You couldn't put much wrong with Kitano's works in the Nineties: Some yakuza/police classics, with 'Sonatine' and 'Hana-bi' widely regarded as among some of the best Japanese films of the last three decades. There was the slightly out-of-place 'Scene at the Sea' and the delightfully awful 'Getting Any?', but generally, you knew you were getting some quality.
The last fifteen years, however, have been a less enjoyable ride. They started reasonably well with 'Brother', 'Dolls' and 'Zatoichi', but since then, there has been little to shout about. Over a decade has brought the ambitious, but confused 'Takeshis'; the enjoyable, but relatively ordinary 'Outrage' films; the okay 'Achilles and the Tortoise'; and the at times bizarre and boring 'Glory to the Filmmaker'. While fans in the West may have over-estimated their brilliance, blinded by love of his earlier works, these a hardly works by a master.
Kitano is a man that can wear many hats (not literally usually), and his films can take many forms. With his latest work, 'Ryuzo and his Seven Henchmen', Kitano is in comedy mode, telling the story of retired yakuza, Ryuzo, who reunites his old gang to start a new, ageing 'family' to claim back their old turf from the younger, more corporate group who are currently in control.
Naturally, a comedy about ageing yakuza is going to be of the slapstick variety - there is nothing serious to be considered here. What we have are eight bizarre characters, each with his own idiosyncrasies. Though this is not so much the case, with only around half of them actually getting much individual screen-time for character development, serving as little more than comic cameos. This isn't exactly 'Seven Samurai'.
Forming their new family, they set about taking on corporate organisations and Keihin United, led by the supposedly slick Nishi. But soon things go wrong, resulting in the sort of farcical ending you expect from a - I'm going to say it - knockabout comedy. Kitano himself makes a cameo as a similarly ageing policeman as 'Beat' Takeshi, and his brief appearance serves as a metaphor (a meta for what?!) or how much thought has gone into this one.
Now, taking my Radio 4 hat off and putting my 'movie-goer' one on, was I entertained? Kitano's last few films has suggested he isn't going to be making the artistic films of his Nineties peak. Is it silly, yes; is it stupid, yes. Is it funny, in parts; was I entertained, yes.
Like Ryuzo, Kitano is not a young man anymore, and his films will not have the edge and violence of his earlier works; this is a gentler age. There are some moments of nice film-making, with the scene where the old yakuza calculate their criminal points, sat around with a revolving camera capturing the moment in one take. But there is less of the artistry these days, with this a movie to be enjoyed rather than a film to be critiqued.
Maybe I am one of those Westerners that search for too much meaning in the films of the 'enigmatic Kitano': the Japanese TV personality or global auteur. 'Ryuzo and his Seven Henchmen' is entertaining enough, but I always found his most funny films to be those that aren't comedies.
Still, someone who hides in toilets to stick a knife up his enemies' bums is always good for a laugh...