Kitanos and Takeshis’


Format: Cinema

Date: 12 February 2010

Venue: Curzon Renoir, London

Distributor: Artificial Eye

Director: Takeshi Kitano

Writer: Takeshi Kitano

Alternative title: Fractal

Cast: Takeshi Kitano, Kotomi Kyôno, Kayoko Kishimoto, Tetsu Watanabe

Japan 2005

108 mins

Ever since his feature debut with Violent Cop (1989) 20 years ago, the cinema of Takeshi Kitano has been dominated by the director’s alter ego, ‘Beat’ Takeshi. This is the nickname under which Kitano became famous as a comedian in Japan in the 1970s (as part of a stand-up double act called the Two Beats, so called because of the future filmmaker’s love of jazz music) and thereafter as an infamous radio and television host. It was a convenient means of demarcating a lowbrow celebrity persona from an ambitious and multi-talented creative artist, and Kitano has retained the name for his acting credit in every film in which he has appeared, so that ‘Beat’ Takeshi has become in effect the face of Kitano’s cinema, acting as the director’s surrogate or substitute. As the US critic Kent Jones has noted: ‘the special kick of Kitano’s films… is the man himself. In the distinguished history of actor-directors, he stands alone’.

Such is the singular nature of Kitano’s stardom – his (national) popularity as an irreverent television personality against his (international) status as a serious filmmaker – that it should come as little surprise that he has himself recently turned his attention to the specificity of his multifaceted artistry. His last three films, each of which is variously concerned with the theme of substitution, have all been defined by their exploration of aspects of Kitano’s own stardom, or at least critical and popular perceptions thereof. Most recently, Achilles and the Tortoise (2008) examined the artistic face of Kitano and his lack of popular acceptance in Japan through the serio-comic life story of a painter forever out of step with modern trends and practices (Kitano has been an avid painter for over 10 years). Before this, Glory to the Filmmaker! (2007) offered a playful, Fellini-esque satirical vision of Kitano as a director whose career has stalled and who cannot settle on his next project. In the guise of a faux documentary, Glory to the Filmmaker! becomes pointedly concerned with ‘Beat’ Takeshi. Indeed, seemingly unbeknownst to the characters around him, he is sporadically substituted in the narrative by a life-size Kitano doll (replete with puppeteers when necessary), a comedic device that underlines the extent to which ‘Beat’ Takeshi is taken for granted as part of the furniture of a Kitano film.

It is, however, the first in this series of what Kitano has self-deprecatingly called his ‘auto-destruct’ cinema that is most thoroughly concerned with the vagaries of Kitano and ‘Beat’ Takeshi, and the particular nature of substitution at their heart. Takeshis’, Kitano’s twelfth film, is given a belated theatrical release in the UK (over four years after its notoriously unsuccessful premiere as the surprise film at the 2005 Venice Festival) and will shock viewers expecting anything like the popular fare of Zatoichi (2003). Indeed, it has been suggested that Kitano acquiesced to remaking Zatoichi in order to gain the leverage necessary for what he knew would be a personal, commercially unpalatable project, having already proposed it (under the title Fractal) as a follow-up to Sonatine (1993), at which time he was strongly discouraged from making it.

Takeshis’ concerns a TV star named ‘Beat’ Takeshi who encounters his double in the figure of a struggling actor called Mr Kitano. Over the course of an increasingly surreal narrative, built largely around Edgar Allan Poe’s proverbial conception of life as a ‘dream within a dream’, Mr Kitano begins to usurp the position and status of his more famous counterpart, seemingly becoming ‘Beat’ Takeshi to the point where the line between reality and fantasy becomes ever more blurred and difficult to determine.

This most self-reflexive narrative is a culmination of Kitano’s representation of himself, of ‘Beat’ Takeshi, within his cinema, and of its consistent subtext of substitution. This theme is given its fullest expression in Takeshis’, but can be traced back as far as Violent Cop, concerned as Kitano’s first work is with the unmooring of identity in modern, post-economic miracle Japan. The titular detective in this film, as in Kitano’s later international breakthrough film Hana-Bi (1997), moves fluidly from police officer to criminal, one substituting for the other just as the central character in Japan’s other key film from 1989, Shinya Tsukamoto’s Tetsuo: The Iron Man, develops from man into machine. These pictures were made on the cusp of seismic social change in Japan. They appeared just as the death of Emperor Hirohito and the beginning of a recession were transforming the country, substituting an enormously different nation whose points of reference, both spiritual and capitalist, were being increasingly eroded.

