If you’ve watched any movie with even a trace of Japan about it, you’ve probably stumbled across the work of actor and sometime director “Beat” Takeshi Kitano. He was in the “Battle Royale” movies, “Johnny Mnemonic,” did a definitive version of “Zatoichi: The Blind Swordsman.”
He’s been pretty much the elder statesman of Japanese show business since the passing of Toshiro Mifune, which makes the “How he got his start” story one worth telling — at least in Japan.
“Asakusa Kid” is a slow, sentimental walk through Kitano’s origin story. It only truly comes to life in a finale that includes a long, reminiscing tracking shot through the venue where the man learned everything he needed to get his start in show business. Too much of what comes before that is static, with a hint of not-that-funny comedy set against a funereal elegy for a lost era of show business.
This Around the World With Netflix tale takes us to early ’70s Tokyo, to the music hall where “Take,” as his friends called him, learned to be an entertainer at the feet of “the master,” and from the strippers who performed in the France-za, a dying, mostly-empty burlesque palace run by Senzaburo Fukami (Yô Ôizumi).
Yûya Yagira plays the gawky 20something cleaning the place, fixing stuff he had no idea how to repair and running the lights, an aspiring “entertainer” with just a crooked smile and a little ambition to work with.
He sees the MC and owner tap dance, do stand-up and comic sketches between strippers and scantily clad chorus liners, a master of “manzai,” Japanese “double act” comedy. His killer bit? That would be the samurai “scene” that he and his co-star act out, with Fukami interrupting his own “performance” to critique and berate his co-star, much to the amusement of the guys-there-to-see-strippers.
Television has killed their bottom line, but this is where Take hopes to learn something that will put him on film and TV.
“Any skills? You can’t be a performer without any skills.”
Take has none. But his first lesson is “Get some” and the second one is essentially “always-be-on,” be prepared to do something entertaining, and dress well to ensure you get noticed and people believe you’re doing well because you’re good at what you do — entertaining.
Tap-dancing is something the kid can practice on his own. Constantly. Flirting with the stripper Chihura (Mugi Kadowaki) is instructive…for her dance steps. She’d love to be a singer, but nobody comes there to see women sing. And no, she won’t sleep with him.
There’s a whole backstage world that keeps this place going — aspiring writers who also clean or serve customers, dancers, costumers.
Fukami is generous with all, but especially the no-talent with the crooked smile he takes under his wing. His passes on the lessons that will serve Beat Takeshi his entire life, something the film’s flashback structure makes clear.
Before coming onstage or stepping into a scene, Take learns to tapdance away the jitters, standing in the wings, just like Fukami.
“Don’t get laughed at. Make them laugh with you.” “Don’t suck up to the audience,” he’s told (in dubbed English, or Japanese with subtitles). “You tell them what’s funny.”
The tapping is what gets his “hold the audience” abilities out there. Fukima breaks him in on stage, making him the stooge in sketches. And eventually, Takeshi and a writer-pal form a double act of their own, eventually taking on the names “Two Beats.” That’s why he’s called “Beat” Takeshi to this day.
The Franze-za scenes are wholly about relationships and attachments that form in the theater, with “Beat” being born on the road, abruptly pushing their act closer to “edgy” by drawing inspiration from American Lennie Bruce and American jazz. Some jokes are set to four beats, some to eight.
“Two Beats” is born. Edgy?
“My grandma buys tampons just to show off!”
A fundamental flaw of this Gekidan Hitori bio-pic is that moment. It is explained to us, but not really shown. We see a comic learning timing, “quickness” and “entertaining” from Fukami. We aren’t shown him studying his real influences, or much beyond the venue in terms of outside life, touring and the like.
That makes the film stagebound and all but locked in place.
Takeshi is a beloved figure, and seeing his formative years is informative even if this film is somewhat subdued, almost in reverence to the man.
But at some point this movie needed to make that extra effort to “entertain,” just like our learning-permit comic. It rarely does.
Rating: TV-MA, profanity, near nudity
Cast: Yûya Yagira, Yô Ôizumi, Mugi Kadowaki
Credits: Scripted and directed by Gekidan Hitori, based on the memoirs of Takeshi Kitano. A Netflix release.
Running time: 2:03