Takeshi Kitano is to Japanese show business what Steven Spielberg is to the
Hollywood film industry: a man who, despite his public image as an eternal Peter
Pan, has been the king of his professional hill for more than two decades and
extended his activities far beyond the limits of most of his colleagues. Kitano,
or as he is better known to Japan's TV-watching masses, Beat Takeshi, may not
run a movie studio, but he has gone from being a strip joint emcee and playing
the dimwit in a comedy duo called Two Beats (thus his "Beat" stage name) to
appearing on countless network TV shows, writing more than sixty books, cutting
hit records, and even dabbling in the curry-restaurant business.
On the TV programs that he appears on almost nightly, he is everything to
everybody, clowning on one show in sailor-dress drag, discoursing on another
about the latest discoveries in astronomy. Voted Japan's most popular male
celebrity in polls year after year, he is too protean to easily categorize, too
talented and articulate to dismiss as just another TV buffoon. Like Woody Allen,
he has moved to the grown-up table of national life and has no intention of
Abroad, Kitano is better known as the director of films that, in their
understated, innovative, blackly humorous explorations of society's fringes,
including Japan's ubiquitous yakuza gangs, have earned him critical praise and
numerous prizes. In 1997, Kitano's Hana-Bi (Fireworks), a tersely told, starkly
violent drama about an ex-cop's search for redemption, won the Golden Lion at
the Venice Film Festival.
In person, Kitano is utterly without the usual airs and pretensions of the
entertainment-world elite. Shifting mental gears with blinding speed, he leaps
from subject to subject, image to image, at times with little regard for the
question at hand. He is not trying to impress so much as simply give his nimble
mind free rein and, not incidentally, keep everyone laughing.
John Woo said in an interview that he thought you were the next Asian
director most likely to make it in Hollywood. What kind of movie would you make
if you could work with a Hollywood studio and budget? Also, do you have any
desire to make such a film?
I'm working on two projects now set in America. I've written simple
treatments for them. One is about two members of minorities, a Japanese yakuza
and a black America who becomes the yakuza?s kyodaibun-his gang brother.
They are fighting together against the larger white society and realize, in the
course of the struggle, that they are brothers in the real sense of the
Another one is inspired by Tarantino and Scorcese and other directors who are
really familiar with the Italian Mafia. It's a film set in Hawaii about the
Japanese yakuza and the American Mafia. There's this old yakuza who happens to
get into some trouble with another old man and discovers that he's with the
Mafia. They start talking in a coffee shop about why they became gangsters. The
Mafia guy says that he got involved in the gangs when he was a kid. The yakuza
says that he was poor when he was a kid and that the yakuza gave him a way out.
Then the Mafia guy asks the yakuza guy what kind of ceremonies the yakuza have
when someone joins a gang.
The story traces their fives, from the old days to the present. When they
part, they agree to meet at the coffee shop at the same time next year. Then the
Mafia guy takes a walk on the beach. Suddenly there's the sound of gunfire and
he falls. The Japanese yakuza thinks the American Mafia is tougher than the
yakuza and that's how the movie ends. These films are just in the treatment
stage. If anyone is interested, I can say I have these two treatments.
So you aren't in negotiation with any Hollywood studio now.
No, not at all. I can't make movies the way John Woo does. I don't have that
kind of speed. In general, I don?t think that I have the kind of speed that you
find in Hollywood - films, so it probably wouldn't work out. I don't think it
would be fair to moviegoers who come expecting to be entertained.
My movie [Hana-Bi] opened at a theater in Shinjuku yesterday. Usually when a
screening ends people start walking out during the credits, but after Hana-Bi
ended the audience stayed until the lights went up in the theater, so they had
to delay the next screening until everyone left. The schedule got screwed up
because of that.
When I saw it at the Nippon Herald screening room, the place was packed, but
no one left until the end of the credits. They seemed to be lost in thought.
How can we take money for bringing people down like that? [laughs] The
audience is going to be asking for a refund. "Hey, I thought movies were
supposed to be fun:' [laughs] "You?ve got some kind of strange mind, making a
movie like that:' [laughs]
Was the reaction abroad the same?
Pretty much the same I think. When they screened it at Venice, the audience
was quiet until the end and I thought, "Uh oh, this isn?t good . ' Then after
the lights went up, there was some applause, so I felt relieved. "At least
they're applauding it." But there was a gap between the end of the film and the
applause. Finally, they gave it a big hand.
Your work is so different from what the West has been getting from Asia
lately-a lot of the Hong Kong movies or Hollywood movies made by Hong Kong
Hong Kong films are like a kind of dance, a show. You?ll never see anything
like that in real life. When they show fight scenes, they just go on and on.