This sense of identity-in-flux can be seen as a particular facet of ‘Beat’ Takeshi within Kitano’s cinema. In the three films he directed in which he does not appear as an actor – A Scene at the Sea (1991), Kids Return (1996) and Dolls (2002) – the personal trajectories embodied by the youthful protagonists differ markedly. They display ideals of self-betterment through a single-minded commitment (generally to sports; surfing in A Scene at the Sea and boxing in Kids Return) that comes even at the expense of personal relationships. In contrast, the characters played by the director evince no such sense of secure identity developed through action. Rather, like Godard’s outlaw couple in Breathless (1959), their sense of self fluctuates according to each event, with the protagonists’ identity remaining in flux throughout.

In Takeshis’, one ‘Beat’ Takeshi literally substitutes for another in a film about internal and external realities, and about the limits of the very notion of existential identity associated with other ‘Beat’ Takeshi protagonists. The point of the substitution in this narrative is specifically to undermine the defining features of ‘Beat’ Takeshi on film, the important detail being that it is the exterior trappings, the accoutrements, of this character that exclusively determine Mr Kitano’s transformation into him. Initially, his rise in status is characterised exclusively by the guns he takes into his possession in order to practise for a film role. He is then further distinguished by his actions with those guns, such as robbing a bank (something that echoes the protagonist of Hana-Bi); and, like almost all Kitano’s characters, by his retreat to the beach. Finally, Mr Kitano’s transformation is crystallised when his body becomes encoded as the cinematic ‘Beat’ Takeshi: that is, when he engages in a prolonged and comically stylised and exaggerated shoot-out against a multitude of opponents amid a veritable hail of bullets, from which he emerges unscathed.

In this moment of extreme comedy, Mr Kitano takes on the bodily impenetrability of the typical ‘Beat’ Takeshi yakuza character, and with it his metamorphosis is apparently complete. However, the spectre of (often self-inflicted) death always haunts ‘Beat’ Takeshi’s cops and criminals, and here the notion of encoding the body, of make-up and performance, is explored thematically as the essence of substitution. One possible starting point for the dream structure of the film is ‘Beat’ Takeshi falling asleep as he has a yakuza tattoo applied in preparation for a television role. It is returned to later as Mr Kitano, now fully ensconced as a ‘Beat’ Takeshi clone, stabs the TV star, and the knife in the attack becomes the stabbing needles of the tattooist as ‘Beat’ Takeshi wakes from a dream.

In other words, the violent attack by Mr Kitano segues into ‘Beat’ Takeshi being made up (constructed, created, encoded) as the genre figure that he is popularly or primarily known as, with Kitano juxtaposing actual and figurative violence in order to illustrate the harm this figure represents for his career. It is thus redolent of the brutality inflicted on Kitano by commentators who can’t see past violence as a defining feature of his work, who have over-valued and fetishised it out of proportion (the specific parodies of Hana-Bi and Sonatine underline this notion). The theories of the French philosopher Michel Foucault argue that the human body can be regarded as a surface for writing, as a site on which social systems of regulation and control can be marked out and openly displayed. In Takeshis’, ‘Beat’ Takeshi becomes just such a vessel. The yakuza tattoo literally inscribes and codifies his body, just as the views of critics and commentators have figuratively performed the same act of violence against his work, his textual body. From what is, in actuality, a sign of imagined completion and belonging to a bigger body, that of the strictly ordered brotherhood of the yakuza, this image becomes, for ‘Beat’ Takeshi, a stain on his identity, an exterior mark of interior decay.

Doppelgänger fiction has been reasonably prevalent in Japanese cinema. Akira Kurosawa’s overt substitute narrative Kagemusha (1980), Shinya Tsukamoto’s Gemini (1999) and Kiyoshi Kurosawa‘s Doppelgänger (2003) are only the most evident examples predating Takeshis’. Kitano follows Akira Kurosawa and foregrounds the subtext of substitution as it is inherent in a majority of doppelgänger narratives (not only cinematic: Dostoevsky’s The Double, Nabokov’s Despair and José Saramago’s The Double are all about the terror of an individual replaced in the world or the potential liberation of replacing someone else). By relating the idea to his own work and screen image, Kitano introduces the idea of performance and the commodification of the artist – the promulgation of copies or clones that take on their own life in discourse on art and the artist. Like Orson Welles’s art forgery essay and magician’s fable F for Fake (1974), in which the director derides the status of art in the marketplace as an entity given a seal of originality and commercial value by bearing the approved stamp of its artist creator, Takeshis’ sees Kitano lamenting the brand he has become. It imagines, in the aforementioned knife attack, the violence inherent in the substitution of an artist with his/her creation, but also the ease with which this can happen: ‘Beat’ Takeshi over Takeshi Kitano.

