Beat Takeshi, Japan's one-man entertainment conglomerate, is a subversive-of a very Japanese sort.

This is Beat Takeshi country, this TV Asahi soundstage that looks like one part Vegas lounge and one part Starship Enterprise. In front of a long desk where Beat holds court is a large half dome with flashing neon lights. Behind him in cylindrical pods are a contorted mannequin's torso, several fake strands of DNA and blinking white Christmas tree lights. Flanked by lesser television personalities and second-tier celebrities, Beat Takeshi presides on TV Tackle as the highest of Japanese pop culture royalty, an imperious entertainer whose every twitch and tick and grunt and sniffle elicit commentary and kudos. The show is standard Japanese chat show fodder: ribald commentary on issues of societal import, with plenty of carousing and bit comedy thrown in. So typical is TV Tackle of what dominates Japan's airwaves-it's one of seven Beat vehicles on the air right now-that the host doesn't even bother to familiarize himself with globalization, today's subject, before he arrives on the set. He just shows up-his face scarred, his hair cut in a close-cropped Caesar-and coasts through yet another hour of live before-a-studio-audience television trash. Yet, despite his apparent indifference, he carries the show, not through arch commentary or the Japanese equivalent of Cowardesque wit, but by sheer force of his Beat-ness.

Beat slumps in his chair. He picks his nose. He languorously runs a woman's comb through his hair. At times he appears defeated by the turgid subject and the mediocrity of assembled talent. Gradually, the teal and purple hibiscuses on his Hawaiian aloha shirt descend lower behind his gargantuan desk. The show is a bore, and Beat's not afraid to admit it. Who do you think the TV audience identifies with: the kimono-clad manga artist tendentiously making a point about how Japan isn't ready to host the World Cup, or Beat and his flagrant disdain for taking anything too seriously? Beat is in on the joke. And so is the rest of Japan.

That's why Beat Takeshi, 54, has become the icon for Japan's troubled times. Think of David Letterman, Clint Eastwood, Dave Barry and Quentin Tarantino all rolled into one person-and then give that one person bumper-to-bumper, gavel-to-gavel, cover-to-cover, morning-till-evening omnipresence on any and all forms of media. He is a one-man entertainment conglomerate, and has been a dominant pop culture figure for more than 20 years. In addition to his seven TV shows, he has penned 71 volumes of satirical commentary, written poetry and reams of magazine columns and paints witty pop art. He has starred in 13 films, directed nine of his own and still finds time to shill for Toyota and Johnny Walker. He played the villain in last year's ultra-violent hit Battle Royale, and Brother, his most recent movie, opened in Japan in January and will debut soon in Asia and the U.S. Internationally better known as Takeshi Kitano (his real name), he has garnered critical acclaim as an inventive filmmaker (his 1997 movie Hana-Bi won the grand prize at Venice in 1997) and a striking minimalist actor.

Yet it is his too-cool-for-the-room persona, more than his variegated talents, that make Beat Japan's man of the moment. Beat Takeshi has become the coolest kid in the gigantic gako (high school) that is Japan, and everyone wants to be just like him. He's sitting there, unflappable and detached and looking sharp in a Yohji Yamamoto suit amid the third-rate chaos swirling around him. That's how most Japanese want to see themselves. Their nation has become an economic and political farce. Feckless, forgettable Prime Ministers come and go. The moribund economy has come to resemble more the surreal vision of Salvador Dali than the sound blueprint of Adam Smith. And for the first time since World War II, the average Japanese faces the prospect of a diminishing standard of living. It's third-rate chaos, alright, and all you want to do if you're young and cool and Japanese and know that you've been born into some pathetic slapstick routine of a nation is sit there, smirk and hope to get through it all looking good.

Beat Takeshi is one of them. Call them the Beat-en Generation. Even the arc of his own life story parallels that of Japan's postwar history: he grew up poor amid the ashes of World War II. He came of age during the postwar boom. He found himself during the bubble economy of the '80s and early '90s, when he relentlessly poked fun at a too-rigid society and rebelled against a benumbing hierarchy. And now, finally, like Japan itself, he has grown into a bloated, entertainment superpower, still funny, still possessing formidable hidden powers, but an epigone of what he once was and, in many ways, the embodiment of the rigid, patriarchy he used to despise.

On film, as opposed to television, Beat still projects the latent danger that has made him a film festival favorite and arguably Japan's biggest international movie star. His movie persona is stolid, confident. In place of dialogue, he stares, he slumps his shoulders. His trademark silences suggest a man who knows the ways of the world and doesn't much like them. He smolders, stone-faced, then without warning erupts into spasms of violence. One second he is motionless, a vortex of stillness. The next, he is beating a rival gangster bloody. "That's what is so exciting about him," says Takashi Yamamoto, the 38-year-old producer of TV Tackle. "We never know what he is going to do or say."

A cardinal rule of celebrity is that image is the message. Once you become part of the public consciousness-as Beat most definitely has-you tamper with your projected reality at the risk of career suicide. Marilyn could never go brunette. Elvis didn't dare give up the pompadour. So how do we explain Beat's wildly contrasting images-the violent cool cat on the silver screen and the goofball on TV? And why does it somehow all cohere in the Japanese mind?

