Framing Kitano Takeshi

Framing Kitano Takeshi

Aeron Gerow discusses the evolution of nationalism in Kitano Takeshi's Hana-bi.

There is no doubt there is evil in the eyes of the law, but [the Japanese] forgive evil if accompanied by the intention to commit suicide. Such romanticism flows in the blood of every Japanese and we must face it.

Japanese filmmaker and television personality Kitano Takeshi has a certain "slipperiness" to him that helps him evade the grasp of those who would declare that he fits within certain boundaries. But Aaron Gerow of Yale's Film Studies program attempted to demystify Kitano in a June 5, 2006, colloquium sponsored by UCLA's Paul I. and Hisako Terasaki Center for Japanese Studies. Gerow discussed how one of Kitano's film techniques, framing, helps us to understand the man behind the scenes and his evolving nationalism.

Before a near-fatal motorcycle accident in 1994, Kitano declared that he "despised" nationalistic symbols, but on his next film three years later he was picking up an award at the Venice Film Festival for his next film Hana-bi (literally "fireworks"), a Japanese language film that contains traditional and iconic symbols such as Mount Fuji and the spring's cherry blossoms.

So why the shift? Critics say the Japanese symbolism in Hana-bi is Kitano's calculated marketing ploy to appeal to an international audience. Gerow, however, believes that Kitano uses this newfound nationalism in order to provide a framework of national identity and history as context to understanding individual characters and their identities. 

Kitano has often employed framing in the form of manzai, which involves a comedy pair. In the pair, the boke makes ridiculous and vulgar comments, often pertaining to something morbid; the straight man, or tsukkomi, reasserts the traditional norms of society by exclaiming things like "I can't go on with you!" The tsukkomi frames the boke's morbid perfmorance.

In one of Kitano's television shows--television is what made him famous--various non-celebrity guests with special talents perform all manner of bizarre stunts in front of a rather expressionless Kitano, who shrugs and says "I don't know about that." Gerow says that Kitano's tsukkomi-like shrugs make him popular because his detachment from the things he says or witnesses allows for a guiltless voyeurism. It makes a voyeuristic audience more comfortable.

Hana-bi's framing, Gerow asserts, isn't about detachment so much as it is about understanding the Japanese in the context of their traditions, in the frame of their national identity. Kitano's films are notoriously obsessed with death, says Gerow, but in Hana-bi it seems that Kitano is framing this obsession within his society's predilection for suicide. Nishi, the film's main character commits a bank robbery and later kills himself and his wife. Gerow quotes Kitano explaining the character this way: "There is no doubt there is evil in the eyes of the law, but [the Japanese] forgive evil if accompanied by the intention to commit suicide. Such romanticism flows in the blood of every Japanese and we must face it."

Kitano understands that some might be offended because of the connection of this romantic idea of suicide to the nationalistic romanticism of the kamikaze suicide pilots in World War II. But Gerow believes Kitano tactfully displays this potentially offensive idea by framing it within the context of the Japanese nation. He is showing that within the national context, it is clear why there are individuals who have suicidal romanticism running through their blood--because there is a tradition of it in Japanese society.

Gerow, who is currently writing a biography on Kitano for the British Film Institute, again revealed how slippery Kitano is when he quoted Kitano's shrug-like answer to a reporter's question of why he was using these national symbols: "I am Japanese. And so I am trying to find a Japanese style."

Published: Tuesday, June 27, 2006