In the late '70s, Japan's Takeshi Kitano became a comedic superstar under the name Beat Takeshi, performing with Kaneko Kiyoshi as "The Two Beats." By the turn of the millennium, Kitano had established himself as one of Japan's most important directors. In between, he's written novels and newspaper columns, recorded albums, and exhibited his paintings, all while sustaining a career as an actor and TV personality.
This renaissance-man enthusiasm for every kind of artistic creation has proven invaluable in Kitano's directorial career, even though it began by accident. While starring in the 1989 police thriller Violent Cop, the inexperienced Kitano assumed the film's reins when the original director left the project. Though the movie itself is about as simple as the title suggests, Violent Cop reveals a director in full control of his style: Long takes build tension, while long silences reveal an emotional complexity that goes beyond dialogue.
Kitano spent the '90s alternating between quiet, reflective works (the surfing drama A Scene At The Sea, the coming-of-age story Kids Return, and the kid-oriented road comedy Kikujiro) and melancholy crime films like Boiling Point, Sonatine, and Fireworks. His reputation in the West rests squarely on these last two films, which achieve a mix of deadpan comedy, graphic violence, austere visuals, and melancholy drama that's simultaneously unsettling and satisfying.
In 2000, Kitano released Brother, his first film shot in America, and the lyrical 2002 romance triptych Dolls is due for a belated release later this year. Currently, however, Kitano is riding high on the Japanese success and subsequent worldwide release of The Blind Swordsman: Zatoichi, his crowd-pleasing update of the classic Zatoichi series. Kitano directed the new film, and he stars as the titular wandering blind masseuse/gambling master, who's also an adept swordsman. Via e-mail, and by way of a translator, Kitano recently spoke with The Onion A.V. Club about playing the martial-arts icon, making the transition from comedy to drama, and what violence means to him.
The Onion: Were you a fan of the Zatoichi films growing up?
Takeshi Kitan: Frankly speaking, I wasn't a big fan of Zatoichi. He is such a preposterous character. "An affable blind-masseur-cum-masterful-swordsman with a lightning stroke and dead-on precision. By the way, he's also a gambling genius." Impossible! In TV shows, I have often made fun of the character. I played blind and continuously made visual gags. In my film Getting Any?, I made a sketch on this character. At that time, I never dreamed I would end up making this film. When the project was proposed, I said at first that it wouldn't be possible, because I had made fun of the character too much. But I was assured that the TV shows had already been forgotten, so I ended up accepting. I'm still a little embarrassed.
O: Shintaro Katsu is so closely identified with the character of Zatoichi that it must have been daunting to take on the role. How did you put your own stamp on the character?
TK: Actually, it's the previous generation who saw all the films with Shintaro Katsu. His last Zatoichi film was 14 or 15 years ago. Most of the people who know the name Zatoichi have never even seen those films. It's something like Zorro in the West. Outside of Japan, apart from rare Japanese-culture enthusiasts, no one knows those films, either. My film has the same name, but it's completely different. The old series doesn't have much significance. My film probably doesn't even have much to do with the old Zatoichi series. Zatoichi is simply a character with certain characteristics to respect. Aside from that, I had carte blanche. Just like in soccer, there are certain basic rules to respect. Despite that, there are all sorts of playing styles—Latin American, French, English. In the same way, there's Mr. Katsu's soccer, and there's mine. I've hardly seen any of his films. Basically, I shot this film in my way, so I wasn't too tense about reprising a famous role.
O: Zatoichi diverges from your established style, and uses faster edits and fewer long takes. What about this material demanded a change?
TK: Zatoichi is an all-out entertainment movie that was not exactly conceived from my own idea, but was offered to me to create by other people. I feel I was more of an artisan rather than an artist, hired to create commercial films with the intention of pleasing those people. So I followed the so-called shooting style for commercial films, dividing scenes with more shots, moving cameras with cranes and railings. Despite those constraints, I really enjoyed making this movie, and I found it easier to direct than my own arthouse pieces. Having total freedom to direct my own movies is more difficult than those I was hired for, where the framework has been already furnished. Unlike with my own work, I don't have to deny or feel embarrassed at the straightforwardness or orthodoxy of the directorial style, because I can say in excuse, "This is how I was asked to direct by those people."
O: You've said that editing is your favorite part of filmmaking. Why?
TK: Comparing filmmaking to a plastic model, shooting is the process where you mold and color each piece, and editing is where you build a finished whole from the pieces you molded and colored. Obviously, the latter is the most enjoyable part in the making of plastic models, so editing is the process in filmmaking I enjoy the most. But at the same time, editing can be a painstaking task, too. I usually shoot quite fast, doing no more than two takes per shot. And I frequently improvise on set and change the script while shooting. Also, I often don't shoot certain shots that I decide on set aren't necessary. Later, while I'm editing, I often discover that I do need these shots! What I do in such cases is pick up shots from a totally different scene and put them in as a substitute. It's like, "Gosh, we forget to make the steering wheel! Let's just take out an extra tire from there and put it here as a makeshift steering wheel!" That's why I need to edit myself. I mean, that kind of thing is not something I can leave in somebody else's hands.