Since Beat first stepped onto a striptease stage to perform a comedy routine in 1972, he has projected this almost split personality. He has been both the archetypal Japanese macho man-the rebel, the outlaw, the yakuza-while also playing the subversive clown prince version of all those cherished tough guys. Those phoned-in TV appearances are just the flip side of the stylized cinematic tough guy. Beat plays off the public's awareness of who he is. That farcical gangster on the set of low-budget TV shows is all the more lovable because he's the deadly gangster of big budget glossy feature films. In Japan, where no one wants to lose face, to have the aplomb to make fun of yourself is almost transcendentally bitchin'. "I suppose my film persona is somewhat a reaction to my stand-up routine," says Beat. His own acting style, he says, is influenced by the traditional stagecraft of Japan's noh theater-long, intricate courtly dramas written to entertain the royal family a thousand years ago. "A noh mask is a completely expressionless mask," he explains. "It's unnecessary for the actor to act dramatically. What the audience can see and interpret is limitless." Beat Takeshi is a modern manifestation of that noh mask: today's Japanese see in him whatever they want him to be.

Looking like he has just walked off the set of Brother, Beat, medium height, rolling shouldered, a little paunchy in the middle, strolls into a hotel suite dressed in yet another gray Yamamoto suit. He chain smokes while he talks, and interrupts the conversation frequently to apply drops to moisturize his right eye. (The tear ducts were injured in a 1994 motorcycle accident.) Beat comes across as rough, and radiates a warning not to mess with him. The guy is calm, but it's the calm of a coiled spring. For him, violence and comedy both hinge on unpredictability. That explains Beat's punching out a publisher whose magazine had been tailing his girlfriend. For that 1986 dustup Beat was handed a two-year suspended sentence for assault. "Violence is necessary and unexpected," he says, rubbing his right cheek as though checking an old bruise. "There is nothing more violent than a gunshot entering an unsuspecting family and killing the father." Comedy, too, he says, is violent. "The essence of comedy is to say things that are totally unexpected and sudden under the given circumstances. I adapted a lot of the technique of comedians to the depiction of violence in films."

It has always been difficult to separate the reality of Beat's life from his embellishments. Certainly, his depictions of violent yakuza lives are so realistic and tinged with such closely observed comedic touches that it's no surprise to learn that he grew up amid gangsters in his Asakusa neighborhood of Tokyo. "I watched yakuza guys getting stabbed in the stomach, punched in the head, all that stuff, ever since I was a kid," he recalls. In Brother there's a scene in a sushi restaurant in which a gangster rams chopsticks up the nostrils of a rival gangster. Then he punches him in the face. "I saw that once when I was a kid," Beat says. "That's how I got the idea."

Most of the details the public knows about him have been provided by Beat himself. He blends fact and fiction freely and his flourishes have become part of his myth. According to his autobiography, which was turned into a television drama, Beat was the youngest of four children, born to a strong-willed woman who ran the household, and an underachieving house painter who drank too much and even failed at joining the yakuza. "My childhood was just a succession of nervousness and tension," he remembers. "We all froze the minute we heard my father come through the door. It really twisted me. I don't remember ever having a normal conversation with him. I hated him."

His older brother, Masaru Kitano, a chemistry professor, says that Beat actually takes after their father. "Our father was shy and frustrated with his life. He didn't have a place in our home, so he turned to alcohol. He used to hit our mother, sure, but that was very common then."

His mother, Saki Kitano, pushed her children hard. She wanted them all to study engineering in college, and Beat did, enrolling at the prestigious Meiji University before growing restless and dropping out. He drove taxicabs, worked in a strip joint and then decided to try his hand at comedy. "Takeshi, you are the son of a house painter," his brother admonished him. "You will never make it in entertainment." Beat just nodded when he heard this warning. He didn't say a word.

Before a photo shoot at a shibuya studio, his managers warn of his mood swings. "After 20 minutes, he's going to get irritable," one of them predicts. Beat shows up right on time. He quickly changes into a sweater, introduces himself to the photographer and carefully looks over the cameras and the light meters and the flashes. Even here, he is in charge. "You know," says Masayuki Mori, the producer of his films, who is watching the shoot, "he doesn't really write his own books." Beat's impatience is legendary; he can't slow down long enough to put pen to paper. Mori describes his writing process as something akin to dictation.

Beat goes through his paces with the photographer, phlegmatically following his directions. "Oh, and he doesn't write screenplays either," stage-whispers Mori. It turns out Beat scribbles madly in journals over the course of a year, charting out in hieroglyphic scrawls the structure of his films. Then, in a series of meetings, he reviews the journals and explains what he wants to his staff. They chart out a script. He shoots his films sequentially, and usually takes just one shot per scene. "The movie changes as we go along," says Mori. In the film Sonatine, the actor Ren Osugi's character was supposed to die in one of the first scenes. But Beat liked his performance so much, he kept him in the film until the end. "Everyday, I thought, OK, today I am going to die," says Osugi. "I never knew what my character was going to do."

