It doesn't feel at all grim as you watch it, but Kids Return is Kitano Takeshi's hardest and most confrontational film. As always, his interest centres on apparent no-hopers. In the past, his protagonists have always achieved something through sheer dint of persistence, even if it was only dying with some kind of dignity. This is true of the bruised detective Azuma played by Kitano himself in Violent Cop (1989), of the gas-pump attendant Masaki in Boiling Point (1990), of the young deaf-mute garbage collector Shigeru in A Scene at the Sea (1992) and especially of the weary yakuza Kurakawa played by Kitano in Sonatine (1993). But the new film is different. It centres on two high-school dropouts, Masaru (Kaneko Ken) and his acolyte Shinji (Ando Masanobu), and shows them failing to cut it as gangster and boxer respectively. The question they face is not how to die, but the harder one of how to go on living.

Kids Return (the title, in English on the print, is borrowed from Kitano's first book of poems) is also different in structure from the earlier films. It's crammed with story, incident and character, and deliberately avoids any single narrative focus. The activities of the two protagonists are not only crosscut but also counter-pointed with many glimpses of other lives. The setting appears to be present-day Tokyo, but the action has an indefinable retro ambience; the stories could be taking place in any decade since the 60s. The mass of material is held together by patterns of repetition and variation, which are in turn related to a set of recurring motifs. One of several frames for the action is provided by glimpses of two stand-up comics going through their routing in a small variety theatre; they are first seen as a warm-up act playing to an impassive audience of three, but have clicked with the public (and even with the stage manager) by the end.

The early scenes show Masaru and Shinji's delinquency at school and aimlessness outside school; despite going unpunished for cutting classes, they cannot resist taunting their teachers or vandalising their property. The turning point comes the day Masaru is beaten up; one of the classmates he regularly bullies turns up with an older protector who knows how to throw a punch. Suddenly motivated, Masaru joins a small boxing gym and starts training. Shinji, forever two steps behind him, inevitably joins too - and turns out to have more talent and persistence than Masaru himself. He starts winning junior bouts. Masaru quits to join the local chapter of a yakuza gang, where his loudmouthed egotism is soon cut down to size. Shinji meanwhile finds a substitute elder brother in Hayashi, a boxer who has never quiet made the grade. Hayashi leads him into every bad habit in the book, and Shinji's once promising talents is soon in ruins...

The last time I met Kitano in Tokyo was in the summer of 1995. He was still trying to recover from his near-fatal motorcycle accident of the year before, waiting for feeling and full muscular co-ordination to return to the right side of his face and wearing a patch over his right eye because he couldn't yet close that eyelid. (He also wore the patch in his role as the irascible gay hitman in Ishii Takashi's extraordinary thriller Gonin, arguable the best Japanese movie last year.) Disappointed that his comedy Getting Any? (Minna Yatteruka, 1994) hadn't worked out better, he spoke at that time about giving up most of this television work and disbanding his "stale" of comedians so that he could concentrate on directing films and writing. He was the most sombre and subdued I'd ever seen him.

This spring he was back up to full speed. It's once again impossible to channel-hop without catching him on television (he currently records eight shows a week, spread across the major commercial channels) or to open a popular newspaper without finding one of his columns. I even saw him singing on his television show Kitano-Fuji - which is something he once assured me he'd never do again, with good reason. The eyepatch has gone, and the iconoclastic ebullience is back. But some things have changed. He's become completely teetotal, he's trying to give up smoking and he now ends most days working for several hours on his new interest: paintings. Drawn on paper and fully coloured, his pictures are essentially satirical and sardonic cartoons; they're carried off with sufficient graphic flair and with to have caught the attention of the prestigious art monthly Geijutsu Shincho, which is currently publishing a selection of them in each issue.

We discussed Kids Return and other matters - including the Japanese establishment's increasing readiness to take him seriously as a director, thanks in part to the interest hi films have aroused in the West - over dinner in an elegant Japanese restaurant in Roppongi.

Tony Rayns: How close is this film to your own adolescent experiences? Is it fiction or rooted in fact?

