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Raindance 2010: Japanese Strand


18th Raindance Film Festival

Sept 29 – Oct 10 2010, Apollo, London

Raindance website

Sarah Cronin reviews the Japanese strand of the 2010 Raindance festival. The review of Symbol is by Alex Pashby.

In past years, Raindance has always been a good place to discover independent, offbeat Japanese films, with highlights including films like Love Exposure, Kakera, Lalapipo, Turtles Are Surprisingly Fast Swimmers and Fine, Totally Fine. But in 2010, the Japanese strand proved to be something of a disappointment, the films – with a few exceptions – lacking imagination and flair. It’s difficult to know if this has merely been a bad year for Japanese films: Tony Rayns, in his preview for Sawako Decides, which showed at the London Film Festival, describes 2010 as ‘a year in which the creativity in Japanese mainstream cinema all but curled up and died’. The same might be true for independent cinema.

There was something quite sentimental about many of the films; one of the more watchable was Lost and Found, in which the ensemble cast learn a series of lessons about love and life as their paths cross at a train station’s lost and found department. It was a tender, warm-hearted film, if a little trite. Less successful was Lunar Child. Told in three parts, it’s a film about troubled women all seeking love in some form. Despite a promising, visually interesting first sequence, in which a lonely, unhappy woman finds shelter for the night in the home of an enigmatic man with a debilitating illness, the rest of the film lacked style and creativity. Interesting stories could have been taken further: Mizuki betrays her girlfriend for a meaningless fling; Hikari, dissatisfied with her married life, provides a home and money for a boy barely out of his teens, who prefers men to girls. But the film lacked any sense of style, the storytelling was flat and lethargic, the tone, again, mawkish. This seemed to be a common problem with several of the films: a failure to match style and technical skill with ideas.

Another film that suffered from a similar problem was Yellow Kid. Although it was one of the better films in the strand, and worth seeing, it just didn’t quite hold together as a whole. The paths of a nerdy, timid comic-book artist and one of his fans, a bullied and lonely young man, cross at a boxing gym, their lives becoming intertwined, until the boxer blurs the boundaries between real life and the comic-book world of his favourite super-hero, Yellow Kid. It was a compelling story about frustration, anger and revenge, not to mention love and obsession, but there was almost too much going on, leaving the film feeling jumbled and incoherent (although it’s a good idea to watch until the very end of the credits). While it had a fantastic animated title sequence, the mix of manga and live action never quite lived up to expectations.

There was something else that struck me when watching these films – an over-reliance on a certain type of male character that seems to litter Japanese cinema. Similar to the comic-book artist, Tanishi in Boys on the Run is painfully geeky, utterly timid and a total failure with women – the only ones he really comes into contact with are prostitutes. He is the quintessential Japanese nerd, and his object of desire the usual pretty, timid young woman, who falls for the wrong man – a smooth-talking salesman at a rival company that also sells vending machine toys. The film started off feeling like a sex comedy (although women will be scratching their heads at men’s mind-boggling stupidity), but it lost its way when it turned into a coming-of-age film as Tanishi, vainly, tries to stand up for himself.

One of the more likeable films was Lost Girl, a very low-key short film that slowly draws the viewer into the story of a once-successful chef suffering from bulimia after she poisons someone at her restaurant. Instead of the gourmet French food she once prepared, she stuffs her face full of junk food, while her husband, also a chef, does everything in his power to tempt her to eat more refined fare. It was an unusual melodrama, with something charmingly subversive to it, despite its flaws.

Three very different films really stood out at the festival: Autumn Adagio, USB and Symbol. Autumn Adagio was the more grown-up of the three; a nun, on the verge of menopause, rediscovers her sense of self and the world around her when she starts to play piano at a ballet academy. It was an intimate, elegant and lovingly told (if sentimental) story, with a terrific performance from the musician Rei Shibakusa.

USB opens with a loud, incessant buzzing sound, as white light flickers on a black background. Yuichiro, a slacker in his mid-20s, decides to go to medical school after the death of his father, a doctor; a submissive girlfriend needs more attention than he’s willing to give; a demented friend goes on the run with the daughter of a local gangster, who also has a chilling hold over Yuichiro. Meanwhile, warnings of low-level radiation are broadcast to the public after an accident at a nearby nuclear power site, and soon people are being paid large sums of money for mysterious clinical trials at the local hospital, and the source of the buzzing becomes clear. It was a great mix of drama tinged with sci-fi, and a subtle re-imagining of a post-nuclear disaster.

