It was a marketing gimmick of the first order to open Takeshi Kitano's "Kantoku Banzai!" and Hitoshi Matsumoto's "Dai Nipponjin" on the same weekend. This head-to-head duel between films by the two reigning kings of Japanese comedy can only boost the box office of both.
A preliminary verdict of sorts has already been rendered by the Cannes Film Festival, where "Kantoku Banzai!" was rejected for the competition and "Dai Nipponjin" was selected for the Directors Fortnight section. A three-minute short Kitano made for an omnibus film commemorating Cannes' 60th anniversary screened — but so did 34 shorts by other directors. It's a cute throwaway, about a grimy worker wandering into a rundown rural theater where Kitano is the projectionist — and screws up the screening of Kitano's own "Kids Return" in the usual ways.
Similarly self-referential is "Kantoku Banzai," a film that Kitano has described as part of the ongoing "creative destruction" of his career, beginning in 2005 with "Takeshis'." In that film he played two versions of himself — one "Beat," a famous TV comedian, the other, "Takeshi," a scuffling actor who idolizes Beat. The film's many shifts between dream and reality are head-spinningly hard to follow — and "Takeshis' " was a box-office disappointment.
In "Kantoku Banzai!" Kitano has made his first all-out comedy since 1995's "Minna Yatteru ka" (Getting Any?) — the least screened of his films, for good reason, being little more than a feature-length dirty joke that falls flat. His new film, however, is more accessible and funnier, especially to anyone who has been following his long TV and film career. Kitano stars as "Kitano" — a director who is rummaging around the genre bin for his next film and coming up empty-handed. This, Kitano insists, is not only fiction — he hit an impasse and "Kantoku Banzai!" was his way of working through it, somewhat like Fellini with his crisis-of-confidence masterpiece "8 1/2." So we get Kitano trying and failing to make an Ozu-esque home drama, a tear-jerking love story, a gritty 1950s family drama, a ninja actioner and a J-horror movie. All have their comic moments, but only the family drama achieves something more than (deliberately lame) parody. Its alcoholic house painter father (Kitano), abused housewife mother, studious older brother and mischievous younger brother are all based on Kitano's own dysfunctional family — and its incidents, including the way poor shitamachi (old downtown Tokyo) residents fasten onto a new car like vultures on prey, give the lie to recent nostalgia about the glorious warm-hearted 1950s.
The film truly gets underway in its second act, in the tale of a mother- (Kayoko Kishimoto) and-daughter (Ann Suzuki) pair of grifters who attach themselves to a rich political fixer/philanthropist Mr. Big (Toru Emori) with the aim of marrying off the daughter to Mr. Big's idiot son. Kitano plays Mr. Big's hapless private secretary, who gets into various ridiculous scrapes in the service of his boss.
The gags come from the unfettered, unhinged late-night-TV side of Kitano's mind, not the serious-film-director side, in which the comedy is usually subsidiary to the larger story and not all that funny. A nice bizarro touch is the frequent appearance of a "Kitano doll" that takes the brunt of the punishment (getting dumped off a bridge, beaten to a pulp by goons, etc.) for Kitano in his various incarnations. A sign that the 60-year-old Kitano is getting too old for action scenes? Not really, since he also appears as a high-flying, sword-wielding ninja, taking on 60 opponents at once.
But the doll does get laughs and reminds us that Kitano's mind, creative blocks or no, is still one of the most original in Japanese — or world — show business. Its big joke: Kitano, who has ostensibly sworn off the violent gangster pics that made his reputation, has made — guess what? — another violent pic. Ho ho — but Kitano gives his 13th film the biggest possible send-off, taking the joke to another, higher, more explosive level.
If "Kantoku Banzai!" is a gag-studded treat for fans, "Dai Nipponjin" is an ambitious play for everyone from kiddies who like "Ultraman" to pointy heads who can spend endless coffee shop hours parsing the film's multilayered take on the Japanese spirit. Matsumoto, the boke (dim-wit) of the manzai duo Downtown, reportedly spent five years developing the film, his first as a director, discarding almost as many story ideas as Kitano did for "Kantoku Banzai!" But instead of subjecting the audience to his rejects, Matsumoto builds on a simple-but-brilliant comic premise with patience, subtlety and daring. The laughs come slowly at first, but pick up steam as the story progresses and, in my case, kept coming hours after the film was over.
The premise: the hero, one Daisato (Matsumoto), is being interviewed for a documentary, but looks and talks like a middle-aged loser. He lives alone in a cluttered firetrap of a house, has the scraggly hair of the homeless and is hated by his neighbors, who have decorated his front gate with exhortations to die or disappear. His business is being a superhero, but though he is fifth in the family line, the character he becomes — Dai Nipponjin (The Great Japanese) — has long since gone out of fashion. With his stand of straight black hair (imagine the electroshocked hero of "Eraserhead," with longer hair), short arms, long trunk and purplish pro-boxing briefs, Dai Nipponjin looks like a compendium of everything uncool in this age of long-limbed, artfully coifed, stylishly dressed Japanese superstars.
Also, instead of being of normal human size, like Superman or Spider-Man, Dai Nipponjin becomes as gigantic as the monsters he battles, through a process that is absurdly dated. How can the masses identify with such a grotesque throwback to old, unstylish Nippon? The short answer is, they can't, and despite his feats of derring-do (with monster introductions by a nasal-voiced narrators in the style of pre-war radio broadcasts), his TV ratings are slipping.
Matsumoto plays this character with an utterly straight face, while fleshing him out with deft, dry comic strokes. This approach is reminiscent of Ricky Gervais in "The Office," but Matsumoto has a wackier imagination — and gives it full rein, ending with a finale that threatens to degenerate into a violent, unfunny free-for-all. But it also offers a spot-on commentary on similar free-for-alls staged countless times on TV (by Downtown among others), as well as the distance Japan has traveled from its cultural and spiritual roots. Matsumoto, the hippest and smartest of comic puppetmasters, is never preachy or obvious. Also, unlike Kitano, he keeps his ego firmly on a leash. I give him round one of this battle of comic giants, by a decision.