Achilles and the Tortoise is the final part of Takeshi Kitano’s self-reflexive trilogy about the nature of the artist following Takeshi’s (2005) and Glory to the Filmmaker (2007). However, it’s more accessible than its predecessors in that it revolves around Kitano’s great passion – painting – as opposed to the deconstruction of his multi-faceted public persona. Kitano’s enthusiasm for art has been widely documented with striking painterly touches featuring in such masterful works as Hana-Bi (1997) and Dolls (2002), but Machisu, the artist who Kitano portrays in the final section of Achilles and the Tortoise, is anything but a self-portrait. Whereas the writer-director-actor-comedian-artist has found success in a variety of fields and guises, this is the story of an individual who repeatedly fails at his craft yet continues to blindly believe that he is on the verge of a major breakthrough.
As a child, Machisu (Reiko Yoshioka) is immersed in his own world of painting: his father is a wealthy industrialist who has also sponsored local artists to study in Paris and find their own style. Indulged because of his family’s status, Machisu has no shortage of art supplies, 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 sharing 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 to. As a young man, Machisu (Yurei Yanagi) takes on various menial jobs to pay the fees for art school. While doing so, he meets Sachiko (Kumiko Aso, later Kanako Higuchi), the only person who will ever understand his art, and marries her. In his elder years, Machisu (Kitano) continues his quest to become a renowned artist, increasingly relying on his wife and teenage daughter Mari (Eri Tokunaga) for financial support, but eventually alienates his loved ones. At this critical juncture, Machisu’s art takes on a self-destructive dimension.
As both an artist and a human being, Machisu never really develops, and consequently exists in a state of arrested development. The paintings featured in the film are all by Kitano himself, but they were obviously created ‘in character’, with their overt references to landmarks in modern art reflecting the fact that Machisu is as derivative as he is compulsive. 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 when it is almost too late that he begins to consider the ramifications of tunnel vision. However, depression and grief are then channeled into the creation of more extreme pieces, 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 (Nao Omori), but always finds that he is unable to capture the zeitgeist. One of his paintings does eventually sell as a space filler and is seen hanging on the wall of the bar where Machisu meets his estranged daughter to borrow money for art supplies.
With its cynical 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. Yet is also an affecting story of a ‘misunderstood’ artist who all too easily loses what should have been his signature style through a need to achieve acceptance from the establishment.