There's no way that people can keep punching and kicking each other like that,
making it look so beautiful. In real life, there's one punch and it's over. So I
don?t think of my violent films as being entertainment. In Hong Kong movies,
there's no realism to the fighting or shooting. It's all a show.
Whereas Hong Kong movies seem to be influenced by Chinese opera, yours seem
to have a more distinctly Japanese quality. The way you use pauses reminds me
somehow of Noh drama [laughs]. Your gang movies seem restrained compared to what
has been coming out of Hong Kong. Did you intend to inject a traditional
Japanese quality into your films?
No, not all. In the neighborhood where I grew up there were a lot of yakuza
around. I used to see them fight each other and usually it would be over with
one punch. I never saw them punching away at each other-they might trade as many
three punches, then one guy would be getting the worst of it and give up. I
never saw them go at each other the way you see in a cowboy movie. Usually it
would be one-sided-one guy working over another. I would see one guy kicking
another, that kind of thing. I never saw what you would describe as boxing
What about the influence of Japanese yakuza movies from the sixties and
seventies Ken Takakura charging into a nest of rival gangsters with a
Those Ken Takakura movies were popular when the student movement was at its
height. Radical students would go to the theater and applaud Ken Takakura. But I
knew there was no way for that kind of thing to happen-for one yakuza to take on
a whole rival gang with a wooden sword. It was totally unrealistic. I thought,
well, it's only a movie, but when I made movies myself I could never do that.
Stories like that were made into manga. At the end Ken Takakura says, "I'll go
alone." The other guys in the gang say "Go ahead, we're not stopping you."
In the seventies the Jingi Naki Tatakai (Battles Without Honor) series by
Kinji Fukasaku tried to inject more realism into the yakuza genre.
His camerawork had a documentary feel. Now they would use a Steadicam, but
back then they would shoot like a reporter chasing a TV star, with a wobbling
handheld camera. Especially in the fight scenes-it would heighten the tension.
Fukasaku was quite good at that.
When I saw your first film, Sono Otoko, Kyobo ni Tsuki (Violent Cop, 1989) I
thought that you were trying to get away from what had been done in the past and
make a different kind of gang movie.
The story, the camerawork-the whole process of making films has it own rules,
like baseball. When I made my first film I tried to learn the rules and I
followed them until Hana-Bi. I had pretty much figured out how to make a movie
by then. In the beginning, I didn't know very much about how to move the camera
and so on. So the movie turned out looking like a souvenir snapshot. After my
second or third film, though, I started to figure out how to move the
With Hana-Bi I felt that you were putting in everything you had learned about
filmmaking. It was a kind of summation.
If I compare Hana-Bi to an entrance exam for a public university, where they
test you on five subjects- English and Japanese and so on--I think I scored an
average of sixty points on all the subjects and passed. But in some scenes I
scored ninety percent and others ten percent. If I had been taking a test for a
private college, where they only require three subjects, Hana-Bi would have
-scored pretty well, though. (laughs] But a lot of movies that apply for that
national university of film score better than Hana-Bi.
Are you going to take a different approach for you nextfilm? Or are you going
to expand on the themes you explored in Hana-Bi?
When you think about the most popular stories with audiences, the ones that
seem to work the most consistently are about parents and children. One story is
a child visiting its mother during the summer vacation. They meet and various
things happen, then the child goes back to its grandmother. That?s a classic
story. Various people have told it and each one has his own way of telling it.
So now I'm thinking how I can tell it differently.
It's like a piano recital where everyone plays the same number, but one
performance is somehow better than the others. I would like to try something
like that once. Everyone has his own idea of how to tell a story about family
relations. You have the Tora-san approach, you have the approach of Masahiro
Shinoda in Shonen Jidai (Takeshi: Childhood Days) So I would like to try making
the same kind of film and see how I could do it differently.
In the same way, I've seen a lot of younger Japanese directors try to make
films like Yasujiro Ozu. They may be making a parody, but at the same time
they're trying to match themselves against the master-again, like classical
pianists playing the same composition.
When I see Ozu?s movies, I'm impressed with the shots he gets when the
characters go outside-you can?t find those kinds of backdrops in Japan anymore.
You couldn't make those kinds of shots today, the right scenery isn?t there
anymore. There's too much extraneous stuff in the background. So the only way
you can still imitate Ozu now is to shoot on a set. Once you go outside it would
be too difficult.
People are talking about how Japanese films are reviving, but when you
compare them to what was made in the Golden Age of the 1950s by people like Ozu
and Kurosawa, there's still a gap.