Adam Bingham

This article was first published in the summer 09 issue of Electric Sheep Magazine, which explored the idea of substitute in cinema.

Reel Sounds: Unsynched Rhythms – George Antheil’s Le Ballet mécanique

Le Ballet mécanique

George Antheil, the pistol-wielding, self-styled ‘bad boy’ of the European branch of the Roaring Twenties avant-garde composed Le Ballet mécanique in 1924. Scored for eight pianos, eight xylophones, pianola, two electric doorbells and an aeroplane propeller, it was scratched out in the context of post-WWI technological and sensorial momentum. When art either looked askance or fluttered its eyelashes coquettishly at the pyschotropic dimensions of the world. A world perceived from a multiplicity of angles, far away and at high speed. Mechanised warfare, aviation, railways, automobiles, skyscrapers, telephones, super mass production, jazz, radio, cinema, futurism, cubism, dada, surrealism, Duchamp and all manner of post-traumatic stress disorder freak-outs. Antheil would have adored the Heathrow Express.

Antheil’s score was originally commissioned to accompany Fernand Léger’s film of the same title, shot by Man Ray, but it was twice as long and could never be synchronised with it. The only commonality the two works have is, seemingly, their title. Léger’s film flickers like an ashen moth in a lethargic strobe light. Antheil’s score has the quality of a combustion engine with brass fittings and a modicum of grease.

In 2000, technological advances allowed Paul Lehrman to combine an edited version of the original score with the film. This version appears on the DVD box-set Unseen Cinema: Early American Avant Garde Film 1894-1941 released by Image Entertainment in October 2005.

A bombastic, belligerent, percussive work, vulgar in its way, formed from a lattice of insistency. Xylophone and the hi-frequency linear vibrations of doorbells evoke a mirage of movement that lances through the dense mahogany clusters and churnings of mass piano vamps. Vamps that chase linear rhythms like Keystone Kops in pursuit of a villain.

As a quaint anthropomorphic fantasy of mechanic frenzy, an homage to the resilience and persistence and oppression of advanced capitalist production, it is indeed quite witty. It certainly wouldn’t be out of place accompanying a Keaton catastrophe or, as mentioned, a Keystone caper. In terms of composition and arrangement, if you’re looking for comparisons, Antheil’s piece is closer to Sabre Dance by Aram Khachaturian than Varèse, Russolo, Cowell, Stravinsky, Schoenberg, Webern, Berg or any other important modernist composer. It’s rather weak tea to Léger’s biscuit too, best not to dunk.

Richard Thomas

Short Cuts: 7th London Short Film Festival

Con Moto

7th London Short Film Festival

8-17 January 2010

Various venues, London

LSFF website

‘It’s only fucking rock and roll’. After considered soul-searching and philosophical ponderings, Noel Gallagher’s Mancunian drawl brought proceedings down to earth with a sharp bump, stifled laughter rippling around the Roxy Bar and Screen. One of the London Short Film Festival’s many events combining music and film, the 65-minute documentary, Introspective (2006), was a captivating exploration of definitions: musicians struggling to define themselves, as individuals, among their contemporary peers, and within a complex sprawl of musical genres and history. While this type of quandary might not keep Noel Gallagher awake at night, fortunately there were plenty more thoughtful voices to discuss what the term ‘post-rock’ really means. A simple, low-fi mix of interviews and performances by bands associated with the movement, Adam Garriga’s documentary presented the audience with important dilemmas facing all artists in an age of information overload: how to come up with something original when it feels as if everything has been done before; and how to escape pigeon-holing while being indentified. The interviewees were an analytical, critical and engaging bunch, as they tried to find the words to define their art and their own place within the world. One of the more eloquent speakers, Jan St Werner from Mouse on Mars complained about the media trying to categorise and file bands: ‘our work is our definition,’ he explained. Ending with an eerily beautiful live performance of Low’s ‘(That’s How We Sing) Amazing Grace’, the film proved that words and definitions are not always necessary or able to do artworks justice.

The London Short Film Festival happily followed this dictum throughout its own programming. And this was nowhere better displayed than at the Leftfield and Luscious screening. The shorts compiled into this enigmatically titled programme defied categorisation, lying somewhere between video art and art-house cinema. Such assorted misshapes are usually left out in the cold or side-lined so it was nice to see them taking centre stage for a packed-out screening at the ICA.

