Takeshi Kitano might not be a household name in North America, but with his Japanese legacy, he probably should be. Kitano's career spanned many decades and spread across different genres, styles, and mediums. He was part of a popular comedy duo in the 1970s and 1980s. He hosted a popular game show. He starred in, wrote, and directed numerous movies, ranging from hard-boiled and violent yakuza-focused ones to light-hearted surrealist comedies. Kitano lived through trials and tribulations, including a turbulent relationship (or lack thereof) with his father and a life-altering motorcycle accident in the mid-1990s, just when he reached international acclaim as a filmmaker. Kitano, or Beat Takeshi as he was known in his acting roles, had a lengthy resume, with some of the most acclaimed Japanese films ever made to his name. He was often seen as the successor to Akira Kurosawa, and sometimes even referred to as the Japanese Woody Allen. Whatever he was exactly, he was a rare breed.
Kitano was born in Adachiku, Tokyo in 1947, the youngest of four children. While growing up, he had to deal with an alcoholic father, who eventually left the family behind. Kitano's mother, though, was strict but focused on making sure her kids got a good education. So Kitano excelled in school, earning his way into the Meiji University where he was slated to study engineering at the prestigious school. However, Kitano wound up gravitating towards the Japanese equivalent of the beat movement, hanging out with artists of every walk of life. He dropped out of school much to his mother's chagrin and worked a variety of odd jobs until he settled on a new goal: becoming a comedian. He moved to downtown Tokyo in 1972 and wound up working at a French theater in the area doing a variety of different tasks. One night, though, luck would have it that one of the comedians quit right before the show. Kitano took over and while he made many mistakes, he was charming and wound up diving headfirst into the Japanese comedy scene after that night. That was when he joined up with Kiyoshi Kaneko and formed Two Beat, which was a play on their stage names Beat Takeshi and Beat Kiyoshi. Kitano would use the name Beat Takeshi in every acting and comedy role from that point forward. Their risqué humor was a big hit, leading to television appearances and more.
As the '80s rolled around, Kitano wanted to go back on his own and the pair split up. It wasn't necessarily an amicable break-up, but Kitano surged forward in his own direction as he often did. After that, he hosted "Takeshi's Castle" (Tokyo Broadcasting System, 1986-1990), which is best known in the United States as the raw material the comic overdub series "MXC: Most Extreme Elimination Challenge" (Spike TV 2003-2007). During the run of "Takeshi's Castle," Kitano began appearing more regularly in a variety of movies, mostly comedies. He was set to star in "Violent Cop" (1989), which was originally supposed to be a slapstick comedy, but then the original director dropped out from the project. Although he had no directorial experience, Kitano filled in as director and also heavily rewrote the script, making it much more serious and gritty, telling the story of an ultraviolent and sociopathic detective. His writing and directing debut wound up being a huge success, and afterwards, he more or less left the comedy world behind, instead focusing on writing, directing, and starring in his own dramatic and violent films. He followed up "Violent Cop" with "Boiling Point" (1990) and "A Scene at the Sea" (1991) before making his international breakout hit "Sonatine" (1993), which like most of his early films, involved the yakuza in some capacity.
After "Sonatine," Kitano was consumed by depression, mostly coming out of a fear of being typecast and an overall pressure to perform. Despite the acclaim, he was afraid of being pigeonholed into the same movies, roles, and projects. His somewhat reckless days as a college dropout fluttered back to the surface as he defiantly made the dopey comedic farce "Getting Any?" (1995), which was almost a response to his budding, serious film career. He was in a position of power and he could do whatever he wanted. The result of that attitude led to the abysmal reception of "Getting Any?" and an absolutely brutal motorcycle accident that disfigured his face and left him hospitalized for a month. Rumor mills buzzed about his accident, and he wound up even holding a press conference where, because of the facial damage, he could barely speak to apologize and explain himself. He later had reconstructive surgery to repair his face (although it left him with a permanent sneer), but the accident was a wake-up call. Kitano was more focused and less self-destructive, and soon released a slew of new movies, including "Kids Return" (1996), "Fireworks" (1997), and "Kikujiro" (1999). All three films were award-winning and well received, with "Fireworks" being arguably the most critically acclaimed film in his entire career, sending him from art house Japanese director to a true internationally respected filmmaker.
In 2000, he had a role in the cult classic "Battle Royale" (2000) and also made his next film, "Brother" (2000), which was shot in Los Angeles. Alongside "Dolls" (2002), "Brother" was a step back for Kitano, as neither of the pair was well liked, though it likely could have been more a result of his longevity, since "Brother" and "Dolls" were his ninth and tenth movies in about 13 years. He returned to form the following year with "Zatoichi" (2003), which was a new take on an old Japanese film and TV series. His next work was more personal, as he released a trilogy of surreal autobiographical movies called "Takeshis'" (2005), "Glory to the Filmmaker!" (2007), and "Achilles and the Tortoise" (2008). In between, he starred in a few smaller projects and even did some voice acting. He returned to his yakuza movie roots with "Outrage" (2010) and its sequel "Outrage Beyond" (2012).
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"Takeshi's Castle" debuts on Japanse television.
Made writing and directing debut in "Violent Cop"
Made "Sonatine," which was his first big international hit
Wrote, directed, and starred in "Fireworks"
Co-starred in "Battle Royale"
Directed and starred in "Zatoichi"