Akiresu to Kame (Takeshi Kitano, 2008)
[note: review originally published 20Apr2009]
The first rule of Achilles and the Tortoise is “do not talk about Achilles and the Tortoise.” No, wait, different movie. The first rule of Achilles and the Tortoise is “do not use Achilles and the Tortoise to introduce your friends to the films of Takeshi Kitano.” You see, while Achilles and the Tortoise is as accomplished as many of Kitano’s other movies, as time has gone on, his humor has gotten a lot like coffee that’s been left in the pot for a week—very black and very, very bitter. This is oceans away from Kikujiro or Sonatine.
The movie follows Machisa Kuramochi (played as a child by Reikô Yoshioka, as a young man by Yûrei Yanagi, and as an adult by Kitano), who was told as a child that he had a talent for art by one of his father’s sycophants, as he tries to make his way in the art world. (The movie’s running joke is that while Kuramochi becomes obsessed with becoming a great artist, he never actually wanted to become one in the first place.) Instead of assimilating the work of many other artists and using it to find his own voice, Kuramochi tries to trend-jump, finding the work of the age’s hot new artist and duplicating it, in the process giving us a jaundiced view of fifty years of modern art history at the same time we get Kitano’s particular brand of physical comedy and heart-tugging tragedy.
That Kitano has become one of Japan’s finest modern filmmakers is unarguable; he progressed in leaps and bounds over the course of his first four movies, and while the improvement has been more gradual since, it has continued with every film. From this perspective, Achilles and the Tortoise is arguably a failure, because Kitano treads no new ground here; at times, the movie feels almost phoned in. But on another level, the simple fact of the matter is that no one does what Kitano does as well as Kitano does it. He is a master at timing the tragedy for maximum effect. Thinking about it from this angle, Kuramochi is just as much a jinx to those around him (the only person who manages to make it between episodes is his long-suffering wife, played by Kanako Higuchi from Memories of Tomorrow) as he is an unintentional art critic. Whereas many of Kitano’s earlier films show him giving precedence to the comedy aspects of the script, in this one (as usual, written by Kitano himself) he gives precedence to the tragedy, to the extent that the film feels a bit overbalanced. It’s so dark that towards the end of the movie, every laugh is an uncomfortable one. While there are few points in the film where you’re not waiting for the other shoe to drop, every time it actually happens, you get a bigger shoe with better aim.
If you’re not an established fan of Kitano’s work, I’d suggest steering clear of this one until you’ve gotten familiar with him. Start with more accessible movies (Kikujiro is, in my estimation, one of the hundred greatest movies ever made, and other critics have made similar claims about Hana-bi and Sonatine, among others) and move onto this one later. It’s well worth seeing, but you’ll be able to appreciate it much more once you’ve got a handle on Kitano’s sense of humor. *** ½