Joke with a Sorrowful Heart (1985)
Having accumulated acting, directing, writing, editing, and painting credits over the years, Takeshi Kitano is more than just a triple threat. His multi-faced public identity is significantly defined by his self-scrutinizing, and one early example of this is actually a film he didn't direct or write, Joke with a Sorrowful Heart. In this 1985 feature, (well into Takeshi's television career but early in his film acting career) he plays Hiroshi Igarashi, a showbiz star whose cracks in his personal life begin to show as he encounters a crisis he hadn't prepared for: the terminal illness of his only son. The film follows Hiroshi in trying to undo the damage of years of neglect of his personal affairs, and while the film dabbles in too much sentiment for its own good, it sets some important precedents for Kitano's superior filmmaking career.
When putting aside his charismatic appearance for multiple program appearances & autograph signings, Takeshi's protagonist Hiroshi reverts to an aloof, somewhat boorish figure who would prefer to put as much distance between himself & his broken household as possible. His wife has long since given up on his inconstant personality -- "He doesn't need me anymore," as one somewhat heavy-handed line puts it -- leaving him on his own to try to raise the introverted Ken, a bright boy of unusually good character & a seemingly promising future ahead despite his dysfunctional family. That future threatens to dissipate when Ken is diagnosed with a terminal illness. A panicking Hiroshi tries to buy time for his son and heal their relationship. The parental redemption setup is familiar and sometimes hokey (particularly in Ken's nigh-angelic characterization), yet the execution here is complicated.
Hiroshi isn't the back-in-action dad who effortlessly redeems himself after a sudden change of heart; his attempts to mend ties and treat his son's illness usually end in painful embarrassment and burned bridges. The situation is a humbling moment of clarity; trying to assert himself with his production company for favors, Hiroshi sees his career jeopardized, as it turns out he isn't as invincible and important as his pride had led him to believe. His distancing demeanor doesn't entirely preclude attempts from friends to help, but when a special woman in Hiroshi's life lends financial aid, her generosity is wasted when his indulgences result in him getting robbed & blackmailed by a prostitute (and her strangely diplomatic pimp), propelling him even further into debt.
Hiroshi's mistakes are notably made by his own agency, not as behavior molded by social environment alone. Similarly, his good decisions, such as participating in Ken's life more as an equal, are made of his own volition upon dropping his arrogance and wallowing. Responsibility is established, yet there are elements of external forces influencing his behavior. Hiroshi has good close friends trying to keep him on the right track, but his superiors know that the public loves an emotional mess. One line from his manager presents melodrama of publicized celebrity life & even of storytelling itself in a disturbing light: "You need to humiliate yourself. You're trash, so sell it!" The entire tragedy is repurposed into a marketing stunt for Hiroshi to emotionally draw an audience. Again, this script is on the nose, but Kitano would keep its concepts of over-externalizing angst being a force of commercialized narcissism in mind when writing his own subtler, more interior stories.
Seldom engaging in overt autobiography, roles that Takeshi Kitano has written for himself -- as well as many of the ones by other writers and directors, such as the emergence of a violent public persona in 1986's No More Comics and the dubious authority figure in 2000's Battle Royale -- over the years tend to question his own image (in the style of Clint Eastwood's internally conflicted antiheroes), yet he maintains the fluidity of shifting appearances throughout his several decades of acting. While none of the events in Joke with a Sorrowful Heart have occurred to him in real life (except perhaps for an affair), the struggle between various identities public and internal most certainly has come to define the man named Takeshi Kitano, and his resentment at being pigeonholed & fear of inability to redefine himself are evident in this film's struggle against strict obligations & limited time.
The execution here is simple and straightforward to a fault, though; most of the ideas are realized by the text of the emotionally strained script, as opposed to being demonstrated in the formalism of Kitano's directorial efforts. But there are some moments of subdued atmosphere, and Kitano would find further interest in such elements as the presentation of self, longing to escape, and memory of time in his own works. Sonatine (1993) created a richer liminal space of existential escape brought to an inevitable end, and Takeshis' (2005) considered the effects of fame & the deliberate design of public identity. Even one of his most accessible films, a similar parental bonding film titled Kikujiro (1999), was a far more restrained & complex exploration of a cathartic vacation away from societal obligations into states of influential performance for impressionable observers. Still, as uneven as the execution of Joke with a Sorrowful Heart might be, it's an important stepping stone in Kitano's film career that he would expand upon in far more nuanced fashions later.