Asakusa Kid
Entertainment

Asakusa Kid 2021 Tv Movie Review- Netflix

For much of its running time, “Asakusa Kid” is a safe, traditional and easily enjoyable biographical drama about the scrappy early career of legendary Japanese comedian-actor-author-filmmaker “Beat” Takeshi Kitano. When the handsomely packaged Netflix movie injects the verve and invention Kitano is celebrated for, it shines much more brightly. Though it doesn’t offer the penetrating insight into Kitano that many viewers would be hoping for, this adaptation of his memoir by writer-director Gekidan Hitori (“A Bolt From the Blue”) does provide a respectful and touching portrait of Kitano’s mentor Senzaburo Fukami, the master entertainer whose fame and fortune declined sharply as Kitano’s career started to soar.

Published in 1988 and previously filmed in 2002 by Makoto Shinozaki (also director of the 1999 Kitano documentary “Jam Session”), “Asakusa Kid” charts the early life adventures and showbiz education of university dropout Kitano in the early 1970s. Opening in familiar biography style with a snapshot of an older Kitano about to step on stage, the film spends rather too long with a set-up flashback to 1974. On the cusp of stardom with comic partner Kiyoshi Kaneko (Nobuyiki Tsuchiya), Kitano (Yuya Yagira) tells a heckler at a strip club, “I’m a comedian, you fool” — a saying attributed to Fukami and adopted by Kitano.

The bulk of the tale takes place in a lovingly re-created 1972, with Kitano introduced as the elevator boy and general dogsbody at France-za, a burlesque house whose dwindling audience is more interested in the venue’s strippers than comedians performing skits in between bump-and-grind routines. Running the venue is Fukami (Yo Oizumi), a famous old-school vaudevillian known for his dandy dressing and disdain for the new wave of manzai (two-man stand-up comedy teams) now making their names and fortunes on television. “That crap is not even entertainment … two people just talking nonsense,” he says.

The film’s slowish first half moves through predictable paces, with Fukami giving the eager newcomer a hard time before agreeing to train him in comedy and dance. While not practicing moves and honing his comic timing, Kitano has time to become friends with Chiharu (Mugi Kadowaki), a straight-talking stripper resigned to her singing and acting career being buried in the past.

The tempo and dramatic stakes pick up markedly once Kitano’s skill and ambition outgrow the barely patronized confines of Fukami’s failing theater. As much as it celebrates Kitano’s rise to stardom as the funny guy next to Kankeki’s straight man in their “Two Beat” manzai team, Hitori’s screenplay casts a tender eye over the misfortunes of Fukami and loyal wife Mari, who’s beautifully portrayed by Honami Suzuki (“Detective Chinatown 3”).

“Asakusa Kid” comes alive best when it steps away from formulaic biography and lets loose with fantasy and magic realism. An elevator ride that transports Fukami onto a stage where he performs a terrific tap dance routine, and a touching scene allowing Chiharu’s dream of becoming a torch singer to come alive are among the highlights. Best of all is the extended finale which finds older Kitano walking through the neighborhood and theater where he learned his craft and met his first showbiz family.

Yagira, who won best actor at Cannes for “Nobody Knows” when he was 14 and has since built a varied and impressive career, is excellent in the lead role. With the same kind of spot-on timing and conviction that made Kitano famous, Yagira captures the character’s dynamic stage presence, spontaneity and physical ticks wonderfully well. Oizumi is funny and dignified as the master whose refusal to adapt to changing times and audience tastes cost him greatly at the time but has helped to enshrine his place among the greats of Japanese entertainment.

Though finishing long before Kitano achieved international fame as a filmmaker with hits such as “Hana-bi” and “Kikijuro,” “Asakusa Kid” offers at least one great gem for fans to take home. Anyone not previously aware of Kitano’s tap-dancing background can now imagine where the inspiration for the sensational and seemingly out-of-nowhere finale of “Takeshi Kitano’s Zatoichi” must surely have come from.

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