Monday, 3 February 2020

Takeshi Kitano: Hana-Bi and Dolls

I'm not quite sure how I stumbled into all-round super-star Japanese actor, writer, director Takeshi Kitano, but I did! I took a gamble on watching one of the films he directed, liked it very much, so picked out another. Many more to go, but these two seem to be a good starting point.

In reverse chronological order, Dolls is a film from 2002 which deals in a very artistic manner with a trio of stories about people driven to irrational ends for undying love. Kitano leads Miho Kanno, Hidetoshi Nishijima, Tatsuya Mihashi, Chieko Matsubara, Kyoko Fukada and Haruna Yamaguchi through their paces portraying the central characters.

A girl promises to wait every saturday on a park bench for her young lover, lunch prepared, until he returns to her, as he promised, once he had broken free of his low-paid job and found success enough to offer her a rewarding life with him. And she waits.
Family honour is at stake for rich-boy and an arranged marriage, when he loves another. The circumstantially jilted girl has a breakdown and he goes to rescue her from her isolation, mental illness and rash choices. What follows is a surreal and symbolic journey for the pair, tethered by a red rope. Miho Kanno steals the show in this story as the suffering girlfriend, though she barely says a word throughout.
A fan is so devoted to his pop-star idol that when she is disfigured in a car crash, he goes to extraordinary lengths to empathise with her in order to find a way to be close.

The film starts with a puppet theatre show which goes on for a good few minutes and reflects some of the forthcoming trilogy in terms of content and effect on the characters depicted. It's like a short 'trailer' by traditional artistes in Japanese theatre, beautifully executed and mesmerizing to watch. Equally amazing throughout is the attention to detail in cinematography brought out by the director's leanings towards painting and creating beautiful pictures in every scene for the viewers' delight. Themes such as the four seasons are intermingled with the three stories, laying down an artistic backdrop to the collection.

It's a beautifully created film, poignant, sad and emotional. I guess some will say that it is art for art's sake but when something is created so interestingly, then mingled with a tale of such symbolism of the destructive qualities of love, loss, obsession, heartbreak and hope, supported by an excellent haunting and moody soundtrack, you have to sit up and consume what's on offer. I'm sure that there's loads more here that I'm missing, perhaps because of not understanding Japanese culture enough, but there's still enough here for the ill-informed audience to be swept away with this gorgeous creation.

Hana-Bi is a film made five years earlier in 1997 which was a very different story, a crime drama almost, mixing in money-lending Mob nasties, but with a very similar attention to detail artistically. Kitano himself plays Mishi the cop, who's wife is dying of leukemia. He leaves his job as a cop so that he can spend more time with her in her last days. In amongst this, the mob are chasing him to reclaim a debt so Nishi takes matters into his own hands to clear the debt, get them off his back and get back to his wife.

Unfortunately, the plan goes awry as it seems the mob get greedy and induce a chain of events which involve plenty of violence. We see our hero dealing with his enemies in gruesome and bloody ways. The violence is, however, most often filmed suggestively rather than graphically, many incidents are shot just off-camera so the viewer is left to make up their own vision of how the scene might have been played out. Whether this is a style, or in order to keep certification more open, I don't know. But as an artistic style it's actually quite interesting.

Whilst all this is going on, one of his cop buddies gets shot and ends up in a wheelchair. Nishi feels in-part responsible so tries also to spend lots of time with him, as he reflects on his boredom, need to fill his time and the adoption of new hobbies. Nishi actually doesn't have many lines, much like his wife in fact (and also Kanno in Dolls), dialogue scooped up mainly from those around them. Maybe a feel of Spaghetti Western, silent-but-violent Clint Eastwood, for example. Man in the middle, cornered rat, fighting everyone - but the audience spending half the time wondering what they're thinking as they're not saying it.

The crossover here though for me (and again I'm sure I may have missed many points too) is the artistic nature of what's on show. As the cop in the wheelchair gets better in creating his paintings, focus on those is central to many scenes zooming from dot-paintings out so the viewer can consume the overall scene eventually. Again, the cinematography is beautifully thought out, each shot a masterpiece of visual stimuli, supported by some lovely solo piano music. It almost feels as thought the story really doesn't matter. This is arthouse.

The five years between the two have shown a development in style and presentation for me. Dolls took the artistic flair of Hana-Bi and cooked it up into something more meaty and visually delightful. Where Hana-Bi feels at times more like a Tarantino outing, what comes between those scenes of outrage becomes the makings of the greater artistic substance of Dolls. Both films are great fun to watch and consume. Once again, I've learnt lots about Japanese culture and the people who live there and am rapidly coming to the conclusion that there's more to artistic cinema than Paris and Warsaw. I shall look forward to digging out some more work of Takeshi Kitano.

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