Kitano Takeshi: The two central characters, Masura and Shinji, are based on boys I knew at school. Their classmate Hiroshi, the kid who starts out as a salesman and ends up as a taxidriver, is also based on someone I knew at that time. There were two distinct types in the high school I went to: the ?lite, the ones who studied hard, and the drop-outs, who cut classes all the time and thought it would be cool to become yakuza. The teachers pressured the first group intensely and generally ignored the second. The film, obviously, focuses on the drop-outs.

Most professors and pundits on youth matters spin you the line that adolescence is a time of unlimited opportunity. According to them, if you fail you can always try again and succeed later. But I have to say that own observation suggests that the opposite is often true. Very often young people who fail in some way cannot undo their mistakes. I suppose that's the main perception behind the film.

At the end when the two friends meet up again for the first time in two or three years, Masaru asks Shinji if he thinks that they're washed up. I asked myself the same question when I had the motorcycle accident in August 1994. 60-70 per cent of me thought that I was through, that I couldn't go on. But the rest of me thought that I'd hardly begun. I don't know if Shinji and Masaru will go on to achieve anything or not, but it's certain their past mistakes and failures will make it very hard for them, especially in Japanese society.

They're different form the protagonists of your other films in that they never really achieve anything.

The earlier films are about finding the right way to die. These characters have to live; they're the way they are because of the state I was in after the accident. Maybe the main reason for their failures is that they try too hard. They people who most often succeed in Japan are those who don't try too hard, the ones who simply go with the flow.

Boxing and membership of a gang are two obvious ways forward for kids with no academic skills. Are your depictions of the boxing game and gang life basically true to life?

We built the boxing gym for the film; real places at this level are much worse. Trainers from the Boxing Association will probably be horrified by some of the things I show, but I went to a boxing gym for a short time when I was young and so I know at first hand how beginners are introduced to things like elbow punches and weight-reducing drugs. Boxing is full of dirty tricks, even at championship level.

The way that Masaru is recruited into the yakuza gang is certainly very typical of the way it actually happens. And it's also true that concepts of "family" loyalty and honour are much stronger among the junior members of the gang. The higher up the ranks you go, the more "political" they become; they're more into negotiated settlements than crude notions of revenge.

But isn't there also an element of parody in the way you show the gang, for example in the way they're dressed? We first see Ishihashi Ryo (playing the boss of the local branch in an electric blue shirt and matching tie, and Terajima Susumu (playing his deputy) in a startling mauve jacket...

I used those costumes to say something about the characters because I couldn't find the location I really wanted. When I scripted the film, I didn't envisage that we'd see the gang members for the first time in that little ramen noodle shop. Some of the other clothes used in the film are also designed to compensate for visual shortcomings in the locations. One of the problems about filming in Japan is that every time you move the camera ten degrees you find something in frame that you don't want. Filmmakers in other countries don't seem to have this problem; they can shoot entire scenes in one mobile take without getting extraneous elements into the picture. Actually, the bulk of this film takes place in just three settings: the school, the gym and the ramen shop. The challenge that I faced was to find the best way of broadening the picture, both literally and figuratively.

This is the most story-packed of all your films so far. How did the structure resolve itself?

My university major was engineering, and maybe it was that background which helped me to organise the material. I try to conceive scenes in such a way that I give myself maximum freedom to structure and juxtapose them creatively. I like to edit while I shoot, because I find that editing can spark off new ideas about the direction the film should go in. That didn't happened so much in this case, because of the inexperience of the two young lead actors, I had to edit around the weaknesses in their performances, and that forced me back to the original script. Generally, though, rediting is the part of filmmaking I find most satisfying.

How did you go about finding your "unknown" lead actors?

Auditions. The casting people and producers saw some 250 kids and got the list down to about 40 before I saw them. I chose then ones who seemed least confident. The ones who came in swaggering with confidence were the first to go. This time it was a bit of a gamble for me; I'd never used pretty faces in my films before. Ando Masanobu, the boy who plays Shinji, came to see me with a face that said he knew I'd never choose him. Actually, I had another boy in mind for Shinji (he's the one who now plays the shortest of the three school bullies), but I wasn't sure that he could hold audience interest for the duration of the film. And so I gave the part to Ando at the last minute.

