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Kitano Named Best Director at Venice Film Festival (November 7, 2003)

Kitano Takeshi
Kitano receives the Silver Lion. (Jiji)
Kitano Takeshi, best known in Japan as a comedian but renowned throughout the world as a film director, received the Silver Lion award for best director at the 60th Venice Film Festival on September 6. His award-winning work, Zatoichi, is an unconventional and entertaining period film that tells the tale of a blind master swordsman, played by the director himself. The film contains generous doses of fast-paced fighting action and bloodshed, and, even though it is a samurai drama, is also flavored with light comic touches that include the dyed-blond hair of the main character and even a tap-dance routine performed by some villagers.

Second Venice Film Festival Award for Kitano
With his award-winning effort, the 56-year-old Kitano, who in 1997 received the festival's Golden Lion award for best film for his work HANA-BI, has reaffirmed his status as a star of the cinema world. Yet at home, Kitano, who has now presented four films at the Venice Festival, remains adored primarily as the comedian fondly referred to by his first name, Takeshi. Upon receiving news that he had won the award, the slightly embarrassed director smiled and quipped, "When I'm out drinking, I want to be called 'Take-chan.' Otherwise, no one will buy for me anymore."

The prize-winning film blends comedy with a hard-boiled edge in a way that was well received by viewers in Italy, home of the spaghetti western. In the film, the swordsman Zatoichi wanders into a remote town, where he takes on the gang of thugs who run the place. The movie's climax is a battle between Zatoichi and a mercenary samurai who drifts into town with his invalid wife and is hired by the gang. The plot is reminiscent of Kurosawa Akira's Yojimbo or John Ford's My Darling Clementine. Asano Tadanobu, who plays the mercenary swordsman, received the Upstream Prize for Best Actor at the Venice Festival for a separate role in the film Last Life in the Universe, by a Thai director.

Empathy for the Weak a Takeshi Trademark
Zatoichi was originally a series of 18 films starring popular actor Katsu Shintaro, who died in 1997. Kitano's big challenge was to find a way to break away from the style established by Katsu. "Comparatively speaking, Katsu's Zatoichi was more of a free spirit, while Kitano's Zatoichi is a guardian angel who protects the weak and innocent. The character is undoubtedly representative of Takeshi the human being," said respected film critic Shinada Yukichi, pointing out the empathy for the weak that characterizes many of Kitano's films.

The Venice Film Festival, the world's oldest, began in 1932 and, along with Cannes and Berlin, is considered one of the world's big three. Japanese films that have been awarded the Golden Lion are Kurosawa Akira's Rashomon in 1951, Inagaki Hiroshi's Muhomatsu no Issho (The Life of Matsu the Untamed) in 1958, and Kitano's HANA-BI. Kitano is the first Japanese director to receive the Silver Lion since Mizoguchi Kenji in 1952 for his film Saikaku Ichidai Onna (The Life of Oharu). In addition to winning the prize for best director, Zatoichi also received the Leone del Pubblico (people's choice) Award selected by the general viewing audience, evidence of the solid fan base enjoyed by Kitano.

Successor to Kurosawa
Zatoichi also won the People's Choice Award at the 28th Toronto International Film Festival on September 14. This award, considered the top prize at the festival, is watched closely by the many film distributors who visit the festival and is known for its influence on the international film market. Many films awarded this prize later went on to be nominated for the Academy Awards, including Chariots of Fire (1981), Shine (1996), Life is Beautiful (1998), American Beauty (1999), Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon (2000), and Fabulous Destiny of Amelie Poulain (2001).

With the film already set to be distributed in over 35 countries, box-office expectations for Zatoichi are high. Miramax Film Corp., which has in the past distributed Miyazaki Hayao's Princess Mononoke and Suo Masayuki's Shall We Dance?, has secured the distribution rights for North and South America and Australia. In Japan, the film was released on September 6, and many are already predicting that it will take ¥3 billion ($27 million at ¥110 to the dollar) at the box office.

September 6, the day the Silver Lion was presented to Kitano in Venice, also happens to be the anniversary of legendary director Kurosawa Akira's death. Kurosawa sent Kitano a letter just before he died - a year after HANA-BI won the Gold Lion - in which he wrote, "I'm leaving Japanese film in your hands," a gesture marking the passing of the baton from one great director to another.

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Copyright (c) 2004 Web Japan. Edited by Japan Echo Inc. based on domestic Japanese news sources. Articles presented here are offered for reference purposes and do not necessarily represent the policy or views of the Japanese Government.

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