Citizen Kitano Creates a Lasting Profile of a Man who Defies Definition

Citizen Kitano screens at the Japanese Film Festival during October 2023. A Post-Film Talk Event with Professor Sean Redmond (Deakin University) will be held on 28 October 2023 at The Kino in Melbourne. Visit the Japanese Film Festival website for details.

Filmmaker, funny man, singer, artist, actor, Takeshi Kitano is a lot of things. Globally, everyone sees him from a different angle. In Japan he’s a comedy icon, a celebrity who has his face being plastered across billboards, giant LCD screens, and home televisions. Internationally, he’s a renowned filmmaker, recognised by some of cinema’s most prestigious prizes (a double Palme d’Or contender – Kikujiro and Outrage, winner of the César Award for Best Foreign Film for Hana-Bi, a six-time nominee for the Golden Lion at the Venice Film Festival, and more). This magical mix of a man is internationally loved, but is something of a mystery. Yves Montmayeur’s Citizen Kitano documentary walks viewers through his life, aspirations, and his experiences, ultimately creating a lasting profile of a man who defies definition.

Kitano’s love for mischief was apparent when he grew up in an impoverished neighborhood in post war Japan. When a traveling sideshow visited, he would toss his ball nearby as an excuse to peek in to get a glimpse of the event. In college he was a ravenous reader but was beguiled by the theater district. He dropped out to become a standup comic, and after scraping and scrounging, he joined the now iconic Two Beat comic duo. His life as a comic flowed into becoming an actor, which naturally lead to become a filmmaker. Along the way, Kitano cheats death after a serious car crash, leading to a new creative endeavour: painting. Citizen Kitano tells this quixotic tale through interviews with Kitano, his co-stars, his scholars, and inspired filmmakers, peppering in tv shows, paintings, film clips, and memorabilia to capture glimpses of his multifaceted stardom.

Despite all this, capturing the magic of Takeshi Kitano is a tricky business, and other documentaries have failed; Jam Session, which was made during the filming of Kitano’s Kikujiro, left the man a mystery. While Citizen Kitano isn’t a feature length film, running for fifty-two minutes long, it manages an impressive insight into his life and psychology. We hear what he was like on set during his early comedy show; a madhouse, but very funny. We hear what the public thought when he added drama to his repertoire; it took a Golden Lion win at the Venice Film Festival in 1998 for Hana-Bi for the Japanese people to take him seriously. We hear how stressed he was before his accident, and how it changed him.

Citizen Kitano’s brevity leads to a focus on his career as a filmmaker, with all other aspects of his life playing second fiddle. His wife, his children, in fact, his whole family never get mentioned. Even his life as an icon in Japan plays second fiddle. For those unfamiliar with him, they show off very little of his wit and charm, and even major milestones like Takeshi’s Castle – the first comedy obstacle course tv show – are skipped over to give space to filmmakers and critics to give their two cents on the power and elegance of his filmmaking. This is certainly juicy for film fans – Jia Zhangke’s discussion of Kitano’s use of violence as expression for the emotionally stunted is insightful – but it’s at the expense of capturing the man in all his glory.

There are more light-hearted, engaging films about Kitano – like his recent biopic Asakusa Kid – but it’s how Citizen Kitano provides a small glimpse the madness and genius behind Japan’s biggest entertainer, that it is a far more interesting film. It might not capture the whole diamond, but the mix of charming anecdotes, engaging film clips, varied interviews, and stylish editing creating a touching love letter filled with reverence and adoration.

Director: Yves Montmayeur

Featuring: Takeshi Kitano, Jacques Obadia, Michel Temman

Writer: Yves Montmayeur

Branden Zavaleta

Branden Zavaleta is a Perth-based film critic. He loves movies that charm, surprise or share secrets. Some little known favourites of his are Ishii's The Taste of Tea, Barboni's They Call Me Trinity, and Kieslowski's Camera Buff.

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