Wow. Just… wow.
I finally got around to watching Takeshis’, the first of Takeshi Kitano’s anti-mainstream trilogy (and I do mean anti-mainstream as opposed to merely non-mainstream… there’s a whole bunch of deliberate subversion and outright mocking of mainstream movie tropes going on). The story goes, that after his mainstream international success with Zatoichi, Kitano became disillusioned and frustrated with himself. He’d become too safe. Too predictable, in his own eyes. And while I personally thoroughly enjoyed Zatoichi, it’s definitely a million miles from the existential meditations of Dolls, Hana-bi or even the earlier Sonatine.
And so, he set out to make a trilogy of films that would quite deliberately alienate the wider audience he’d garnered via his samurai action movie. Films that abandoned all notions of traditional narrative; that made no concessions to accessibility… instead placing a priority on artistic integrity. He would gather up all that existential angst, dream-logic and plain weirdness that passes through his mind as he’s lying in the twilight between sleep and wakefulness; and he’d dump it onto the screen with no explanation.
Take that mainstream audiences!
The result is mesmerising and more than a little startling. Certainly not a film for anyone who needs such trifles as “plot” or “sense” to hold their hand for an hour and a half while they watch a screen. At the heart of the film are two characters, both played by Takeshi Kitano. The first is “Beat Takeshi”, a successful actor and film-maker who specialises in gangster / yakuza movies. The second is “Mr. Kitano”, a convenience store clerk and failed actor who spends his days daydreaming about living the life of his idol – Beat Takeshi – when he’s not being rejected at auditions.
Early in the film, there’s a chance meeting between the two Takeshis and Beat Takeshi signs an autograph for Mr. Kitano. Afterwards, we watch as Mr. Kitano walks home to his small apartment above a mechanic’s shop and falls asleep. From then on, the viewer never knows whether the scene they are watching is a dream being had by one of the two Takeshis, or a convenience store clerk’s fantasy of being a successful actor, or a successful film-maker wondering what it would be like to live the life of a failed actor. Or indeed, a successful film-maker imagining what the fantasies of a failed actor about being a successful film-maker would be like. It’s no surprise that the original title of the film was Fractals.
Characters from the director’s previous films show up in incongruous situations and it definitely helps the viewer if they’re familiar with Takeshi Kitano’s past work. There’s a huge amount of self-referentiality in the movie… scenes from previous films (most notably Sonatine and Hana-bi, but pretty much every movie he’s done gets a look in) are revisited in unexpected ways, with characters crossing over from one to the other. Indeed whole sections of Takeshis’ appear to be deliberate “self-iconoclasm”, with some of the most haunting and affecting scenes he’s ever shot being savagely undercut and turned into absurd parodies – most notably the final beach scene from Hana-bi (in my view, one of the most beautiful scenes in the history of cinema) is suddenly transformed into a bizarre action-film caricature with Kitano machine-gunning a whole range of characters from his past films (along with about 500 riot police).
There’s a great deal of wit in Takeshis’ and while it only made me laugh out loud a couple of times, I spent much of the film with a wry smile on my face. As with all of his films the humour veers from the ridiculously slapstick to the almost-too-cerebral, with plenty in between. And as ever, music plays a large role. Traditional Japanese folk music cuts brutally into high-tempo electronica and back again. Also, the tap-dancing interlude goes on for quite a bit longer than you’d expect.
It’s like a very weird remix of his past films, and at no point have you any idea who or what you’ll be seeing next on the screen. Personally I absolutely loved it and am looking forward to watching Glory to the Filmmaker! (the second film in the trilogy). But I suspect plenty of people who see Takeshis’ will hate it, and no small percentage will fail to reach the end. But for fans of the obscure, the odd and the original, Takeshis’ provides an absolute feast for the senses. And the imagination.