Few of the people who collaborate with Beat ever really know what he thinks of their work. He edits his own films, and rather than re-shoot a scene he doesn't like, he'll cut it out entirely. "It can be scary," says Mori. After the photo shoot, Beat hangs around for a few minutes to chat. He starts to talk about his next project, which will be a love story, something romantic that will give more prominent screen time to women, who typically have only cameo roles in his films. Despite being married for 23 years and having two kids, Beat allots little psychic space for women in his public persona. His brother insists that for all of Beat's showbiz bravado, at his core he is a shy man who has trouble forging intimate bonds with his family and friends. He is, Masaru says, a lonely guy: "The one thing I wish for him is that he would get closer to his family, especially the children." Beat himself concedes he has been an absentee parent to his 17-year-old daughter and college student son. "I didn't know how to be a father," he concedes.

It was the early comedy, of course, rather than the cinematic flourishes that installed the Beat Takeshi myth in the public consciousness. Before the designer suits and aviator glasses there was skit comedy and Beat's manic variety show persona. Beat loves to reminisce about the absurdity of some of his earlier sketches. "We put 40 or so talents in a bus and attached it to a crane above the water," Beat says. The passengers had to answer questions. If they answered correctly, the crane lifted them up. If they answered incorrectly, they were let down a notch closer to the water. Of course, the bus ended up in the drink. "We had to rescue them," Beat smiles. "Three people almost drowned."

Beat loves this stuff. He can't stop laughing as he recounts how his TV team once put a plastic bag over a man's face and shoved his head into a cage to watch, up close, a mongoose fight a poisonous viper. And then there's the matador story. In this TV sketch, a pick-up truck decorated to look like a bull charges a matador. "Can I run the matador over?" the driver asked. Beat's quick response: "That would be funny." Beat thrives on humor as public humiliation, but also as a refuge from the rigid social strictures of Japan. "I was sick of all the cliches," he says. "So I started making fun of them. If there was a slogan that called for treating elders with respect, I'd do a routine about treating them horribly."

That's the attitude that fostered the cult of Beat Takeshi, which now has as strong a hold on its disciples as any religion. And there really is a cult. The Takeshi Gundan, a group of some 100 apprentice comics, young men who adore Beat and emulate him, sprang up in 1983. They gathered at a yakiniku restaurant in Tokyo's Shinjuku district-a popular Takeshi haunt-waiting for a glimpse of their master. The restaurant became known as the holy shrine to Beat; his followers began to call him tono, or "lord." "We waited outside for four hours, just to see him," recalls Hakase Suidobashi, 38, who grew up in Okayama but enrolled in a Tokyo university to be nearer to his idol. Beat even recruited writers and comics for his TV shows from this clique of fans. Now, like a Japanese trading company or the yakuza, the Takeshi Gundan has become hierarchical, with a seniority system and top-down management style. "Instead of guns, we use laughter as our weapons," says Suidobashi, who has patterned his life after his hero. A shy young man, he was attracted to Beat's boldness. "He speaks his own language and decides what to do by himself," Suidobashi explains.

The irony is that these comedy wanna-bes are already like him. In the end, that is really Beat's appeal. The jokes, sure, make people laugh. The cool tough guy, sure, people find sexy. But beneath the crafted image is an everyman that Japanese males would like to see when they peer into a mirror. "Takeshi's machismo is kind of nostalgic for many men," says Yoko Tajima, a professor of English literature and women's studies who appears on his TV Tackle show. "But his real strength is that he never forgets his starting point. He is a loser in a sense." He had a lonely childhood. He dropped out of school. He was aimless as a youth. But in the end, he triumphed. "He is very much the director of his own life," says Tajima.

What the young men who idolize him may not realize is that Beat needs them as much as they need him. He feeds off their devotion-the way he enjoys having a young assistant follow him around with an ashtray, the way he surrounds himself with marginal talents on his TV shows. "Carnivorous lions, who are supposed to be at the top, need their zebras and antelopes for sustenance," Beat says. "You can stand at the top, but you need to follow the masses, albeit with a certain distance, in order to stay alive. The successful people never join and mix with the masses, but nonetheless follow them."

And that's the trade-off. Beat's Gundan can banter with him and make jokes as long as they aren't as funny as he is. But they can never show him up, because they know who is the king of this jungle. After showing a clip from Brother at the end of the TV Tackle show, Beat pretends to fire a gun. "What a scary man," he jokes. Picking up on the cue to flatter the star, fashion designer and panelist Kansai Yamamoto says, "The real core of today's issue is the way Takeshi lives." In the end, it's all about Beat. For Beat Takeshi's world has become as hierarchical as the society he has plundered for so much of his comedic loot. And Beat Takeshi's rebellion, which started as a genuinely subversive take on Japan, has become as ritualized as the culture it spoofs and as stylized as the gangster chic in his latest movie.

By Hiroko Tashiro (TIME Asia, February 12, 2001, VOL.157 NO.6). Online: by Tim Larimer (05/02/2001). All rights are reserved by TIME Asia. The article is reproduced by