Why isn't there much about their sex-drive?

I could have set the film in a co-ed school, but then I would have had to make boy-girl interactions a central focus. In Japanese society, there is always a very strong bond between seniors and juniors, bosses and staff. Maybe homosexual is too strong a word for it, but it's very much a same-sex thing. That's what I wanted to explore in this film.

Can you recall the moment you first got interested in movies?

My family didn't allow me or my brothers to see films or read comics or novels. In that post-war period the whole emphasis was on economic growth. Films were an irrelevance, and so they were out. That's why I studied engineering! I never really knew the worlds of movies and manga existed until I reached collage.

The two boys seen performing manzai cross-talk routines in the film obviously echo your own entry into show-business as a comedian. But they don't represent you, do they?

No, if they'd been autobiographical figures they'd have become the main characters and it would have been an entirely different film. Manzai routines are a traditional way of making people laugh, but my approach has always been to break all the rules. When I first appeared as a comedian on a stage in Asukusa, I was banned from performing there again for six months - because I spoke badly of the management, the venue and the audience. I went on to break the rules of television performing and novel-writing too. Maybe I'm doing the same in film?

What was in your mind when you took over direction of your first film, "Violent Cop"?

Fukakaku Kinji was originally supposed to direct it, and he was best known for his Jingi Naki Tatakai (Battles Without Honour or Humanity, 1973-79) series. I didn't want anything like the exaggerated actions and emotions in those films, and so my first thought was to rewrite the script to anchor it in things that I knew, to make it more believable. I had two real images of violence in my mind when I made that film: one was seeing a guy who'd been stabbed in my neighbourhood, and the other was the television image of an American soldier killing a Viet-Cong guerrilla with a single bullet. I found both of those far more shocking than anything I'd seen in the movies.

When you write a script, how do you decide whether to act in the film yourself or not?

For me, film is essentially silent. I like films without dialogue or music. The audience should be able to get all it needs from the images alone. Nothing should need to be explained through dialogue. Obviously I try to get inside my characters when I write them and I know what their facial expressions and behaviour should be expressing. Whether I appear in the film myself is not the primary consideration. If there's a role for me I'll take it, because as an actor I know what I want as a director. But if the story doesn't offer me a role - as in the case of Kids Return - then I stay behind the camera. It al comes down to the way I want to stimulate the audience's imagination. I have very high expectations of my audience.

Has your success abroad changed your status in Japan? You told me last year you wanted to give up the television work, but you're doing as much as ever.

In think the reaction to my films in Europe have rubbed off here to some extent; I notice that younger Japanese filmmakers now mention my stuff a lot when they discuss their own films. I've always taken my own work as a director seriously, but the Japanese public sees me first and foremost as a comedian - as "Beat" Takeshi - and it's taken many years for them to accept then idea that I might be "Director Kitano" too.

As a director, I'm like a sponge. I feel a need to take in many things. I do television, pachinko (Japanese pinball), baseball, the lot. And it's when I squeeze that a film comes out. I think I'd e a lesser filmmaker if I limited my other activities. It's a good thing to experience everything you can. For example, I'm glad I once boxed a bit, so I could get the boxing details right in this film.

I hope you didn't have to become a yakuza to get the gang scenes right!

I don't think so, but I doubt that any other comedian or television personality is more popular with the yakuza than I am. One time I was in Osaka walking around with a friend when I noticed that there seemed to be a lot of yakuza types around. I later found out that the local oyabun had heard I was in town and sent out bodyguards to make sure I'd be safe. When I heard that, I swore I'd never set foot there again!

And where does your new interest in painting fit in with the other things?

I think it's very similar to the way I make films. I want my pictures to tell a story, just like the scenes in my films. And what gets in the way of stories is dialogue, and so I avoid it.

"Kids Return" was premiered at Cannes. Japanese names throughout in the Japanese order: surname first. Grateful thanks to Hiromi Monro for help with translation.

By Tony Rayns (Sight and Sound June 1996). All rights are reserved by Tony Rayns, Sight and Sound and The British Film Institute (BFI). The article is reproduced by with the kind permission by Tony Rayns.