Japanese movies are still pretty bad. Back then there were a lot of good
movies being made, so a lot of people went to see them-that's why it was called
the Golden Age. The release of movies like Mononoke Hime (Princess Mononoke) and
Shitsurakuen (Lost Paradise) that draw people back to the theaters is a good
thing, but the films themselves are not that great [laughs]. To have a Golden
Age you need to have both good films and a lot of people who want to see them.
If we had three or four really great directors, we might have a new Golden Age,
but we're not there yet.
In the past couple years a lot of young directors have been making their
first features. Have you seen any that you thought were really good?
I've been collecting videos of films by young directors. I'm judging the
Tokyo Sports Film Awards this year. We're totally free to pick any movies we
want, whether or not they're from a major studio.
There have been a lot of "problem" films recently, especially films about
enjo kosai ["paid dates" in which older men buy the sexual favors of teenage
girls]. But I think that kind of subject would be more interesting as a
documentary When you think about the possibilities of film, that kind of subject
matter seems to limit what you can do visually. I wouldn?t have very much
interest in that doing that kind of film. I just don?t like message or problem
A lot of younger directors are coming from backgrounds other than films-music
videos and TV commercials and so on. When you made your first movie nine years
ago, there was a certain prejudice in the industry against outsiders directing
but that doesn't seem to be case now,
When we're looking for locations, sometimes they won?t let us shoot. A temple
might let Kurosawa shoot there, but not me, because I am a celebrity and they
are afraid they won't be able to control the crowds. But since I've taken the
prize at Venice, places like that will let me shoot there. It's become a lot
easier. Before we'd get a lot of static from people saying "you can?tt shoot
here, you can't shoot there.'
But when I interviewed Kurosawa a few years ago, he complained about the same
thing. Japanese bureaucrats and police make it hard for anyone to shoot movies
in this country.
Japanese bureaucrats earn their bread by budding roads, but the money they
use comes from taxpayers like me. I can?t tell them "I've paid for this road,
you have to let me use it," but I would like them to give me a straight
explanation for why they are saying no.
A more important problem for a lot of Japanese filmmakers, though, is to get
the money to make a movie in the first place.
When you come down to it, there are only about four movie companies that
finance film production. Now you also have the TV networks joining with the film
companies to make big projects like Mononoke Hime. I think that co-financing
with the TV networks is one way to go. They can do a lot to publicize a
That was certainly true in the case of Shall We Dance?, which got a lot of TV
publicity from one of its backers, the NTV network. The problem with the films
that TV networks make is that a lot of them end up looking like TV
There was no need to make Shall We Dance? as a movie-it's made the same way
as a TV drama. You have a bunch of actors talking on a set---l think that film
has more possibilities than that. With films you can have a bigger scale, more
visual beauty-but just filming a bunch of actors talking on a set, you might as
well do it with a TV camera.
Yet another problem, especially for makers of independent films in Japan, is
distribution, which is tightly controlled by three companies.
Yes. Toei, Toho, and Shochiku all have theater chains, leaving only a limited
number of independent theaters, such as Theater Shinjuku. But nowadays, with the
growth of multiplex cinemas, you can rent more independent theaters for your
films. We've been able to get Hana-Bi into a fairly large number of
theaters-sixty or seventy-around the country. So there are ways to get around
Before you started distributing through your own company, Office Kitano, you
made three films with Shochiku. With the third, Sonatine (1993), you had some
differences with the producer Kazuyoshi Okuyama. Is that what persuaded you to
start distributing your films independently?
Yes, the wonderful Mr. Okuyama [laughs], When he saw the rushes he got mad
and said "This is not a movie:' He said he didn't want his name on the film as a
producer, so we had some trouble over that.
After Sonatine won a prize at the Taormina festival in Italy, he kept it a
secret. Two years later, when I went to the Cannes film festival, an Italian
journalist asked me how I felt about winning the prize. I said, "What prize?"
Shochiku had been holding onto it all that time. I felt like saying "What do you
guys think you?re doing?"
Now that you've had so much success as a director, havey ou started to wonder
what your real job should be? Do you ever think of chucking TV and concentrating
Appearing on television gets me the money and fame I need to work as a
director, so television has its good points. Also, if I just made movies, I
couldn't eat [laughs]. With Hana-Bi I may earn enough money to make a living off
my movies, for the first time ever. Before there was no way l simply couldn't
make enough money at it. So for me, being a director is a kind of hobby.
Also, because I'm a comedian, making movies and working on television gives
me a lot of good material for gags. And because I have the status of being a
movie director, I can get mad at people and they can't say anything [laughs]. So
doing both jobs has a kind of synergy that's worked well for me. But it's become
hard to do both in terms of time and stamina. I've got eight regular programs
now and that may be too many. If I just made one film year and cut back on my TV
schedule, it would be physically easier, but then I wouldn?t have enough money
to live on (laughs].