As two ghostly figures appeared on screen, shrouded by mist and ethereal strings and saws, it was clear that this was going to be an interesting afternoon. While at times the programme felt a little long and films occasionally missed the mark, most offered memorable moments and arresting images and some were really very special. Generally, it was those that tried to marry conventional linear narratives with more intangible, obscure forms that worked least well. The dialogue rested heavily and awkwardly in these films, making you wish the filmmaker had dispensed with the everyday altogether and just let the visuals speak for themselves.

Toby Tatum’s painterly short, The Sealed World, which started the screening, presented two women cut off in an over-grown, secluded garden. Here, everyday activities become hyper-ritualised with girls deliberating, obsessing over books, pouring tea and, most bizarre of all, fondant fancies. This otherworldly, haunting quality was apparent across many of the selected films: from Conversation, a series of slowed-down, theatrical facial expressions that spiralled into increasingly abstract forms; to We Only Talk at Night, with its compositions of hypnotic pulsating city lights. Layered images, split screens and disjointed soundtracks were popular as filmmakers experimented and pushed at their media. For me, the most successful films were the ones that seemed to enjoy the possibilities of film – shorts that were happy being shorts and filmmakers who were happy working with film.

The programme was at its best with joyful celebrations of rhythm. Most straightforward, Sam Firth’s I.D. created a mischievous montage of photo booth pictures cataloguing teenage posturing and chameleon hairstyles while Max Hattler’s Aanaatt presented an endlessly mobile sequence of animated Bauhaus-style shapes and compositions. Magnus Irvin’s Spiral In Spiral Out also centred on geometric forms as drawn spirals expanded and increased, recalling early scientific films demonstrating the multiplication of microscopic organisms. The stand-out works of the programme were two shorts – Con Moto and Without You – by Tal Rosner, who won the festival award within this category. His kaleidoscopic visions of architectural views and receding countryside shot from racing train windows demonstrate the excitement that arises when music and film combine successfully. With a dynamism similar to Léger’s Le Ballet mécanique, Con Moto‘s interpretation of Stravinsky’s 1935 Concerto for Two Pianos provided a fantastic seven minutes of cinematic vitality. An exceedingly happy marriage between music and film, which spoke for itself.

Eleanor McKeown

Watch Tal Rosner’s Con Moto:

Alter Ego: Ken Hollings is Astro Boy

Astro Boy

Ken Hollings is a writer based in London. His work appears in a wide range of publications, including The Wire, Sight and Sound, Strange Attractor Journal, Frieze and Nude, and in the anthologies The Last Sex, Digital Delirium, Undercurrents and London Noir. His novel Destroy All Monsters was hailed by The Scotsman as ‘a mighty slab of trippy, cult, out-there fiction’. His latest book, Welcome to Mars: Fantasies of Science and the American Century, has been praised by celebrated documentary maker Adam Curtis: ‘Ken Hollings shows brilliantly how the extraordinary web of technologies that drove the Cold War has shaped not just our culture but the very way we think of ourselves as human beings.’ It is available from Strange Attractor Press. For more information please visit Ken Hollings’s blog. Below, he tells us why he would be Astro Boy if he was a film character.

‘I’ve defeated the saucers. The robots won’t come anymore.’

Astro Boy takes on men, monsters and machines – and wins. He has this special smile on his face whenever he comes in to land: so self-contained and filled with happy anticipation. I want to be a machine and live in the future – just like him.

‘A robot has the same right to fight for justice. Captain, stand up and fight.’

Innocent, honest, trusting and brave, Astro Boy is a true marvel of tomorrow. He can speak over 60 different languages and sense whether people have good or evil intentions, smash solid steel with his bare fists and has the most unbelievably cute eyes. ‘He flies in the sky and goes round the universe,’ proclaimed the original Astro Boy march. ‘He is mighty, gentle and the fruit of scientific technology.’ He is a robot and proud of it. To have the same pride in being human seems a real challenge by comparison.

‘I hear that humans were created by God.’

Astro Boy first appeared in the sci-fi comic strip Ambassador Atom created by ‘god of manga’ Osamu Tezuka. Astro proved so popular that he was given his own series. Begun in 1952, Tetsuwan Atom – his original Japanese name, meaning ‘Mighty Atom’ – would run for 17 years, establishing its robot hero as a benign cultural emissary from the future both in Japan and abroad. Somehow atomic fission didn’t seem so menacing when you knew it was controlled by the heart-shaped nuclear reactor concealed within his chest.

