And the Beat Goes On (TIFF ‘96 Kitano Takeshi Symposium)

Thursday, October 3, 1996

Kitano Takeshi must be scared.

Forced to sit on stage for three hours in a sweltering movie theater packed to the gills with young admirers, the man better known as Beat Takeshi was subjected last Friday night to endless praise and admiration by film critics, a university professor, and even a Cannes-winning film director at the Film Director Kitano Takeshi International Symposium held in conjunction with the 1996 Tokyo International Film Festival.

“What really scares me,” the popular comedian and film director quipped at the end, “is that I’ll make another movie that will force this on me again.”

Takeshi may have taken the honor with his usual razor-sharp wit, but the other symposium participants were more serious about finding the source of director Kitano’s critical acclaim abroad and commercial success, with his latest film Kids Return, at home.

With University of Tokyo Prof. Hasumi Shigehiko and film critic Yamane Sadao trading off as moderators, critics Tony Rayns of England and Thierry Jousse of France joined the celebrated director Hou Hsiao-Hsien in offering their impressions of the Kitano cinema world.

Rayns launched what would turn out to be the dominant theme of the evening by comparing Takeshi’s films to Hou’s, but the Taiwanese master himself proffered the best version of that analysis.

“Even if we both occasionally depict gangster life,” he explained, “my films are full of the heavy sadness of life, the frustrated desires and ambitions of people who are located in a socio-historical context. Kitano’s films, however, remain cold to reality, with none of that sadness or desire.”

Takeshi speculated that this may have stemmed from his childhood experiences as an unwilling observer, prevented from participating in anything by his father. “I have the tendency to look at myself in the third person,” he confessed. “I even laughed at myself, covered in blood, after my motorbike crash.”

The theme of death, so prominent in Kitano’s films before his own brush with death, was also the subject of much discussion.

If Rayns saw Kids Return as shifting the central quest of Kitano’s work from how to die to how to live, Yamane posed that shift as emblematic of the pendulum of Takeshi’s directorial career.

The unpredictability of such hard and inevitable realities as life and death in some ways mirrors the director’s own efforts to constantly change his style and keep his audience guessing.

The panel stressed the idiosyncrasy that Takeshi himself termed his “willful arbitrariness,” the refusal to either offer or accept fawning respect, to challenge anyone who thinks he’s gotten Beat Takeshi figured out.

As if to illustrate, Takeshi, asked how he might use the sometimes actor Hou in his own film, pulled the rug out from under his fellow director by joking: “I’d have him play Sato Gajiro’s temple sweeper in the Tora-san films.” Even the beloved Tora-san and his saccharin creator, Yamada Yoji, soon suffered the barbs of Takeshi’s wit.

Given his rebelliousness, the question then is what Beat Takeshi will do with all this international respect. Queried about the demands of such recognition, he confessed, “I’m scared I might one day start making films for the foreign critics. That’s why I always carry around a ladder to escape with.”

To keep those good films coming, let’s hope he stays scared and doesn’t lose that ladder.

By Aaron Gerow

Originally appeared in The Daily Yomiuri, 3 October 1996, p. 10.

Copyright 1996: The Daily Yomiuri and Aaron Gerow