to you, Mazel Tov!--the book will delight you. If the tone and density of serious film scholarship isn't your thing, you'll want to skip this.

Film by film, chapter by chapter, I didn't always agree with the conclusions Casio reaches. But the book challenges the reader to "read" each film on multiple levels--emotional, intellectual, technical--and compare results. I savored Casio's chapter essays over the span of several weeks, reading them and re-reading them after re-watching the DVDs of Kitano's films. It was great fun.

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