Read our interview with Osamu Tezuka.

‘There is no difference between humans and robots.’

With an electronic brain, atomic engines in his feet, powerful searchlights concealed behind his big wide eyes and a 100,000 horsepower punch, Astro Boy lives in a 21st-century city of skyscrapers and rockets, jet cars and factories. He is also the mechanical reincarnation of a dead child, the neglected son of a scientist reborn as a robot on April 7, 2003. He will always be the future we never had.

Ken Hollings

Ken Hollings

audio Listen to the podcast: Alex Fitch talks to animé expert Helen McCarthy about the work of manga and animé pioneer Osamu Tezuka.

Film Jukebox: Lightspeed Champion

Lightspeed Champion - photo by David Swanson

‘Life Is Sweet! Nice to Meet You’ is Dev Hynes’s second outing as Lightspeed Champion since the demise of the lauded indie punk outfit Test Icicles. He manages to eschew the Americana leanings of his previous album ‘Falling Off the Lavender Bridge’ in favour of a richer sound drawing inspiration from classical music, 70s rock and French standards. Now residing in New York City, Dev’s interests extend way beyond just music. A fanatical blogger and writer of short stories, he has co-written a comic book with his girlfriend, graphic designer Nicole Michalek. He also is an avid film fan and below he tells Electric Sheep about his 10 favourite movies. You can find out more about the movies he doesn’t like in his blog ‘the world’s worst movies’ (as voted by IMDB). The album ‘Life Is Sweet! Nice to Meet You’ is out on 15 February 2010. The EP ‘Marlene’ (2×7”) is out now and features a cover of Serge Gainsbourg’s ’69 Année érotique’. More information on Lightspeed Champion’s website and on Domino Records. LUCY HURST

1. After Hours (1985)
In this film directed by Scorsese, Griffin Dunne plays a bank worker who decides to go for a night out in Soho, NY. It all goes wrong, and all he wants to do is go home, but he can’t! This movie is a beautiful exaggeration of a night we’ve all had!

2. The Crush (1993)
Cary Elwes looks incredible in this film, it’s like ‘MTV does drama’, which of course makes it amazing. Alicia Silverstone is so evil in her seduction of Cary Elwes’s character and the ending is surprisingly dark: ‘he thought it was just a crush… he was dead wrong!’

3. The Room (2003)
I don’t even know what I can say about this movie. Vanity project gone wrong, which in turn, goes right? Tommy Wissau is a mystery man, he supposedly spent $7 million on this forewarning about a woman cheating on her lover (his best friend). I’ve probably seen this film 40 times within the last year and every time it just gets better and a lot more bizarre.

4. Three 0’Clock High (1987)
This is the story of Jerry Mitchell, a young boy who accidentally makes enemies with Buddy Revell, the new bully in town. Buddy promises the demise of the young protagonist as soon as the school bell rings at 3 o’clock. To me, this is one of the best films the 80s had to offer for teenagers!

5. Legal Eagles (1986)
This Ivan Reitman comedy courtroom drama stars Robert Redford, Debra Winger and Daryl Hannah in a complicated love triangle. Interestingly enough, the film has different endings depending on where you viewed it. For example, in the cinema version Daryl Hannah is found innocent, yet on TV she is found guilty – but of a different murder!

6. Planet of the Apes (1968)
Man, I wish I spoke like Charlton Heston does in this film. Every line he delivers is truly ludicrous and magnificent at the same time. You can’t really beat this film.

7. La Planète sauvage (1973)
This French animation by René Laloux is the greatest cartoon ever made. The soundtrack by Alain Goraguer is the greatest soundtrack of all time and quite possibly the reason I play music!!

8. Zabriskie Point (1970)
Supposedly Antonioni’s critique of America, this film is full of amazingly outdated hippy dialogue, but as soon as the action moves to Death Valley, it becomes truly beautiful.

9. Todd Rundgren: The Ever Popular Tortured Artist Effect (1983)
Fake documentary, music interview and life story written and directed by Todd Rundgren. Before its time and completely bat shit crazy. If you’re a screen grabber such as myself, this is like pure gold!

10. The 5000 Fingers of Dr T (1953)
The scariest kids’ film of all time? Most definitely. A kid drifts off into a fantasy world where his piano tutor is an evil mastermind controlling a huge prison facility forcing kids to learn the piano. Dr Seuss actually designed the set himself, wrote the songs and wrote the script, making it the only movie based on his work that he was involved in. Try to track down ‘The Elevator Song’, it still gives me chills!