Shiny Shelf


By Jim Smith on 31 October 2005

WARNING! Contains spoilers!

Most transcriptions I’ve seen of the international title for ‘Beat’ Takeshi Kitano’s new film show the title as the possessive of the singular. On screen it’s rendered as the possessive of the plural; and that’s a far more fitting title for this complex and enjoyable, if inarguably self-indulgent, picture from the Japanese director/actor.

The film’s plot, such as it is, concerns the interlocking lives of two physically similar men, one a fictionalized version of ‘Beat’ Takeshi the actor/filmmaker and the other an unsuccessful wannabe actor/children’s entertainer, called Kitano. The latter has been reduced to working in a convenience store, but who aspires to a level of success comparable with that of his physical double.

Yes, this is a film in which Takeshi the filmmaker grapples with the existence and implications of ‘Takeshi the brand’. The two Takeshis on screen allow the writer/director to simultaneously look at multiple aspects of his wider public persona, (i.e. the much feted filmmaker; the actor known for Yakuza pictures; the children’s television entertainer), acknowledging both the contradictions of his multiple roles within the entertainment industry and the difficulties in perception of him as an artist that this can (and does) cause. The conceit also allows Takeshi-the-director to present a version of himself who has not been successful, a simultaneous acknowledging of and confrontation with those who see his career as a long string of pieces of good luck and assert  his oeuvre to be lacking in substance.

A lot of the above is possible because the movie takes place in a persistent dreamlike state, with dreams within dreams and flashbacks within flashbacks. As with, say, Lynch’s ‘Lost Highway’ or Soderbergh’s ‘Schizopolis’ there is no ‘upper’ level of reality for the audience to return to and instead we simply get an endless series of visual sub-clauses, set-piece after set-piece, as we rummage through the iconography of Takeshi’s own career and art. (There are numerous visual references to both films Takeshi has directed and some of the more celebrated ones in which he has simply appeared.)

This aesthetic conceit allows several characters to die and be  resurrected during the course of the stumbling plot, while a few conversations occur more than once, some characters have purely symbolic functions (like the girl who mistakes the poor Takeshi for the rich one; she’s forever standing on a street corner intoning ‘Thanks for your work’) and others disappear and reappear at irregular intervals. Much of the dialogue, at least the translated dialogue running across the screen, is in a form close to rubric and works on a ‘repeat until funny’ basis. On a related note, Takeshi seems to be aware of, and playing to, his non-Japanese language audience these days, picking instantly recognisable symbols (a caterpillar stands for potential, the stars represent yearning) to communicate his meaning to an audience who will be reading the subtitles as well as watching the pictures move.

Takeshi-the-actor gives two strong, and noticeably different, performances as both his on screen avatars. One is brash, charming and a little egocentric, with the alternatingly expansive and relaxed body language of a man brimming with confidence. The other is a smaller man, round-shouldered with eyes downcast and an ungainly shuffling gait. It’s a measure of Takeshi’s acting prowess that even when one iteration of his screen persona is dreaming of being the other that the audience is never in any doubt over which of the Takeshis they are watching. All the other performances, from a band of long-time Takeshi collaborators including Susumu Terajima and Naomasa Musaka are pitched at exactly the right level, being nicely histrionic and then suddenly touching when appropriate.

There are some great sequences in here, some nice dance scenes for example or a brilliant comic bank robbery. There’s also an awesome, comedic, nightmarish section where Takeshi drives a taxi along a road filled with bodies, comically trying to avoid running any of the corpses over and the movie-audition/humiliation sequence to end all movie audition sequences. Much of the photography (such as during the World War 2 sequence) is simply beautiful. The lack of definite structure, though, means the picture is often meandering, with it being unclear to a first time audience what the filmmaker is trying to achieve here, other than allowing us a free-form look at the inside of his head.

Essentially, Takeshi pulls out every trick he’s ever learned in a career of making movies that always entertain first and foremost, but while his stylistic verve and eye for engaging onscreen motion serve him well here, they only just manage to make up for the picture being just a touch too long. Perhaps I’m being unfair. It is, of course, likely that like most semi-abstract pictures, this one will tighten up in the middle on repeated viewings. Sometimes it’s easier to relax on a journey when one knows where one is going.

It is, ultimately, the journey that matters here. The movie ends with the same gunfight with which it begins, a splattering of blood and smoke that seems to suggest that despite the mental and physical complexities, despite the shifting tense and fractured narrative of the past ninety minutes Takeshi-the-filmmaker hasn’t yet fully worked through the process that caused him to want to make the film in the first place; the process of self-examination that it dramatises and contains but doesn’t entirely envelop.

The last words on screen in the movie are said by Takeshi himself and are simply ‘Now what?’ It seems that this most individual of filmmakers isn’t sure where to go next. Wherever that turns out to be, he has an audience – me included – waiting for him.

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