In Symbol, a Japanese man (actor/director Hitoshi Matsumoto) in clown-like pyjamas wakes up in a big white room with no discernable exit. Meanwhile an out-of-shape Mexican wrestler prepares for a match his family fears will leave him injured. Could the two be related? After railing against his captors for a bit, the Japanese man discovers a knob in the wall, presses it and is suddenly swarmed by thousands of CGI cupids. As the cupids recede, it turns out that the knob and the now thousands just like it are in fact stylised cupid genitalia. With nothing else to do, the man presses another cupid penis, a hatch opens in an opposite wall and a random object falls out. Hundreds of presses and objects later, a door appears in a wall before disappearing again quickly. Hilarious scenes ensue, including one that gives the audience an insight into the man’s thought processes in the style of a manga (for some reason in English), as he tries to use the various objects now at his disposal to press the right penis, reach the door in time and escape. Reminiscent of Samuel Beckett’s plays, Symbol is a very cheeky film with a great payoff, which makes the point that when it comes to what’s signified, one sign is as good as another. A definite highlight of the festival.

Read about the highlights of Raindance.

Sarah Cronin and Alex Pashby

Nippon Connection 2010

Island of Dreams

Nippon Connection

Frankfurt, Germany

April 14-18, 2010

Nippon Connection website

Nippon Connection is now firmly established as the biggest festival of Japanese cinema held annually outside of Japan, and 2010 marked the 10th anniversary of the event with a diverse programme that ranged from major studio releases to independent films and digital video productions; the line-up included Toshiaki Toyoda’s psychedelic jidaigeki The Blood of Rebirth (2009) and Shûichi Okita’s warmly received documentary The Chef of South Polar (2009), while Momoko Ando’s Kakera: A Piece of Our Life (2009) maintained its festival profile en route to potential crossover success. Appropriately enough for a festival in its 10th year, the Nippon Retro strand revisited some of the highlights of the past nine years, such as Takeshi Kitano’s Dolls (2002), Shinya Tsukamoto’s Vital (2004) and Michael Arias’s Tekkon Kinkreet (2006). Festivities were sadly undermined by the eruption of a certain Icelandic volcano, although the variety of films and other events (workshops devoted to voicing animé and shiatsu massage, lectures about Japanese television drama and Haruki Murakami’s latest literary opus), not to mention the generous hospitality of the Nippon Connection team, meant that few were particularly concerned about their flight arrangements until the festival was winding down. Hopefully, some of the following films will make the move from the festival circuit to general release in the next 12 months.

A Big Gun (Hajime Ohata, 2008)
When their ironworks is threatened with closure due to a lack of clients, the owner and his brother accept a proposition from a local gangster: to manufacture 10 copies of a revolver and to deliver the weapons by a strict deadline. When they are then expected to make more guns despite not receiving payment, they take matters into their own hands. For the most part, A Big Gun is a sparse, intense examination of the financial difficulties facing businesses in small communities, and the desperate measures that some resort to in order to stay afloat, although the realism is somewhat undermined by a climactic lurch into ‘splatter film’ territory. A Big Gun was programmed alongside the altogether less focused Schneider (Yusuke Koroyasu, 2009), which explores how tensions in a small town community are accelerated when the owner of a restaurant goes missing. Schneider also features some shocking violence in its third act, and once again questions the effectiveness of law enforcement in rural areas.

Crows Zero II (Takashi Miike, 2009)
Crows Zero focused on a cast of teenage thugs whose ability to miraculously heal from even the most savage beating made it inevitable that they would all be back for a sequel that would up the ante in the brutality stakes. Genji (Shun Oguri) is now the top dog at Suzuran High School, but he has yet to fully unite all the factions, and must now face challenges from outside the institution. Takashi Miike delivers a testosterone-fuelled, youth-orientated action movie, which fully subscribes to the rule that sequels must be bigger, longer and louder – but not necessarily better – than their predecessors. With one particular fight sequence running for 27 minutes, there is little time for character development, and nominal hero Genji only manages three scenes with his love interest, the club singer played by Meisa Kuroki, between hyper-kinetic punch-ups and the navigation of plot machinations, which may not be entirely clear to those not familiar with the original manga.

