Acclaimed director Takeshi Kitano blasts film elites in Japan

Veteran film-maker was blunt as he took questions at the Tokyo film fest after receiving award for cultural achievement

Takeshi Kitano’s films range from crime thrillers to drama-based works such as Kids Return (above).
Takeshi Kitano’s films range from crime thrillers to drama-based works such as Kids Return (above).
Japanese movie director Takeshi Kitano answering questions from young film-makers and animators. -- PHOTO: AGENCE FRANCE-PRESSE

Japanese film icon Takeshi "Beat" Kitano recently appeared on stage to take questions from the audience at the ongoing 27th Tokyo International Film Festival after being given the first Samurai Award for cultural achievement.

The 67-year-old maker of hard-boiled, blackly comic crime thrillers Violent Cop (1989), Outrage (2010) and the sequel Outrage Beyond (2012) as well as more drama-based works such as A Scene At The Sea (1991) and Kids Return (1996) answered questions from budding film-makers and animators.

He was characteristically blunt as he blasted the elites who control the Japanese film industry.

Kitano, who rose to fame in Japan as a comedian and television host before he became known as a film-maker, joked about how odd it was that such a prestigious prize was being given to the likes of him.

"I've been given awards for being a comedian and I have a criminal record, so really, my life is a stain on the history of Japanese film. I am truly honoured," he said.

His awards record overseas is also impressive. He won the Golden Lion, the top prize at the Venice Film Festival, for Fireworks (1997), the first win for a Japanese film-maker.

Answering a question from a film student about what he would do if he had to make a low-budget film today, Kitano said that young and independent film-makers have to be "shocking to society, to a certain degree", to gain attention.

Giving an example, he said that if he were asked to do a movie about the theme of comfort women, he might turn the idea on its head.

"I would keep the title Comfort Women but make it about comfort men. That would be shocking," he said.

He told the students in the audience to get ready for years of struggle. When he started in show business, it took five years to land a gig that paid well enough for him to quit other work.

"So I worked at a cafe and at a sauna, cleaning the backs of yakuza gangsters. I did that for five years before I could quit to become a full-time stand-up comic. This is true of any industry. There are just a lucky few who start out with a hit."

When foreign media talk about Japanese cultural exports, Kitano's name is often mentioned alongside that of Academy Award winner Hayao Miyazaki of Studio Ghibli, maker of universally acclaimed films such as My Neighbour Totoro (1988) and Spirited Away (2001).

Kitano allowed that animation is a huge force in the domestic film business and is popular overseas, but he has never been a fan of the medium.

"I do not enjoy watching animation. I really don't like Miyazaki's films," he said.

Next, he launched into a scathing critique of the defensive, moribund state of the Japanese movie industry. Because the major film studios are closely allied with cinema chains, or even part of the same company, innovation and risk-taking are frowned on, he said.

Young film-makers should look outside the major studios if they want to create original work, he said.

He went on about how in Japan, newspapers reports about the Cannes Film Festival speak of rapturous receptions for Japanese movies from major studios, when the truth was that "of the five people in the audience, four stood up to clap, and they were there for only 15 minutes of the screening", he said to laughter from the crowd of about 700 at the hall in the Academy Hills building in the Roppongi area of Tokyo.

Kitano said his films have never been submitted as Japan's offical entry to the Academy Awards in the Foreign Language category because a handful of top executives at the major studios lobby for their own films to be sent to Los Angeles.

"This really irritates me... it's ridiculous that the nominees come from only three or four studios. This kind of protective behaviour is going to kill the Japanese film industry. And the newspapers won't write about films from smaller companies because it's the big studios that buy the advertisements."

The Tokyo film festival ends on Friday.

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