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 electrical storm.

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 Japanese TV?

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 film.

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 story.

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 life.

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, won.

JH: What was your thinking behind the original title? Did you want something completely neutral?

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 flopped.

JH: Why?

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 thinking.

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 versatility.

JH: Like his, your films seem very precisely worked out. Do you storyboard your scenes?

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 "Johnny Mnemonic"?

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 attractions.

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.

By Jim Hoberman (Village Voice, March 1998). All rights are reserved by Jim Hoberman. The article is reproduced by Kitanotakeshi.com with the kind permission by Jim Hoberman.