At home he's the king of all media. On the international film circuit - where
"Fireworks", his philosophical policier, won the Golden Lion at the last Venice
Film Festival - he's the tough guy du jour. In America - with two movies,
"Fireworks" and "Sonatine", set for release - former stand-up comedian "Beat"
Takeshi Kitano is a cult figure about to cross over.
A fifty-one-year-old college dropout who broke into show business as a
burlesque-theater elevator boy, Kitano is a ubiquitous, seven-nights-a-week TV
personality in Japan - not to mention a superstar actor, best-selling novelist,
sports commentator, and, recently, painter (which he took up while recovering
from a near-fatal motorcycle accident). This unique amalgam of Clint Eastwood
and Howard Stern is best known stateside for playing the affably brutal Sergeant
Ham in Nagisa Oshima's "Merry Christmas, Mr. Lawrence" (1983) and the heavy in
Robert Longo's "Johnny Mnemonic" (1995). Film buffs prize the six movies Kitano
has directed since his 1989 "Violent Cop" - appearing in five of them as a
stolid, somewhat shambling bruiser so square that he's cool.
Slightly quizzical, smiling no more than once or twice a movie, Kitano is
most expressive when he's socking someone. (In Japan, Jolt supercaffeinated soda
chose him as its corporate spokesman.) Given the havoc he wreaks in character,
however, Kitano is a surprisingly classical filmmaker, making exceedingly
precise use of camera placement and postdubbed sound. Along with a fondness for
one-shot scenes, Kitano's specialty is scenes depicting startling eruptions of
Impassively watched, noncathartic violence. A bloody gunfight is as likely to
occur inside a crowded elevator as it is to be shown in extreme long shot,
illuminating the darkened rooms of a high-rise office suite like a distant
Kitano's idea of a visual gag is the premature ejaculation of a machine gun
concealed in a floral bouquet. But, concerned about America's reputation for
violence, he seldom visits these shores. When he last did, we spoke in the
Tatami Suite of the Kitano Hotel (no relation), perhaps the most Japanese place
in Midtown Manhattan.
J. HOBERMAN: Are you really the most popular figure in the history of
TAKESHI KITANO: I have two comedy shows, a program on science, and a program
on art. I host a talk show, and I'm also a panelist on a discussion program.
JH: Every week? What's your schedule like?
TK: While making a movie, I do ten days of TV programs and then ten days of
shooting. Otherwise I do ten days of TV programs and ten days of writing books
and essays for my weekly columns.
JH: You must be the hardest-working man in show business.
TK: That I'm able to accomplish all this only proves how halfheartedly I do
the TV. Japanese television is not a serious place. I do completely foolish
things, like run around the studio half-naked, which would be inappropriate in
JH: Was your role in "Violent Cop" a change in image for you?
TK: Not really. By the time it was released, I had already appeared in three
TV dramas as a serious violent criminal.
JH: Aren't those your paintings done by the disabled cop in "Fireworks"?
TK: Yes. I began painting after my motorcycle accident. When I was rewriting
the "Fireworks" scenario, it occurred to me to make the character Horibe a
novice painter. Strangely enough, all the paintings I had done fit into the
JH: There's a symmetry between Horibe and his partner, Nishi, whom you play.
They're like two sides of the same personality.
TK: Before the accident in the movie, Horibe leads a happy, ordinary family
life, while Nishi has a very somber family life - his only child has died and
his wife suffers from a fatal illness. But the accident reverses this. Horibe
loses everything - his family, his job - but Nishi begins to think seriously
about the importance of his friends and family. Finally, Nishi and Horibe choose
opposite paths: Horibe resolves to live on, while Nishi decides to end his
JH: The film is quite self-reflexive in referring to your life, your earlier
movies, and your use of violence.
TK: Japanese film critics told me that I put the good parts of all my
previous films into one film. But I wanted the violent scenes to be unique.
JH: They are - particularly the scene with the chopsticks. The Japanese title
[Hana-Bi], which breaks down the Japanese word for fireworks into the characters
fire and flower, seems somewhat philosophical.
TK: I'm embarrassed to admit this, but the original title was "Takeshi
Kitano, Volume Seven". My staff told me, "Taki-san, you cannot put that name
to the film. You have to come up with a proper title." So I let them decide.
They had lots of candidates, and Hana-Bi, which the producer came up with,
JH: What was your thinking behind the original title? Did you want something
TK: I simply wanted to remind the Japanese audience that I had made six
previous films. They weren't aware I had made so many, because all of them
TK: The Japanese audience can watch me every night on TV for free. And in
Japan, the person regarded most highly is the person who concentrates on one
thing. But after I received the Golden Lion in Venice, things changed.
"Fireworks" hasn't opened yet, but it's very anticipated.
JH: Are you surprised that your movies have been more enthusiastically
received abroad? Do you ever worry that they might be too Japanese?
TK: I expected that Japanese people who grew up in the modernized philosophy
after World War II might regard Nishi as a totally selfish fool. But I had
feared that Nishi might be misunderstood as a kind of kamikaze by Western
audiences. His behavior is deeply rooted in a very old-fashioned way of
JH: Your heroes are very tough, but they can also be very childish.
TK: Like them, I like to do childlike tricks. After my accident, I was
hospitalized for half a year. I used to tease the nurses by putting orange juice
in my urine sample, or having my assistant, who is totally bald, take my place
in the bed.
JH: The kind of thing you do on TV?
TK: Oh, TV is much worse! I had one half-hour comedy program where I dressed
up as a magician. I showed the audience a wooden box and told them, "I'm
gonna put one of you in here and, in one second, make you disappear." I
picked this yakuza type out of the audience and got him into the box. Then I
closed the cover and nailed it shut. I pretended 1 was doing a trick, but there
was no trick at all. While he was in the box, I did my thirty minutes of
stand-up comedy. As soon as the show ended, I ran away from the studio. [laughs]
The assistant director opened the box and got punched out.
JH: Public opinion polls show you to be the most admired man in Japan.
TK: I don't say things to be admired. I consider myself to be the kid in the
story "The Emperor's New Clothes." For example, after I recently made a comment
that we do not need the upper house of the Japanese parliament, I nearly got
called before parliament to explain what I meant.
JH: Are there any filmmakers you particularly admire?
TK: I'm not so much influenced by Stanley Kubrick as impressed. I respect his
JH: Like his, your films seem very precisely worked out. Do you storyboard
TK: I start with a basic image, which is like a four-panel manga [comic
strip]. Then I fill in the space between those pictures.
JH: Your nonmoving camera reminds some people of Ozu's films. You make a
unique kind of static action film.
TK: I don't move the camera, because Japanese cities do not make for a good
background. A Japanese film critic once criticized me for that. He apparently
thought that I was not able to move the camera at all! That is another reason
why I persist in using the fixed angle. In the future, I will make a film about
a blind man in which his point of view is a black screen.
JH: How did you find working in Hollywood? Did you get any offers after
TK: "Johnny Mnemonic" was a nightmare. I felt like a child invited to
Disneyland. I was pleased that I got the chance to visit the real Disneyland.
But I returned to Japan without being able to ride on any of the
JH: Are there any stars you'd like to work with?
TK: It's hard to name my favorite actors. As a director, I consider all
actors to be some sort of cat or dog or other animal - including myself.