Takeshi Kitano’s “Akiresu To Kame” opens with an animated retelling of the ancient Greek paradox of Achilles and the Tortoise. The tale uses mathematics to illustrate that the fastest runner in Greece will never catch up to a tortoise, should the tortoise have a certain amount of a head start.
We then move to mid-century Japan, and meet Machisu (played at different ages by Reikô Yoshioka, Yûrei Yanagi, and Kitano himself), a young boy who has no interests other than drawing. His father is a wealthy merchant with a love for art – but no real taste for it to speak of – who is continually being fleeced by his art dealer. After dad’s demise, Machisu finds himself living in the sticks with a kind aunt and a surly uncle (no, not Owen and Beru, but they’re cut from the same template). They are not supportive of Machisu’s artistic bent, but he persists in creating, no matter how many obstacles are placed before him. Machisu’s only pal during this rural exile is Matazo, a hulking village idiot who also has aspirations of being an artist. The intimidating but gentle Matazo recalls Wesley Willis, the schizophrenic Chicago street artist who became a sensation during the 1990s.
Finally growing a bit older and leaving the farm, Machisu makes it back to the city and continues his ongoing struggle for success as an artist. He meets the son of his father’s art dealer, who is now a dealer himself. Machisu brings his work to the gallery on a regular basis, but his work is always rejected. The dealer gives him advice on how to improve, but Machisu never really gets the point, and always delivers derivative, second-rate work. This human being loves nothing more than making art, but he doesn’t necessarily have any talent.
As he matures, the artist meets a girl, gets married, has a child, and grows old, but he never falters in his single-minded quest for artistic success. In fact, this obsession results in Machisu sacrificing his chances at a decent career, in his marriage collapsing, in his becoming scorned by his neighbors, and in his complete and tragic failure as a parent. He ends up a miserable man, mortally wounded in both spirit and in body, but still absolutely determined to leave a mark on the art world.
Over the dark course of Machisu’s journey, writer/director/star Takeshi Kitano adds humor by parodying many of the major movements in 20th century art. Machisu experiments with Fauvism, abstract expressionism, fluxus, action art, graffiti, pop art, and various non-representational conceptual styles – even outsider art. He explores every major movement as a follower, but never as a pioneer, and never as someone creating from his heart. He always seems to create something that superficially resembles the great work in the genres he explores, but never seems to understand the underlying principles that make the work of Basquiat, Warhol, Miro, or Pollack (all name-checked in the film) important. His own creativity and personal voice are always subjugated by a more surface-level desire to be accepted.
Of course, this is the one thing that Machisu can never have. Both as an artist and as a person, Machisu stands alone in the world, unable to truly connect with anyone else. Completely withdrawn from the events surrounding him, Machisu sleepwalks though life, oblivious even to the death that seems to follow him everywhere he turns. Indeed, there are quite a few corpses in this film, but even this most moving of phenomenon is incapable of inspiring the artist in a real way. This man is so completely self-absorbed that even the death of another human being, often one that he ought to be close to, evokes a comatose non-reaction, at best.
Kitano also weaves in some near-genius lampoon of the art world, in both the reactions of Machisu’s gallery owner friend, in the works that Machisu creates, and in scenes near the middle of the film showing Machisu in art school. The diverse cast of unbearable art school archetypes that Machisu must endure seem clearly influenced by the characters in Terry Zwigoff’s universally underrated “Art School Confidential” (2006). Perhaps it would be more fair to say that both Zwigoff and Kitano have an equally keen sense of observation, and an equally whimsical perspective on the art world.
It is also worth noting that Machisu never attempts to create art in any traditional Japanese styles. His work is always influenced by European and American movements. In Japan, all of the museums and galleries segregate their work into Japanese and “western-style” art. Even Japanese artists working in a “western-style” are clearly labeled as such, at all times. One wonders if Machisu would have found more success in his homeland if he were working in styles that are more enthusiastically embraced in Japan. One must also wonder if a Japanese audience would have less of a connection to Machisu than a European or American audience might, and perhaps less sympathy for him, since he is not reverent enough to the artistic traditions of his homeland. Perhaps the film is a critique of this prejudice.
As the two-hour running time winds down, the film’s major flaw presents itself. Kitano seems to have written himself into a corner and doesn’t seem sure how to best end his epic. The story wanders around unsteadily during the final fifteen minutes, until the audience is finally told, “And so, Achilles finally caught up with the tortoise,” but the reasons why this is the case are unclear. This film does work on many levels, but the connection between the title and the story were lost on me.
The conundrum of Achilles is not the only paradox present, however. It turns out that the art in the film was actually created by Takeshi Kitano himself, a fact that opens up even more questions about the failure of Machisu, and about the motivations of the filmmaker in making this film. If the story is about an artist who fails due to a lack of talent or a lack of originality, and if the filmmaker uses his own paintings to represent these third-rate works, then it seems clear that Kitano must be using this film to work through something very personal.