Achilles and the Tortoise
English Title: Achilles and the Tortoise
Original Title: Akiresu to kame
Country of Origin: Japan
Studio: Bandai Visual Company, Office Kitano
Director: Takeshi Kitano
Screenplay: Takeshi Kitano
Cinematographer: Katsumi Yanagishima
Editor: Takeshi Kitano
Runtime: 119 minutes
Machisu is an introverted child, immersed in his own world of painting. Hs father is a wealthy industrialist, who believes he is a connoisseur of the arts, and has also acted as a patron, sponsoring local artists to study in Paris and find their own style. Indulged due to his father’s money and influence, Machisu has no shortage of art supplies and is able to walk out of a maths lesson to paint instead, or hold up traffic so that he can sketch the vehicles, but his creative comfort comes to an abrupt end when his father’s business collapses overnight and his parents commit suicide. He briefly resides with his poor Uncle, who has always resented his brother for not spreading his wealth, but Machisu’s obsession is out of place in this lower-class household, and he is soon packed off to the orphanage that his father once donated money to. In his early twenties, Machisu takes on various menial jobs to pay the fees for art school, and while doing so meets Sachiko, one of the few people who will ever understand his art, and marries her. The naïve Machisu attempts to impress a local art dealer with his paintings, but always leaves the gallery disappointed, although the dealer does sell some of his work behind his back. In his elder years, Machisu continues his quest to become a renowned artist, relying on his wife and teenage daughter for financial support, but he eventually alienates those around him. When his daughter dies, and his wife insists on a separation, Machisu’s art becomes altogether darker and ultimately self-destructive.
It is possible to view Takeshi Kitano’s Achilles and the Tortoise as the final instalment of a swiftly-realised, semi-autobiographical trilogy about the nature of the artist, as it follows Takeshi’s (2005) and Glory to the Filmmaker (2007). However, Achilles and the Tortoise is less self-reflexive than those films, not nearly as divisive, and ultimately more involving in that it revolves around Kitano’s great passion – painting – as opposed to his public persona. Kitano’s enthusiasm for art has been widely documented, with painterly touches featuring in such films as Hana-Bi (1997) and Dolls (2002), but the character of Machisu, who Kitano portrays in the final section, is certainly not a self-portrait. Whereas the writer-director-actor-comedian-artist has found success in a variety of fields and guises, and often united multiple facets of his persona within his filmic oeuvre, Machisu repeatedly fails as an artist, rejected by the local art dealer and, eventually, by his own family. The paintings featured in the film are all by Kitano himself, but they were obviously created ‘in character’, with their overt references to modern art reflecting the fact that Machisu is as derivative as he is compulsive.
As both an artist and a human being, Machisu never really develops, and seems to exist in a perpetual state of arrested development. His in indulged at a young age, largely due to his father’s wealth and prominence in the local community, and stubbornly refuses to accept that there may be things in life more important than art and the pursuit of his dreams. Even experiences which should burst his self-involved bubble, such as living with his working class Uncle, or undertaking menial jobs as a delivery boy or factory machinist, do little for his character, and it is only in his later years, when his daughter dies and his wife leaves him, that he begins to consider the ramifications of his devotion to his work. However, even his depression and grief are channelled into the creation of more extreme pieces rather than a re-evaluation of his principles, with Machisu continuing to paint even when he is caught in a fire. Machisu’s main failing as an artist is his desire to sell, and his over-eagerness to adopt the style of others as a means of achieving commercial viability. An animated prologue sequence illustrates the motion paradox by the Greek philosopher Zeno of Elea with Achilles failing to overtake a tortoise because every time Achilles reaches a certain point, the tortoise has already moved on. Machisu’s embraces style after style on the insistence of the local art dealer, but always finds that he is a step behind the ever-evolving art world and shifting tastes. A paining that he had produced years earlier does eventually sell, albeit to a commercial enterprise rather than a serious collector, and is seen hanging on the wall of the bar where Machisu meets his now-estranged daughter to borrow money for art supplies.
The finale, with Machisu released from hospital and reunited with his Sachiko, may seem convenient as the stubborn artist, who has failed to rise above the status of ‘amateur’, belatedly realises that ‘success’ does not always equal ‘love’ and chooses the latter over the former. Yet he only does this after a final, futile attempt to sell a piece of ‘found art’, a burnt soda can which he has retrieved from the wreckage of the fire. With its vicious portrayal of gallery owners and agents, Achilles and the Tortoise finds Kitano venting his frustration with the hypocrisy of the art world, while also questioning the place of art in contemporary society, but it is also an affecting story of a ‘misunderstood’ artist who all too easily loses what should have been his signature style through critical misdirection.
Author of this review: John Berra
Peer reviewer: Jennifer Schivas