Island of Dreams (Tetsuichiro Tsuta, 2008)
A young man works on Dream Island, an artificial wasteland in Tokyo made entirely of trash, and becomes a terrorist bomber. A police detective is assigned the task of tracking him down, and struggles to grasp the motivations for his crimes. Clearly influenced by the thrillers that Seijun Suzuki churned out in an almost unbelievably prolific manner in the 1960s, Island of Dreams is a rare Pia film that works as a genre exercise rather than as a social statement. The police procedural dialogue is leaden, and this is yet another thriller where the detective cracks the case by using Google and proceeds to provide exposition by reading from his laptop screen, but Island of Dreams excels when it is on the move; a foot chase through crowded city streets that takes in an underground club and the climactic race against time are both superbly handled.

Kaiji (Toya Sato, 2009)
Kaiji is a noncommittal job-hopper who lives month-to-month with little concern for his long-term financial security. When he suddenly finds himself burdened with a debt of two million yen due to the non-payment of a loan that he casually co-signed for a friend, Kaiji is forced to play a high-risk game onboard a cruise ship to try and clear it. It’s an ingenious premise, one that recalls the sinister escapism of David Fincher circa The Game (1997) and comments on current economic conditions in recession-hit countries where people are paying the price for taking out ‘easy’ credit. Unfortunately, Kaiji is undermined by an irritating central performance by Tatsuya Fujiwara, which makes the titular protagonist pathetic rather than emphatic, while Yuki Amani is merely window-dressing as the initially icy, ultimately sympathetic credit collector. An over-reliance on fast edits and swirling camera movements makes Kaiji an unfortunate case of a neat idea undermined by erratic execution.


Miyoko (Yoshifumi Tsubota, 2009)
Shinichi Abe became a well-known manga artist in the early 1970s due to his stories in Garo magazine, expressionistic portraits of doomed relationships that mirrored his own partnership with Miyoko, his regular model and later girlfriend and wife. This quasi-biopic of Abe represents the continuation of two trends in Japanese cinema: films about artists, either real or fictionalised, and films about long-suffering wives who stay with men who leave them unfulfilled. Miyoko moves at the same measured pace as Takeshi Kitano’s superficially similar Achilles and the Tortoise (2008), but is more lurid in tone and, by the time that Abe has acknowledged his schizophrenia, the audience probably feels as far removed from him as his strangely devoted spouse. The hermetically sealed world of Miyoko may not be particularly easy to engage with, but the film effectively blurs the real with the imagined as comic book panels fade in and out and the dual identities of Abe and Miyoko are emphasised through graphic re-enactments of the narratives that were published in Garo.

Oh, My Buddha! (Tomorowo Taguchi, 2008)
Jun is a first-year student at an all-boys Buddhist high school, who is more interested in listening to Bob Dylan and writing songs than he is in studying. He travels with two friends to the island of ‘free love’ for his summer vacation, hoping to lose his virginity, but things do not quite go to plan, and on his return to school he still struggles to break free of his middle-class constraints. Tomorowo Taguchi’s second feature is ostensibly a teen sex comedy, but Oh, My Buddha! is actually a much more culturally acute coming-of-age movie, mainly due to its copious references to pop culture; there are comparisons to Dylan ‘going electric’ as Jun listens backstage as a raucous rock ‘n’ roll group excite the crowd gathered in the high school gym, and realises that his heartfelt folk songs need more of an edge if he is going to compete. It is not clear whether the title refers to the three men who mentor Jun at various stages (his hippie tutor, the proprietor of the youth hostel, his father) or the counter-culture figure of Dylan that he worships, but Oh, My Buddha! is a genuine crowd-pleaser that blends brisk pacing with warm nostalgia.

One Million Yen Girl (Yuki Tanada, 2008)
Lightweight but likable, One Million Yen Girl finds writer-director Yuki Tanada following previous festival successes Moon and Cherry (2004) and Ain’t No Tomorrows (2008) with the story of Suzuko, a 21-year-old who moves from town to town, trying to conceal the fact that she has served a short jail sentence for a minor offence. Suzuko lives and works in each town until she has saved up one million yen (the amount needed for rent, deposit and fees in her next temporary home), and tries to avoid forming attachments to those she encounters. The irony of One Million Yen Girl is that, for all her moving around, Suzuko finds much the same experience in each town; a mundane job, the discovery of some ‘hidden’ talent, and a potential boyfriend. Tanada’s humour is mostly of an observational nature, although there is a hysterical scene in which a town council demands that Suzuko become their ‘peach girl’ and represent the community in an advertising campaign. Yû Aoi is almost defiantly low-key in the title role, building on her turn as a pizza-girl-turned-recluse in Bong Joon-ho’s segment of Tokyo (2008), and convincingly conveying the burden of a young woman who feels that she has brought shame to her immediate family.