O: Prior to Zatoichi, your only major samurai role was in Nagisa Oshima's Taboo, which no one would call a conventional samurai film. Are you a fan of the genre?
TK: Not particularly, but I'd love to do a period piece again, probably a film about the shogun. For instance, a big film about the history of Japan. But it would be a huge project with thousands of extras, and I think that financially, it wouldn't be possible at this time. I have the screenplay almost ready, so if one day I have the opportunity, I'd really like to try it.
O: You've said that Zatoichi is a villain. Why do you feel that way?
TK: If Zatoichi didn't show up, the people might have lived sufficiently, if a little suppressed by those shady characters ruling the village. They had their complaints, but they were getting by. Then Zatoichi came from out of nowhere and started beating the hell out of those bad guys, and the villagers' lives were no longer the same. He attacked bad guys, but his motivation didn't seem to be compassion for the meek good guys. It looked as though he was only interested in whether he would be the strongest swordsman.
O: Did public perception make it difficult for you to make the transition from comedian to serious actor and director?
TK: It was really tough to make the Japanese public perceive me as a serious actor or director. As an actor, one of the first films I worked on was Merry Christmas, Mr. Lawrence by Nagisa Oshima, back in the early '80s. When it was released in Japan, I sneaked into the theater to see how the audience would react. I thought the film was great and my acting was not bad at all. I anticipated that the audience would be impressed by my performance, which was completely different from my comedy persona on TV shows. However, at the moment I appeared on the screen, every single person in the theater burst out laughing. I was devastated and humiliated by the experience, because the character I played in the film was not the kind of person to be laughed at. I swore then and there that I would stick to the serious and dark characters in any films or TV dramas thereafter, and I did. And it took years of playing dark characters, serial killers, and cult gurus for Beat Takeshi to be perceived as a serious actor.
I wear a lot of hats: director, comic, and actor. They're very different roles. I spend a lot of energy looking for acceptance in these different roles. A comic or TV star who suddenly switches to a film role playing a gangster is laughable. I had a lot of trouble making people believe that the comic Beat Takeshi could play a bad guy. In people's minds, I'm a comic, so it took a lot of time before I was recognized as a director. I had to be patient until the public accepted me. As a result, my early films didn't get a lot of attention. As a serious film actor, things didn't take off, either. Only my comic talents were recognized.
Actually, it was not until around Fireworks, which was my seventh film, that I was recognized as a serious film director in Japan. For years, my films had been treated as nothing more than a comedian superstar's hobby. Generally speaking, the Japanese tend to respect artists, entertainers, or craftsmen who are masters of one art more than a jack-of-all-trades. On top of that, they can watch my shows every night on TV for free! No one cared to pay money to watch my films on the screen. So they were preoccupied with the idea that films made by a comedian cannot be good. But the moment I won the Golden Lion for Fireworks at the Venice Film Festival, everything changed. The comedian who occasionally made films as a part-time job had turned into a "world-famous cinema maestro" almost overnight. It only proves how the Japanese are obsessively sensitive to the reaction of foreign countries.
O: You're famous for scenes of violence, but your films imply that you deeply hate violence. Do you ever worry about accidentally glorifying violent acts?
TK: I hate seeing people getting hurt or hurting other people. I hate seeing blood. I am very intolerant of physical pain. I find violence horrifying, so much so that I can't help being intrigued by it. I think I am more of a coward than anybody. It's a very weird feeling. The more I fear violence, the more I'm inclined to depict it in films. It just so happens that violent movies, like Sonatine, Fireworks, and so on, have tended to get more popular, although I've made just as many films where violence plays very little part, such as Dolls, Kikujiro, Kids Return, Getting Any?, and A Scene At The Sea. What is ironic is that when I made those movies, the journalists still wanted me to talk about violence: "Why no violence this time?"
I think my way of showing violence is unique from that of other filmmakers, in that when I show it, it hurts. It happens unexpectedly and looks painful. That's how it is in real life, and that's how it should be expressed. I don't glamorize it, nor do I depict it without necessity or inevitability. My philosophy is that one shall not resort to violence unless one is resolved to become the subject of violence at any time.
O: You record music, write poetry, paint, write newspaper columns, and write novels, but you're best known for your films. Is film your favorite means of expression?
TK: At this time, it's filmmaking, because it can be the synthesis of my various endeavors. Cinema is a composite art into which you can include all conceivable art or entertainment forms. In film, I can work with novelistic elements, comedy, drama, music, and other forms of entertainment. Film is a versatile expression, combining all elements into one art form.
On the other hand, doing TV shows helps me a lot in my screenplay writing and filmmaking, especially since my TV shows are in different formats: comedy sketches, talk shows, debate programs, art variety shows, quiz shows. These enable me to meet interesting people with interesting stories and to learn about interesting subjects, all of which I can reflect into film. So being a TV comedian, actor, writer, columnist, and all that is quite helpful to me in acquiring wide varieties of knowledge, which is crucial for filmmaking. Eventually, this is how I would like to be remembered at the end of my career: He was never the best in anything he did—comedy, acting, filmmaking, writing, etc. But nobody was better at doing different things at the same time than he was."