Watching the BBC’s film programme, Film 2003, there was a review of the new Tom Cruise movie, The Last Samurai. The reviewer was Jonathan Ross, and he was lukewarm about the film. The he went on to praise what he called a “real samurai movie”, Zatoichi, directed by and starring “Beat” Takeshi which was released at the same time.
I don’t think I’d seen any samurai movies, but I was interested enough to borrow Zatoichi from LoveFilm. And I loved it. Zatoichi, the Blind Swordsman, is apparently a traditional figure in Japanese cinema and many Japanese directors will eventually turn their hand to a Zatoichi film. What I saw was stylish, slick and intriguing. It’s a samurai movie, so it’s going to be violent, and the film’s main flaw is that the effects look artificial (or is that deliberate?). The plot is familiar from many Westerns – mysterious and dangerous stranger arrives in town and helps the oppressed residents against an evil warlord. But it was “Beat” Takeshi’s performance as Zatoichi, a mythic character of supranatural (not supernatural) ability that was riveting. His constant small tics as he listens and senses what’s around him I thought was fascinating. It made me want to look out other movies of his, because I was intrigued by the acting.
And so I watched other films of Takeshi Kitano. He started out making cop movies (beginning with Violent Cop – it’s there in the title, you can’t say you weren’t warned), but then began to produce some truly artistic films. Hana-Bi (“Fireworks”) is one of my favourite movies. It’s a cop movie with bursts of violence, but the heart is the story of Kitano’s cop, Nishi, caring for his dying wife, and trying to assuage his guilt for the colleague invalided during a stake-out while Nishi is taking his wife to hospital.
One thing I’ve enjoyed about Kitano’s movies is that they seem to show “real” Japanese life. In the West we tend to see Japan as either feudal and ancient or providing a rainy backdrop to Americans in dramatic situations (Black Rain?). We don’t see everyday Japan, but that’s what Kitano shows. I guess to a Japanese audience that’s no big deal, but it feels unusual from here.
Beyond Hana-Bi, two other Takeshi Kitano films have stayed with me. Kikujiro is a (non-violent!) family film about a low-level gangster taking a very cute small boy to try to find his mother, via a series of bizarre adventures. It’s a road movie with a warm heart.
The other Takeshi Kitano film I really enjoyed was Dolls. Three separate tales centred around aspects of devoted love tipping over into obsession with some really gorgeous cinematography. The story of the woman waiting each day for her lost love to return is heart breaking. It’s not a happy film – you have to be in the mood for it – but I found it a visual and emotional treat.
So this “How I Got Into….” is pretty straightforward: a critic recommended something, I gave it a try, and that was sufficient to lead me in. Maybe there was something in his enthusiasm for Zatoichi that made me willing to try something new – samurai, Japanese, subtitled! I’ve watched, read or listened to countless enthusiastic film reviews, most of which I’ve ignored (much as you may be ignoring this one, eh?), but I did follow this one and it led me somewhere good.
One other word: when I posted recently the beautiful assemblage of Hayao Miyazaki’s work, I pointed out the music by Joe Hisaishi, and here he is again, creating a series of perfect scores for Takeshi Kitano’s movies, including Hana-Bi, Dolls and Kikujiro. He does make some beautiful film scores, and I’ve put the links below to some on Spotify.