Toad’s Oil (Kôji Yakusho, 2009)
Kôji Yakusho directs himself as Takuro, a private trader who takes great delight in earning – and even in losing – vast sums of money on the stock exchange, but has become somewhat disconnected from his family. When his son Takuya falls into a coma due to a collision with a van, Takuro learns about his offspring’s life through the history in his mobile phone. Making contact with his son’s girlfriend, Takuro keeps the youthful romance alive through a series of conversations and deceptions. Just as the film seems to be playing as an extended advert for the benefits of cellular technology, Toad’s Oil embarks on a wayward road trip when Takuya passes away and Takuro and his son’s best friend Saburo make the journey to Mount Fear to lay his remains to rest. There is a great running joke about the amount of money that Takuro pays in taxes, and the patriarch’s encounter with a black bear is also fitfully amusing. The more contemplative moments do cause pacing problems, but Toad’s Oil is a heartfelt directorial debut that offers some rich insight into Japanese familial life amid the occasional indulgences.

Zero Focus (Isshin Inudo, 2009)
In 1957, the naïve Teiko (Ryoko Hirosue) enters into an arranged marriage with Kenichi, a Tokyo-based employee of an advertising agency. Seven days after their wedding, Kenichi takes a business trip to Kanazawa, his previous posting, but when he does not return, Teiko becomes suspicious and launches her own investigation. Upon arrival in Kanazawa, Teiko encounters two other women who may hold the key to her husband’s disappearance; Sachiko (Miki Nakatani), the socially prominent supporter of a female candidate for the role of mayor, and Hisako (Tae Kimura), a company receptionist who was appointed despite lacking the required qualifications. It is debatable as to whether this second adaptation of Seicho Matsumoto’s novel (following the 1969 film by Yoshitaro Nomura) is entirely necessary, although this latest cinematic incarnation of Zero Focus is impeccably crafted; the story may deal with a particular period in Japanese history, but its cinematic reference points are Douglas Sirk and Hollywood dramas aimed at a largely female audience. The lead actresses are uniformly excellent, with Nakatani offering a chilling portrait of rural royalty and Hirosue subtly conveying Teiko’s shift from optimism to disillusionment.

John Berra

Berlinale 2010: Dispatch 4


In her final dispatch from Berlin, Pamela Jahn reports on the Asian films in the programme, including new works by Zhang Yimou and Kôji Wakamatsu.

There is traditionally a strong Asian presence in the Forum section, and after last year’s inventive Korean features (including Baek Seung-bin’s debut feature Members of the Funeral) I was hoping for another batch of exciting films this year. Unfortunately, I missed the two Korean films on offer, but the most original of the four Japanese entries in the section was undoubtedly Sabu’s Kanik&#333sen. A witty, ferociously crafted screen adaptation of Takeji Kobayashi’s 1929 agitprop novel, the film mainly takes place on a battered cannery ship in imperialist Japan. The set is somewhat reminiscent of Metropolis, and the film tells a similar story, focusing on a crew of downtrodden workers who eventually rise up against their tyrannical oppressors. As one would expect from a filmmaker who is known for fast-paced action-comedies and anarchic satire, Kanik&#333sen is informed by a pitch-black sense of humour that at times turns into slapstick; yet Sabu manages to make the novel’s fundamental and still relevant critique clear by keeping the right balance between theatrical elements, brutality and idiosyncratic ingenuity. Employing an anti-realist approach to the historical context, Kanik&#333sen is a bizarre and often claustrophobic cinematic experience where Brecht meets Chaplin on the high sea.

