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  • Benjamin May

Achilles and the Tortoise (2008) Review

Machisu is an artist, and has been as long as he can remember. As a child, his mother died, followed a few years later by his father. His stepmother sent the boy to his aunt and uncle, who didn’t want him; giving him to an orphanage. Painting was the only relief from the callous world he found himself in. Through art college, he experimented with various styles, never finding one that suited his vision. As he grew up, got married and had a daughter, his obsession with art intensified, until it became his sole driving force; to the detriment of his personal relationships. Will Machisu ever find a style that suits him, or will he be left unable to express himself adequately?

Takeshi Kitano’s fourteenth film, ‘Achilles and the Tortoise’ is a poignant drama exploring the meaning and cost of artistic passion. Kitano’s narrative- partially autobiographical- shows how Machisu’s obsession with art blinds him to the reality and needs of his family, work and society. He becomes a self-indulgent beast, indifferent to the feelings of those closest to him. Likewise, his art suffers, and though he strains to attain an individual style, he never can. Although a little repetitive, the film acts as a pointed indictment of obsession- even of the artistic variety.

Conversely, the film also suggests that art can be a form of therapy. In his younger days- before his passion turned to obsession- Machisu’s painting released him from the pain of his existence. Though he had no family to turn to, he had his paintings and peers in art college. They gave him hope, and the will to continue living. It is because of his love for art that he met his wife, and the years they spent together trying to further his career were certainly the best of his life. A film of much depth, various readings can be made with regard to its thematic content.

Visually, the film is stunning, with ingenious composition and clarity of images. Every frame could be a painting. Furthermore, the paintings seen throughout- done by Kitano himself- are striking, while Katsumi Yanagijima’s cinematography continuously impresses. His use of bright colours, dynamic movements and symbolic elements contrast with the dark and tragic events of the narrative.

Moreover, under Kitano’s direction, Yanagijima’s work reflects Machisu’s artistic evolution and experimentation. He uses different styles and techniques to match the different periods and influences that Machisu goes through, such as realism, expressionism, surrealism, pop and abstract art. The film also pays homage to some of the artists that inspire Machisu- such as Van Gogh, Picasso, Warhol and Pollock- by recreating their works and incorporating some of their motifs. Meaningful and expressive, ‘Achilles and the Tortoise’ makes for a unique and captivating visual experience.

Additionally, Yuki Kajiura’s score is delicate and evocative, reminiscent of the work of Kitano’s old collaborator, Joe Hisaishi. Kajiura’s work complements the mood and tone of the film, adding to its emotional impact. Norihiro Isoda’s subdued production design is in keeping with Kitano’s minimalist style, enhancing the film’s artistic expression. The simple and sparse settings- such as Machisu’s studio, his home and gallery- allows one to fully focus on the paintings and the characters.

Isoda’s work also draws inspiration from different genres and styles of art and design, such as the Japanese traditional art of calligraphy, modern arts like manga and anime, as well as postmodern ones such as pop and kitsch. Isoda incorporates these elements in subtle and clever ways, such as through the use of brush strokes, comic panels and neon signs. Furthermore, the film pays homage to some of the artists and designers that influenced Kitano, such as Hiroshige, Hokusai, Miyazaki and Murakami.

‘Achilles and the Tortoise’ stars Kitano as Machisu, alongside Kanako Higuchi as his wife Sachiko and Eri Tokunaga as their daughter. A quiet, enigmatic painter, who else could be better for the role than Kitano? He pulls it off with his trademark wit and ease, while Higuchi is marvellous, delivering a nuanced, believable performance as his long-suffering spouse. Tokunaga is similarly good, while Kitano regulars Susumu Terajima and Ren Osugi do not disappoint in all too small cameo roles as a Yakuza pimp and Machisu’s uncle, respectively.

A film both fun and affecting, ‘Achilles and the Tortoise’ proves Kitano’s skills as director, writer, editor and actor. Visually remarkable and boasting a fine score from Yuki Kajiura, it impresses on every level. Though at times the narrative might seem a little repetitive, its exploration of themes- such as the cost of artistic passion- is profound and intriguing. As the last chapter in a semi-autobiographical trilogy- including ‘Takeshis’’ and ‘Glory to the Filmmaker!’- this is a memorable, philosophical film about the power and price of art that Achilles might have found to his tastes.


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