November 2007

Shaun Manning

fiction

Boy by Takeshi Kitano

Best known in America as an acclaimed director, actor, and producer, in Japan Takeshi Kitano's fame extends beyond well beyond the medium of film. His face is known nationwide as a popular television personality on “Beat Takeshi's TV Tackle” and the game show “Takeshi’s Castle.” and he is recognized as a prominent author of satirical social commentary and instructive autobiography. It would appear strange, then, that until the release of Boy none of Kitano's works had been translated into English. Perhaps if Takeshi’s prose work was as universal as his films, if the auteur had published more books that did not include the phrase “Takeshi on…” in the title, his American publisher Vertical would have had a more relevant bibliography to choose from. Perhaps, then, they could have chosen for Kitano’s US literary debut a stronger book than Boy. A tiny twenty-year old collection of short stories, Boy's three tales are solid in their own right, with the lingering touch of the never-quite-resolved that marks so many of "Beat" Takeshi's films. But for an introduction of a renowned filmmaker into the realm of international literary figures, it's difficult not to wish for something a bit more substantial.

In the first story, “The Champion in a Padded Kimono,” two brothers meet as adults to discuss an important moment from their childhood. Mamoru had always looked forward to his school’s sports day, though his older brother Shinichi struggled even to come in last in the races. Shinichi tries not to let on that he’s at all bothered by his lack of athletic prowess, but he cannot hide his excitement when a supposedly magic ball of chocolate gives him the chance to finally be a winner. Here, Kitano expertly tosses ingredients into the pot, roils the mix, and leaves the reader to sense how the tastes mingle together. There is no hint of resolution as to the chocolate ball’s true nature -- though, clearly, something miraculous takes place -- and it is also uncertain what becomes of the titular champion, Airhead. The two mundane endings, concluding the childhood episode and the framing sequence, heighten the sensation of what’s gone before. This is, of course, also intensely frustrating: there remains somewhat of a distance between stories that are simply open-ended and those in which nothing is said, and “Champion” wobbles somewhere between the two.

“Nest of Stars,” the strongest piece in this collection, again finds two brothers searching for their place in the world. Moving to Osaka following their father’s death, Toshio and Hideo spend their nights looking at the stars through a 5 cm telescope their dad had given them for Hideo’s birthday years before. When Toshio is humiliated by a bully’s superior knowledge of astronomy and Hideo is pushed around for stargazing at all, the brothers hatch a scheme to claim the night sky as their own private refuge. The boys come to the conclusion that they must learn to take care of themselves, but neither can be sure of the best way to do it. “Nest of Stars” addresses the childhood need to strike out at situations over which we have no control, to act even when there’s nothing to be done. To really “show them” by acts of astonishing greatness.

Runaways and motorcycle gangs take the stage in “Okamesan,” and each has something to teach the other so long as there are ears to listen. Ichiro has absconded to Kyoto with the hope of studying the city’s rich history, and also with the hope of escaping his controlling father in Tokyo. But when the overly polite city boy knocks into a sassy biker named Jun, he discovers that there’s more to Kyoto than ancient bells, and worse dangers in growing up than poor grades. There are some terrific moments in the story, particularly when Kitano allows Ichiro and Jun to really talk to each other, but on the whole Jun’s stereotypical “tough girl” dialogue makes it difficult to care about her character. She’s not witty, even in a teenage fashion, which makes her abrasive rather than endearing. The guileless Ichiro is a bit more of a character, with his formal speech and fascination with very specific bits of history.

In its short 185 pages, Takeshi Kitano’s Boy presents an unadorned portrait of childhood, in particular a childhood that’s been disrupted by death, relocation, and other, smaller tragedies. It is a fine meditation and a worthwhile read; but, twenty years after its initial publication as Shonen, it is disappointing that the collection could not be augmented with other writings from Kitano’s vast career.

Boy by Takeshi Kitano
Vertical, Inc.
ISBN 1932234357
185 pages