‘Asakusa Kid’ taps into Beat Takeshi’s key relationship in early comedic life

The Yomiuri Shimbun
From left: Gekidan Hitori, who directed and wrote the screenplay for “Asakusa Kid,” appears with Yo Oizumi, who plays Senzaburo Fukami, and Yuya Yagira, who plays Beat Takeshi.

The film “Asakusa Kid” depicting the formative years of legendary comedian Beat Takeshi ? who goes by his full name Takeshi Kitano when directing movies ? is available for streaming on Netflix.

The film, based on Beat Takeshi’s 1988 semi-autobiographical novel of the same name, is set in the early 1970s in Asakusa, Tokyo. College dropout Takeshi (Yuya Yagira) becomes an apprentice of vaudevillian Senzaburo Fukami (Yo Oizumi), who has fostered many up-and-coming comedians at the Asakusa France-za, which was then a strip joint and would later become famous as a hall of comedy. In the film, short skits are performed between the strip shows at Asakusa France-za.

Under Fukami, Takeshi learns the skills of an entertainer, such as tap dancing, in addition to techniques for skits that he picks up so well he begins to shine as a comedian.

At the time, people were increasingly seeking entertainment not in the theater but on TV, and the Asakusa France-za was in decline. Takeshi eventually leaves Fukami and starts a manzai stand-up comedy duo called Two Beat with a younger comedian who is known as Beat Kiyoshi to his Beat Takeshi.

The Yomiuri Shimbun interviewed actors Oizumi and Yagira and comedian Gekidan Hitori, who wrote the screenplay and directed the film, to discuss their thoughts on Beat Takeshi and their film.

Yomiuri: Director Gekidan Hitori’s seven-year dream has finally come true.

Gekidan Hitori: I have eternal admiration for Beat Takeshi. I’ve always liked comedy since I was young, but I feel Beat Takeshi’s material is cool. Even his posture is sexy.

But no matter how long he speaks, he can’t be understood by anyone in the end. It seems he has been alone and lonely for a long time.

That’s because he’s a genius. So, when he talks with us, I feel like he’s speaking at a lower level. I think he wants to speak at a noble level.

I like such loneliness. It’s part of his charm. I offered Yagira the role because I feel he has that air.

Yuya Yagira, left, acts as Beat Takeshi performing manzai in “Asakusa Kid.” Nobuyuki Tsuchiya of manzai duo Knights plays Takeshi’s buddy Beat Kiyoshi.

Oizumi: I’ve met Beat Takeshi several times, and I think he’s sensitive and shy. I learned about Fukami for the first time. I was surprised that he was from Hokkaido, like me. As the director told me to make Fukami look cool, I tried to act like a chic, Showa-era entertainer.

Yagira: For Beat Takeshi, his life is like a movie. His life is entertainment.

We received a lot of encouragement from him, which emboldened us. I like his “wise phrases.” I also like him as a film director.

This time, I realized the fun of the manzai of Two Beat. I believe he’s a living legend.

Yomiuri: Did you feel pressure having to act like Beat Takeshi?

Yagira: Yes, I did. In fact, he’s still alive and well.

Gekidan Hitori: “He’s alive and well”? (laughs)

Oizumi: (laughs)

Yagira:I’m worried that he might watch the film. I’m nervous about what he and his disciples [known as the Takeshi Army] will think of my acting. I was so jittery performing manzai in front of Tsumami Edamame and other members of the Takeshi Army. But I became confident when they told me I looked like him.

Oizumi: I was so surprised when I saw those scenes. You totally looked like him.

Yo Oizumi, left, and Yuya Yagira tap-dance in “Asakusa Kid” like Senzaburo Fukami and Takeshi did many years ago.

Yagira: There are many difficult aspects at play. He’s loved by everyone, so I wanted his fans to appreciate my acting. I worked really hard on tap dancing, doing impersonations and performing Two Beat’s manzai. It took more than half a year, including preparation and the filming. I learned his moves and manner of speaking from the director as well as watching old clips of Two Beat and Beat Takeshi’s press conferences.

Oizumi: In the film, Yagira [also] plays the role of present-day Beat Takeshi, who is over 70, and special effects makeup was used.

You really looked like Beat Takeshi from every angle, and I was surprised to death.

‘You fool!’

Yomiuri: In the film, Fukami’s typical phrase of ‘you fool’ makes quite an impression. Also, the master-apprentice relationship was well depicted, with his earnest attitude toward teaching the young Takeshi.

The film “Asakusa Kid” depicts the deep master-apprentice relationship of Senzaburo Fukami, played by Yo Oizumi, left, and Takeshi, played by Yuya Yagira.

Oizumi: It seems he tended to put “you fool” at the end of his sentences. It doesn’t mean much, but I think sometimes he added the phrase to somewhat hide his feelings. I’m of a generation that watched Showa-era comedians, especially Two Beat, in real time, so it was quite easy to imagine how he would have acted.

There were a number of unexpected parts, such as when Fukami tells Takeshi, “Don’t be laughed at. Make them laugh.” Or a scene with Takeshi preparing Fukami’s shoes at an izakaya pub and Fukami yells at him, “You fool! Look there. I wanted those!” while pointing at another customer’s pair of red high heels on the floor, teaching him the importance of acting silly at all times.

When I read them in the script, I thought those were pleasant conversations between a master and a disciple. But the director told me to “seriously scold him.” I realized Fukami was teaching Takeshi through scolding.

In contrast, the scene with the two drinking together after Takeshi becomes famous was fun to act. I really thought Fukami enjoyed drinking with him. I think Gekidan Hitori is a good film director and screenplay writer for such scenes, which is kind of irritating.

Gekidan Hitori: (laughs) You don’t need to get irritated. In that scene, in the first draft they talked about memories. But Oizumi told me he didn’t want to just trace their past. So, I changed it. When he said it, I was a bit annoyed. But it turned out quite nicely.

Oizumi: (laughs)

Gekidan Hitori: For that scene, Oizumi was giving advice to Yagira during rehearsal, and that made me feel like I was watching exchanges between Fukami and Takeshi. So I didn’t want to bother them.

The film is a story about a relationship and it doesn’t have a fancy plot. I didn’t want to make it a dull, preachy film. So I paid close attention to directing and the tempo. I want the movie to be entertaining.

Yagira: It’s a success story and energizes viewers. But, honestly, although I’m in it, I felt uplifted after watching the film. I’m so glad I played a part in the film.