"Films can illustrate our existence...they can distress, disturb and provoke people into thinking about themselves and certain problems but not give the answers." - Director Joseph Losey (The Boy with the Green Hair, The Trout, The Damned, Eva).
In order to grasp Takeshis' (2005), you really have to know some background info on star/writer/editor/director Takeshi "Beat" Kitano. He is a man with a curious career and a curiouser public persona. Consider this, in the US and Europe he is most well-known as a well-regarded arthouse writer/director/actor of poetic gangster films like Sonatine and Fireworks, but that stage of his career only consists of the past fifteen years. Many years prior to that in Japan he has been a comedian and tv show host, helming multiple shows at a time, from game shows, to chat shows, variety programs, and so forth. Despite his artistic success as a director, actor, critic, and novelist, in Japan, his main public image is some sort of cross between a stand-up comic, Bob Barker, and Jerry Springer.
As long as I've known about Kitano and read interviews with him, he's expressed reservations about his uneven artistic recognition and his stardom in Japan. His cinematic career as a director was a lark to begin with (it was spawned after he stepped in to replace Kinji Fukusaku early on during the filming of Violent Cop). He's best known for his stoic gangster films, even somewhat plagued by them since most of his attempts to break that mold have been met with lukewarm reactions. Years of being a goofball presence on tv has tempered any homegrown artistic success. Its also pretty telling that his one commercially successful film in Japan was his one work-for-hire project, a remake of the highly popular Zatoichi. So here you have the case of someone who is a respected jack of all trades but is only mainstream successful at the things he is least personally and artistically invested in.
Takeshis' is a blackly comic, fractured reflection by Kitano on Kitano. You could make the case of Kitano being slightly hypocritical about his fame and perception. He doesn't have to helm four or five tv shows at a time at this stage of his career, but he does. He frequently travels and conducts interviews with menacing looking hangers-on (who could be actors, underworld figures, friends, bodyguards, or all of the above). So he is guilty of feeding to his public figment and fame. Regardless, Takeshis' ends up being a bold, quirky endeavor by an artist contemplating aspects of his fame and persona.
In the film, Takeshi Kitano plays Beat Takeshi a famous, wealthy actor and Kitano, a blond Beat lookalike, convenience store worker, and aspiring actor. Actor Susumu Terajima plays dual roles as Beat's friend and as Kitano's mocking neighbor. Actress Kotimi Kyono plays dual roles as Beat's assistant/girlfriend and as a floozy hanging off the arm of Kitano's mean-spirited neighbor. In addition, almost every actor in the film plays dual/different roles of some sort. Why? Well, that probably lies in the fact that the film was spawned from a never developed Kitano project called Fractals about dreams creating their own reality and subsequently their own dreams. So, in this film each reality blends into the next and you could describe the film as a dream within a dream within a dream, of sorts.
Kitano the aspiring actor and counter jockey is too bland, dumb, and meek to make much of an impression on anyone but he aspires to have the clout of his famous doppleganger. He's lucky to get background work and suffers through embarrassing auditions where a casting agent venomously snubs him and even manages to make his other job a living hell with unreasonable change demands. But his life takes a turn one day when a bloodied, on the run yakuza takes refuge in his store. The result is that a bag of guns is now in Kitano's possession and he makes use of them by blowing away all of his troubles. That ridiculing neighbor? Ka-blam! Those guys at the mahjong parlor? Ka-blam! Rude cooks at the noodle restaurant? Ka-blam!
Basically, what Takeshi Kitano has made is an incredibly self-indulgent bit of hyperbolic fantasy. With dream logic, Takeshis' comments on (the unwanted aspects of) fame, identity, desire, jealousy, etc. It is a bit Fellini's 8 1/2, a bit Woody Allen's Stardust Memories, and a bit Chuck Barris The Gong Show Movie. Because of its style and very specific references, really enjoying the film depends largely on knowing who Kitano is, both his persona and his films, and hinges on your taste (or distaste) for fractured, abstract storytelling.
In my synopsis I've given a sensible account of the film but really it is much more wild and fanciful and in no way built on any kind of A-to-B, logivcal narrative. For instance, one side trip is a Kitano doppleganger dream where he is a cab driver. He picks up a carload of eccentric passengers, two sumo dressed comedians, and a young child actor in kabuki makeup and his manager. Cabbie Kitano must grimly, yet comedically, navigate a nighttime road littered with bodies. During his guns-a-blazin' rampage, doppleganger Kitano watches an extended dance sequence featuring different characters from the film (and some great editing). So you see, these are metaphorical sequences not plot points.
The films key bit in the finale seems to be a Takeshi Kitano signature ending, an endless bullet shootout between the Kitano doppleganger and an army of police, samurai, and various other nods to Kitano's film career. The setting itself is on a sun drenched beach reminicent of Sonatine. This sequence is very self/image mocking and suggests Takeshi Kitano intends it and the film to be a denouncement of his gangster film persona and that stage of career. One thing is for sure, if this film really is as it seems to be, the nail in the coffin of his tough guy art films, it makes me very curious to see what he will do next.
I rarely read reviews of films I'm anticipating or enjoyed, but Takeshis' is the odd sort of film that I was interested reading what other people thought about it. Critically, most of the dismissive reviews seemed to fall on the fact that the reviewers wanted there to be some kind of clearly defined statement or progressing storyline. This is simply not that kind of film. If you want something literal, this ain't your bag. Takeshis' is a purposefully absurd, figurative, dream-based view of fame and identity, not some bio pic drama.
The DVD: Seville.
First up, its got some ugly cover art. I far prefer the artwork on the Region 2 edition which Ian Jane reviewed here
Picture: Anamorphic Widescreen. Really since his third film Sonatine, Kitano has increasingly shown a painter's eye with his compositions and Takeshis' continues the trend with some striking imagery. Techwise there are some slight compression issues and shimmering, but overall it is a well defined, clean print. Grain level is acceptable. Good contrast reveals nice, deep, even black levels. Crisp sharpness. Colors are suitably vibrant.
Sound: Japanese language 2.0 Stereo. Optional English or French subtitles. Basic stereo track gets the job done but doesn't offer much in terms of audio thrills. Subtitle translation appears to be quite good and also offers up sign/text translation in addition to the dialogue.
Conclusion: First I'll say that I really liked Takeshis'. I'm the perfect audience for it. I love surrealism. I don't need my cinema to have cut and dry resolutions. And, I've closely followed Kitano's directorial career. Having said that, I don't think the film will work for most viewers unless they fall into the former category. Knowing about Kitano is one thing, enjoying indulgent, non literal cinema is another. Seville's DVD is decent and barebones, so most might want to try this curious film as a rental, while the bolder people who think it sounds like their kind of film could dare a casual purchase.