The prodigious talent that is TAKESHI KITANO says William Gibson,
has no parallel in the West
I once wrote a screenplay that featured a stoic, traditionalist yakuza boss,
exiled, in my near future scenario, to the frozen, cockroach-ridden wastes of a
dystopian Newark, New Jersey. Clenched like a fist around his grief at the loss
of his daughter, he soldiers on, like a Roman legionary with a death wish the
size of a Volkswagen on his shoulder. Meanwhile, his decadent, hotshot young
understudy, a biotech dandy with a lethal thumb-implant, watches for the
earliest, easiest opportunity to kill him.
Where, I now wonder, did I find this character, this hard, immaculate man
with his hidden inner wound? I had not, at that time, seen any yakuza films,
although I was aware of the genre by some species of pop-culture osmosis. And I
had sensed that the roots of that genre would somehow be tangled in a rich mulch
of American westerns and gangster films. I was somehow aware of the character as
a re-importation. As a friend likes to say, there's often something in a good
translation that can't quite be captured in the original. But where did my tough
and tragic yakuza boss come from?
He came, somehow, from the films of Takeshi Kitano, which I had not yet seen.
He arrived as the crystalline, free-floating essence of an idea or stance. He
owed everything to "Beat" Takeshi, a Japanese pop figure of such unstintingly
multitalented eclecticism that the West has no equivalent, nobody even close.
("They only want you to be the one thing," Mick Jagger once told me, speaking of
his own acting career.) Writer, producer, director, actor, television
personality, comedian - but I knew nothing of that as I wrote. Nor could I know
that Takeshi, whose gravitas would one day tug at the film with the pull of a
black hole, was said to be both a very great actor and the most famous man in
Japan. Both of which, now I know, were and are true.
Fast-forward to a vast, freezing, dilapidated factory building on the
outskirts of Toronto - in which has been constructed a segment of my dystopian
near future Newark, an aerial shantytown slung beneath a bridge. Here, amid
cameras and crew and the patchwork of our junkyard set, I watch Takeshi prepare
to portray my yakuza boss.
I'm terrified. I've only just seen, for the first time, the day before,
actors portraying characters I've written. And now Takeshi strikes me as a
tulpa, a materialized thought-form, sentient plasm of whatever cross-cultural
meme generated this character through me. I don't believe he's acting. As if to
reinforce this, his entourage of smooth-faced, unblinking young associates is
dressed as if in imitation of his character's costume. Or, rather, as if they
had no need for imitation, being already there. Like the character, they are all
buttoned into beautifully cut cashmere overcoats. Black.
I never saw Takeshi again, and then, months later, I heard that he had been
terribly injured in a motorcycle accident, and was at first not expected to
live, and then, when he did live, was not expected to be able to act again.
It made me very sad.
I thought of all this, two summers ago, as I watched his film Brother in the
Vancouver Film Festival - one of the only movies I've seen that captures the
micron-thin veneer of city-over-desert that one sees constantly in parts of Los
Angeles, but which one never sees in films. Takeshi had survived his motorcycle
crash. With the newly limited mobility of his features turned to full advantage,
he took us on his character's somberly delirious kamikaze run into a simpler and
more hauntingly realized vision of nightside America than our own directors have
given us for quite a long time.
Toughness has been rather out of fashion as a masculine virtue, but Takeshi
simultaneously radiates it and suggests its wounded core. There can, in fact, be
no depiction of genuine toughness (not brutality but a sort of excess of
substance, of soul-stuff) without this concomitant indication of that wound,
else the piece become simply the pornography of fascism.
Takeshi is simultaneously tougher and more wounded than you or I will ever
be. Given the ever deeper and more precise reach of the spectral hand of
marketing, I suspect that he's tougher and more wounded than any Hollywood star
is ever likely to be allowed to be.
William Gibson is the author of Neuromancer, among other novels. He wrote
the screenplay for Johnny Mnemonic, which starred Takeshi