Gerow, Aaron. Kitani Takeshi. London: British Film Institute, 2007. 264 pgs.
Although at first destined to become an engineer like his elder brothers, the youngest of the Kitano clan, Takeshi, instead left the ivory tower of scholarship to work a number of menial jobs including that of a dishwasher and a taxi driver before embarking on his career as a comedian. At first, Kitano performed at small bars and strip clubs where alcohol and girls were the main draw, but after word of his quick wit and razor sharp tongue began to circulate, he joined with his comedic partner Kaneko Jiro, aka Beat Kiyoshi, to create the manzai duo of the Two Beats where he played the clown, boke, to Kaneko’s straight man, tsukkomi. The Two Beats were something that the manzai world had not seen before, and Kitano’s good natured vulgarity and rapid mind left others in the dust, including Beat Kiyoshi. As a solo artist, Kitano, or his persona of Beat Takeshi became a household name and he began appearing on more than ten television shows a week.
Although at first Beat Takeshi was primarily known as a television star, by the early 1980s he began appearing in films, most notably as the brutal Sgt. Hara in Oshima Nagisa’s film Merry Christmas, Mr. Lawrence. The brutality displayed by the character of Sgt. Hara became a trademark of Beat Takeshi’s acting in film, and when he took over the director’s chair for Violent Cop from noted yakuza film director Fukasaku Kinji, the violent nature of Kitano’s filmic characters became enmeshed within his directing style and thereby he produced some extraordinarily brutal films including the above mentioned Violent Cop, Boiling Point, and Fireworks. Yet, it would be too easy, and incorrect, to categorize Kitano as a director of violent yakuza films, because he also created quiet films such as A Scene at the Sea and family comedies such as Kikujiro. Who is this complex man behind such complex films? Yale professor of Japanese Cinema Aaron Gerow tries to shed some light on the enigmatic filmmaker Kitano Takeshi in his most recent book.
A few years before the release of Gerow’s book, the Japanese film critic Abe Casio released his book Beat Takeshi vs. Takeshi Kitano. Within this tome the author attempted to describe Kitano’s split personality. The television actor Beat Takeshi and the film director Kitano Takeshi and stated that through his filmic work the director was trying to kill off the actor. However, Gerow states that this duality of Kitano’s personality is too simple and that Kitano in fact has a third self, the being of Takeshi who manipulates the personas of Beat Takeshi and Kitano Takeshi to play with his audiences both domestic and abroad and skewers their expectations with each subsequent film that he releases, and thereby causing uproar in filmic circles both home and abroad.
With that being said, the first part of Gerow’s book is a fascinating sketch of Kitano’s multiple careers in comedy, television, film, and the printed word. He traces how Kitano’s comic style and almost complete disregard for the audience play into his filmmaking and how Kitano plays with his audience by thwarting their expectations when they think that they have him figured out. The second half of the book consists of chapters from Kitano’s debut film Violent Cop to his version of the blind masseuse Zatoichi with his more recent film Takeshis’ acting as opening and closing chapters of the book. The essays, heavily laden with film theory from Japanese, French, and American theorists do not make for easy reading and those who have not taken a couple of university level film classes or who do not view film outside of the purposes of entertainment, might find Gerow’s book to be a bit dense and theory laden, but for those interested in Kitano’s films, Japanese films, or fine filmmaking as a whole, this book would make a welcome volume to one’s library.