TOKYO — The mainstream Japanese film industry came in for a surprising volume of criticism Saturday at a Tokyo event intended to celebrate the iconic comedian, actor and director Takeshi Kitano.
The occasion was an on-stage session at which Kitano was named as the first recipient of the Tokyo Intl. Film Festival’s Samurai Prize. He was greeted and quizzed by eight prize-winning student filmmakers, and then lauded by Cannes festival selector Christian Jeune and critic and Asian film expert Tony Rayns.
Looking and sounding as gruff and burdened as ever, Kitano kicked off with a cute anecdote about his early days as a struggling comedian who had to work in bars and massage parlors in order make ends meet. “I scrubbed the backs of Yakuza” gangsters, he said.
Since then, that proximity to organized crime has come in handy. Not only have gritty gangster films become Kitano’s directorial trademark, he revealed that on his first visit to the U.K. London Film Festival officials mistook him for a genuine bad guy.
Now Kitano could be getting weary. “Maybe I’m getting tired of violent movies. I’ve made a few in order to make money,” he said.
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Responding a seemingly innocent question about whether foreigners can make Japanese films, Kitano launched into a critique of the academy that selects Japan’s contenders for the foreign-language film Oscar entry.
“Only films from the major studios [Shochiku, Toho and Toei],and sometimes Nikkatsu, get selected. It really annoys me that there is such a narrow source,” he said. “Who are the academy members? And why is it that commercial considerations always limit what filmmakers can say?”
He acknowledged that some restrictions can be helpful to a filmmaker. “A lack of freedom makes you use your imagination,” he said, and also said that he had recycled things he had learned as a director into his comedy.
In an interesting sideswipe, Kitano said that he did not enjoy the cartoons of Hayao Miyazaki, the Studio Ghibli founder and cultural icon honored only a day earlier by the festival and Pixar’s John Lasseter. “I really don’t,” Kitano said. “But it is important to recognize other opinions.”
Rayns echoed Kitano’s commentary about restrictiveness of mainstream Japanese cinema today. “The future of commercial cinema is in the hands of only a few companies. Opportunities for independents may become limited. But other channels will probably emerge [for new filmmaking voices], on the Internet, and through downloading.”
Asked to compare current Japanese cinema with that of Korea, Rayns drew a very unflattering portrait.
“Korea is very dynamic, it is undergoing social and political change. Its culture reflects that. Its films are rooted in change,” Rayns said. “In Japan I don’t see that. I see stasis. I still see same right wing politicians denying the existence of comfort women, the same old stuff we’ve heard for 20, 30 or 40 years. Until we see some challenge to the establishment [in Japan] I don’t think you will see the same dynamism as in Korean cinema.”
Moments later Kitano was asked by media to elaborate on his future film projects, but it turned into a prime example of the conservatism that Kitano and Rayns had criticized.
“I’m done shooting, but I’ve been told to keep quiet,” Kitano replied.
At that point the event emcee cut in to proceedings and, without explaining the reason, said that the festival bosses had ruled such questions as inadmissible.