In 1999, filmmaker and journalist Makoto Shinozaki (Okaeri, 1997) was invited by Takeshi Kitano's production company Office Kitano to make a documentary on the production of the director's then latest film Kikujiro (Kikujiro No Natsu, 1999). Shinozaki was selected firstly because of the talent he showcased with his debut feature Okaeri, but secondly because of his familiarity with Kitano, the person and his work, as a result of a series of essays and long interviews he had done on the director for various Japanese magazines.
Jam Session was shot on digital video for reasons of practicality and cost-efficiency. It allowed Shinozaki and his minimal crew (one or two people at most) to record the maximum amount of material for the allotted budget, but more importantly it allowed him to move freely and without being a hindrance to any of Kikujiro's crew. As a result he catches a good amount of candid and intimate moments, which reveal a lot about the personality of Takeshi Kitano, both as a human being and as a filmmaker. The man's somewhat brusque public image is nowhere to be found on set, making way for a person of calm and gentle nature. Only in a moment when Taiwanese director Hou Hsiao-Hsien visits Takeshi on set (doing what Shinozaki himself avoids: interrupting the shooting) do we feel something of an uneasy atmosphere developing. The conversation between the two never seems to go beyond simple politeness and we get the sneaking suspicion Kitano would rather go on with the film than talk to his colleague.
Shinozaki's documentary follows the production of Kitano's film in chronological order, from pre-production, through shooting and post-production, up to the promotional campaign. Since Kitano shot the film mostly in sequence, inevitably many of the scenes from the finished Kikujiro can already be seen in Jam Session, hence the subtitle The Official Bootleg of Kikujiro. The playfully competitive nature of the title becomes a good deal more ironic and perhaps poignant when you realise that the documentary is a lot more enjoyable to watch than Kikujiro itself.
Being a production of Kitano's own company, it's tempting to call Jam Session a feature-length advertisement for its subject. Aside from the fact that comparing this to a 25-minute cheerful Hollywood promo is selling it short by a long stretch (never mind the fact that something with a 90-plus minute running time could hardly be called effective advertising), one could level the same kind of criticism against any of the excellent documentaries on filmmaking that have been made over the years. Is Fax Bahr and George Hickenlooper's Hearts of Darkness advertising for Apocalypse Now? Or Roy Frumkes' Document of the Dead a commercial for Romero's Dawn of the Dead? And if so, does it matter? The production of a film is as valid a subject for a documentary as anything and one could argue that the sign of a good making-of documentary is that it makes you want to see the film, because it reveals points that you weren't aware of before. And in that sense, Jam Session certainly succeeds.
For Kitano fans, Jam Session is quite simply unmissable and forms a great companion piece to Jean-Pierre Limosin's documentary Takeshi Kitano: l'Imprévisible (which approaches its subject in a more general fashion). For fans of Nippon cinema, Jam Session is a fascinating look into a Japanese film production and into the more private mind and methods of the man who is still the most internationally successful and recognised of today's Japanese filmmakers.