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Beat Poetry

If you join one cult this year, make it the cult of Japanese filmmaker Takeshi Kitano

By Steve Palopoli

I interviewed "Beat" Takeshi Kitano a couple of years ago in Los Angeles. Met him at a hotel on Sunset Boulevard--or rather, I arrived at his hotel room to find him waiting for me behind a table, in a black suit with white shirt and black tie. And sunglasses. At 9am.

Now, I met a lot of people in Los Angeles who tried hard to look cool, but Kitano was hands-down the coolest thing I had ever seen. And he didn't seem to be trying.

Though he hinted at it a couple of times, he didn't smile once. Barely even looked at me the whole time as he took my questions and gave his answers through a translator. But he cracked me up--to an extent that's almost embarrassing when you're trying to conduct an ostensibly serious interview--and though he tried not to show it, seemed to enjoy doing so.

For all the guns--and with his newest film, Zatoichi, swords--in his films, deadpan humor has always been Kitano's most effective weapon of choice. Though he's known primarily as the director and star of some uniquely unorthodox Japanese gangster flicks, he's alternated between crime films, comedies and straight-up drama for several years. Even his yakuza films are hilarious in their own way--1990's Boiling Point is arguably better described as a series of blackly funny straight-faced gag scenes than as a crime film.

In fact, Kitano started his career as a comedian. The irreverence of his duo act Two Beats in the obsessively organized world of his native country's comedy scene made them sort of the Tenacious D of Japan in the '70s--and gave Kitano his nickname "Beat Takeshi," which he still uses as his official acting credit.

He made his debut as a director with 1989's Violent Cop, and is perhaps best known for 1997's Fireworks. Internationally, Kitano is recognized as one of the most interesting filmmakers working today--and he's been one of the most popular actors in Japan since the 1980s--but in America he's never gotten beyond cult status. Distribution of his films here has been extremely spotty--in 2000, it looked like he might break through when Brother hooked into the brief fad for pairing Asian stars with African American co-stars, but his next film, 2002's Dolls, didn't even make it to video in this country.

As a result, he's often mis-understood here. He's sometimes painted as the Japanese John Woo, which is only useful as the most superficial of comparisons. While Woo is stylishly overblown and melodramatic, Kitano's filmmaking is understated and ironic. His films can be incredibly violent (Brother had the most deaths in any Japanese film, 78) but he'll usually surround any outbursts of manic action with subtle and sometimes almost totally static frames. His composition is always fascinating, but you get the feeling he wouldn't move his camera at all within a shot if he could get away with it.

Kitano's talent for orchestrating violent action and his fondness for ironic humor come together as never before in Zatoichi: The Blind Swordsman. The underlying rhythm--both comic and dramatic--that has always been the key to understanding his films roars to the surface, in everything from the syncopated falling of axes to the indescribable percussion/dance scene that ties the film together.

This is Kitano's first period piece, and though he once again maintains enough of a straight face to keep anyone from thinking it's a comedy, Zatoichi is not just a great action film, but also a very funny spoof of one of Japan's most beloved characters. The blind swordsman Zatoichi is sort of the Japanese equivalent of Zorro or Sinbad--he shows up in a lot of films whose titles include phrases like "versus the One-Armed Swordsman." Kitano himself plays the 19th-century seeing-impaired nomad, who fronts as a gambler and masseur but is actually a master swordsman. Like most of Kitano's films, the plot, which involves a small town being decimated by warring gang leaders, is more important on a symbolic level than anything else. Though I don't know nearly enough about the Zatoichi tradition to say, I can't help but wonder if the psychological depth Kitano brings to his portrayal will startle Japanese audiences in the same way Tim Burton changed how Americans thought about Batman on film.

I'd love to think that with enough support from Miramax, Zatoichi will be the film that finally breaks Kitano in this country. But I doubt it. I'm just glad to be able to see this one here the way it was meant to be seen: on the big screen, in all its bloody, moving, eye-catching, and yes, side-splitting glory.

Zatoichi: The Blind Swordsman, written and directed by Takeshi Kitano, and starring Beat Takeshi, Tadanobu Asano, Michiyo Ogusu and Yuko Daike, opens Friday at the Nickelodeon in Santa Cruz.

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From the September 29-October 6, 2004 issue of Metro Santa Cruz.

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