Diving into the abyss of modern Japanese society, Isao Yukisada’s Parade is an often comical but increasingly gloomy urban tale revolving around the phenomenon of people in their mid-20s who refuse to grow up and face life. At first, the narrative is driven merely by dialogue and the infrequent actions taking place in a household of four troubled Tokyo drifters, but it sparks up the moment a homeless teenage hustler suddenly takes over the couch in the living room. The film is roughly divided into four chapters, each focusing on one of the tenants and his or her private obsession, and the dark nature of the story is emphasised by the soundtrack and sublime twists that carefully hint at the film’s surprise ending. Although Parade lacks the drive, visual subtlety and thoughtfulness that made Yukisada’s 2001 teen drama Go such a compelling watch, just following these offbeat, gentle dreamers is a pleasure, and it made this somewhat overwrought film stand out as one of the wittier and more honest works on show in the Panorama section.

Excoriated as a ‘national disgrace’ in the Japanese press at the time, Kôji Wakamatsu’s Secrets Acts behind Walls (Kabe no naka no himegoto) caused a stir when it premiered at the Berlinale in 1965, which ultimately helped push the pinku eiga pioneer to fame home and abroad. Forty-five years later, Wakamatsu’s eagerly awaited new feature Caterpillar – a loose follow-up to his 2007 monstrous docu-fiction drama United Red Army (Jitsuroku rengô sekigun: Asama sansô e no michi) – was screening in competition, but although it confirms Wakamatsu’s credentials as one of Japan’s most fiercely independent directors/producers to date, the style and backdrop of his latest effort are quite different from his earlier work. Set in a rural village during the Second Sino-Japanese War in 1940, Caterpillar tells the story of severely disabled war veteran Lieutenant Kyuzo Kurokawa (Shima Ohnishi) who returns home disfigured and dumb, and with no arms and legs, but highly decorated, with three medals paying tribute to his heroic deeds. For his wife Shigeko (Shinobu Terajima), however, he is less a ‘war god’ than a burden, as rude and demanding with her as he was before he was maimed, and while carrying out her duty as the docile peasant, sacrificing herself by caring for the glorified soldier and taking him out for public display, her meek patience is thinning rapidly and eventually turns into a desire for revenge. Caterpillar uses documentary war footage, radio propaganda and excessive, brutal imagery that hint at the violently, sexually and politically provocative spirit of Wakamatsu’s previous work, but the film is strongest in its meticulous depiction of the strained relationship between Kyozu and Shigeko. Overall, it makes a fitting addition to the 73-year-old director’s remarkable oeuvre, which now stands at 100 films.

A Woman, a Gun and a Noodle Shop (San qiang pai an jing qi)
Undeniably the most colourful entry in this year’s programme was Zhang Yimou’s A Woman, a Gun and a Noodle Shop – a remake of sorts of the Coen Brothers’ 1984 debut Blood Simple. Moving the action to northern China in the imperial age, the film follows Ni Dahong, the owner of a noodle shop in the middle of the desert, who pays a killer to murder both his unfaithful wife and her squeamish lover. It’s a shame that the banal slapstick and oddball jokes that Zhang decided to employ instead of the black humour of the original inevitably turn his ambitious venture into a comic farce as the plot rolls on, and it is only in the film’s showdown that he manages to get back on solid ground. There are plenty of things wrong with this film, including the wildly varied and exaggerated acting on display, but A Woman, a Gun and a Noodle Shop is nonetheless a visual treat throughout, from the luridly coloured landscapes and floral costumes to the film’s deft cinematography that are clear reminders of Zhang’s earlier work.

Golden Slumber (Goruden Suramba)
With no more major surprises to be expected after a week of enjoying an inspiring, yet patchy festival programme, my last choice turned out to be something of a lucky draw. Golden Slumber is essentially a Japanese indie man-on-the-run conspiracy thriller that follows the conventions of the genre, but the imagery of Yoshihiro Nakamura’s film is all his own. Aoyagi (Masato Sakai), a delivery-truck driver, is meeting up with his old college friend Morita (Hidetaka Yoshioka) when the new prime minister is assassinated in a bomb attack during a procession through the streets of the Japanese city of Sendai, and, through some far-fetched coincidences, Aoyagi becomes the prime suspect. Nakamura deftly hurls his unobtrusive hero from one hair’s breadth escape to another, filling in his background in comic-style fashion, and even though the story feels a bit longwinded in the middle, it lays the groundwork for the triumphant climax. A witty, refreshing genre treat, and arguably one of the most easily enjoyable films at the Berlinale this year.

Read Pamela Jahn’s first report , second report, and third report from the Berlinale.

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.