Takeshis’, Takeshi Kitano’s crazy, weird, indulgent, breathtaking, strangely titled fantasy, is as entertaining as it is puzzling — a marvelous movie about movies with a sense of humor and a surreal streak. Kitano appears in the film as himself, but he stars as his own doppelganger — a studio bit player first seen in clown make-up — and the film imagines how the hapless fellow’s life might be changed by the resemblance. On the evidence here, Kitano seems to regard celebrity as a catalyst for confusion, with movie viewers having a natural tendency to conflate an actor’s screen persona with his real life, and perhaps, given the right conditions, to confuse their own lives with those of their big-screen role models.
The hapless Kitano shares a face and a surname with his celebrity double, but he’s a convenience-store clerk and a failure as an actor, too old or too mild to nail his auditions (some scenes have a there-but-for-the-grace-of-god quality that may be the director’s way of expressing gratitude for his good fortune in the industry). His fortunes don’t change dramatically, but his circumstance does when he happens across a cache of weapons and elects to indulge a streak of the old ultraviolence, Kitano style. The narrative isn’t especially important as such, providing only a structure for a series of playful vignettes that reveal a filmmaker’s view of the world. The same actors pop up in more than one place, perhaps expressive of a director’s knack for casting, and the forward-moving narrative is broken up by nonlinear edits that are a clue to the point of view they express. A key question, answered definitively in the final reel, is not just whether we’re seeing reality or fantasy, but in whose mind the cinema-dreams are taking place.
Well, the big dream is Takeshi Kitano’s, of course. Proceedings are peppered with references to his previous body of work — including his deadpan editing style and several trademark moments of sublime and unexpected beauty — that add to the reflexive fun of the whole experiment, and there are a couple of scenes that express the sense of displacement that an actor must feel on a green-screen set as his performance lives in a more elaborate environment. There’s a Seinfeldesque soup tyrant played by two different actors in close proximity; a Sopranosesque Yakuza who wants to make it in the movie business; and, in more familiar territory, an idyllic third-reel gathering of a group of disparate characters on a beach. (As it must be in a Kitano film, the scene ends with the arrival of riot police advancing on heavily-armed Kitano.) The sizable cast of actors, many of them rather famous in Asian cinema, makes a very good impression in what are mostly small roles, and even the tap-dancers from Zatoichi have a cameo appearance. (What’s really missed is a score by Joe Hisaishi, Kitano’s trademark collaborator, which might have brightened the proceedings or added considerable poignancy.)
I can’t make a case for Takeshis’ as a masterpiece on the order of Hana-Bi or Sonatine, or even as a cheerful, self-contained diversion like Zatoichi or Kikujiro. In fact, if you don’t have a genuine affection for those movies, there’s not going to be much for you to grab onto — except perhaps the general deliciousness of the imagery and the wry dream logic that’s sustained throughout. That probably explains the film’s failure to secure U.S. distribution. Fortunately, it’s recently become available on an English-subtitled Japanese DVD that’s available from the usual sources. Highly recommended to Kitano fans; all others proceed with caution.