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In “the cinema of flourishes”—as scholar David Bordwell once memorably characterized the long and grand tradition of Japanese filmmaking—few flourish makers have flown so high as Takeo Kimura, longtime Seijun Suzuki collaborator and art director extraordinaire, who died recently at a still youthful ninety-one and whose work we will ever admire. Anyone who has gazed in awe at Suzuki’s Tokyo Drifter as the walls of a yakuza boss’s Greco-Roman offices suddenly flush from Marnie red to good-guy white during the climax of a three-way hit-man standoff knows of Kimura’s fearless willingness to go-go for baroque. Suzuki once cryptically “explained” that “snow is the protagonist” of Tokyo Drifter and that the alchemy between Kimura (“the art director of the snow”) and cinematographer Shigeyoshi Mine allowed them to create “images like ink paintings . . . [even if] their characters don’t harmonize well. Mine is impulsive, Kimura is complex.”
Born in Tokyo in 1918, Kimura studied theater before joining the Nikkatsu studio’s scenography department in 1941, just in time for World War II and a government-ordered studio merger that landed him at the newly formed Daiei studio, where he art directed his first film in 1945; he returned to Nikkatsu in 1954. Though he would work with many of Nikkatsu’s major directors through the fifties, Toshio Masuda among them, it wasn’t until he began his association with Suzuki on 1963’s The Bastard (“the real turning point in my career,” Suzuki once said) that Kimura found the encouragement to let his imagination reach full flower. The urban wreckage and color-coded hookers-from-hell of Gate of Flesh and the giant-plaster-doughnut-in-an-immaculately-emptied-nightclub whatsit of Tokyo Drifter soon followed. By 1967’s Branded to Kill, Suzuki’s Nikkatsu career ender, Kimura had become so integral to the Suzuki-gumi that, while he receives no official credit on the film (except behind the group screenwriting pseudonym “Hachiro Guryu”), his imprint is palpably present—as Mari Annu’s bonkers-for-butterflies apartment decor well attests.
Kimura would continue to work with Suzuki on a variety of post-Nikkatsu projects, including the director’s dreamlike first foray into non-action-film aesthetics, Zigeunerweisen (for which Kimura won a Japanese Academy Award), 1985’s blackface gangster curio Capone Cries a Lot, and the director’s 2001 “comeback,” Pistol Opera. But Kimura covered the waterfront as well, collaborating on such stylistically varied milestones as Mitsuo Yanagimachi’s ferociously animist/naturalist Himatsuri and Juzo Itami’s playful Tampopo, and working on films for both realists like Kei Kumai and po-mo pastiche auteurs like Kaizo Hayashi. In 2008, at the age of ninety, Kimura made his own feature film debut as a director with Dreaming Awake—and was quickly recognized for the accomplishment by the Guinness Book of World Records. A dreamer and visionary to the end, Takeo Kimura helped awaken us all to the magic of cinema, and created manifold visions of paradise and the Pit right here on earth, out of whatever he could find in the properties warehouse on the Nikkatsu lot: forlorn whitewashed statuary, a few boxes of model airplanes, a fistful of cherry blossoms, and that giant plaster doughnut, rinsed in yellow spotlight, a monument to one of cinema’s boldest eyes.