You've been working regularly on television for more than twenty years. It's
amazing that you've been able to stand the pace this long.
It's because I goof off on the job--I don?t work at it and I do?t think about
But how do you make shift from the film mode to the television mode, from the
serious filmmaker to the television comedian?
If you compare films and television to games, like professional football or
major league baseball, you play football according to football rules, baseball
according to baseball rules. In the same way being a TV talent has its own rules
and so does working in films. For me comedy is the best way to go on television.
But in movies, I want to do more serious things, such as play yakuza.
A lot of comedians have tried to make the shift from comedy to serious drama,
but you're the only one I can think of who has played such tough characters in
Even since I appeared in [Nagisa Oshima?s] Merry Christmas, Mr. Lawrence as a
camp guard, I've been playing serious roles. Because I first came up as a
standup comedian, whenever I appeared on the screen, audiences would start
laughing, no matter what role I was in. It took about fifteen years until
audiences started to regard me as something other than a comedian and really pay
attention to what I was doing. Until then they would just laugh.
I also played a lot of bad guys on TV dramas and got a good reaction. Finally
audiences started to distinguish between Beat Takeshi the comedian and Takeshi
Kitano the actor and filmmaker. But it took a long time. It was as hard for me
as it was for Michael Jordan to hit a home run in the major leagues.
Do you enjoy shifting from one mode to another for a change of pace?
I regard the two as being in completely different categories. It's like
eating Japanese food and Italian food. The TV and movie work influence each
other, but they are completely separate.
You appeared in one Hollywood film, Johnny Mnemonic, and it seemed thatyou
might do more work with Hollywood directors, but since your accident, you seem
to have given up those plans. What happened?
I thought Johnny Mnemonic would be good chance to work in a Hollywood movie
with a big actor like Keanu Reeves, but after the shooting was over I felt like
a Japanese kid who had been taken to the real Disneyland in America but had to
come home without riding on anything [laughs]. I didn't really feel like I was
in a Hollywood movie. I'd be happy to do it again, but this time I want to go on
some rides [laughs].
Why did you feel that you didn't get to go on any rides?
To be honest, I probably should have looked at the script more closely before
I agreed to do the film. I should have turned it down-it was a boring
Are there any Hollywood directors or actors you especially want to work
It's hard for me to tell about the actors-they all look good to me. I'm not a
native speaker of English, so I have so read the subtitles. It hard for me to
tell whether they're really reading their lines well or not. I know there are
good and bad Hollywood stars, but I can't get a feel for which is which. I might
read in a magazine that this or that actor is good, but that's all I know-so
anyone would be all right [laughs].
Would you feel more comfortable about appearing in, say, a gang movie than
another science fiction film?
Yes, a gang movie would be all right-either a European or Hollywood action
film would be all right, but the range of what I can do is rather limited. I
have to play a tough guy. Also, I make a big impact on the screen, so I have to
have other actors around who can keep up with me. But if both those conditions
are met, then I would be interested in seeing a script. With Johnny Mnemonic, I
agreed to do it without first checking the script. When I got to the set I was
surprised to see what was going on, but by then it was too late. So if I appear
in a Hollywood movie again, I want to have a better idea of what I'm getting
In Johnny Mnemonic I was supposed to wear a yakuza tattoo. In Japan everyone
knows what yakuza are and what yakuza tattoos are supposed to look like, so
there's no problem, but over there they have unions for the technical people and
the makeup people and they're very strong. They tell you what they're going to
do and you have to listen to them. They wanted me to wear a tattoo like
something on an aloha shirt [laughs]. I wondered what the Japanese audience
wouid think when they saw that.
It would have been different if I had stated in my contract what kind of
tattoo I would wear, but instead I found myself in this strange place where I
didn't know the customs and they were telling me to how be a yakuza. I should
have turned down the part. I can understand that there might be some
differences, but I didn't know that it would be so different.
Speaking about different working methods, I remember being surprised when I
went to the set of Hana-Bi and heard you talking with your staff about how to
end the movie. I know that you had a script but it almost seemed as though you
were making up the story as you went along. Is that the way you usually
Usually we have a synopsis when we start. After we begin filming though, I
don?t like to force the actors to do what they're uncomfortable with, so once
they get into their rhythms, the story naturally starts to change. I don't
change the script on my own, but in consultation with my staff. This can create
problems. One time we going to use a ferry boat and, when the story changed, we
had to cancel. So one of the staff had to go to the ferry boat people and
apologize. All he could say was "the director's changed his mind. That's kind of
thing happens a lot. When you?re faced with a choice, you have to go with the
one you think is best. But when you?re making a Hollywood movie, you have a
script and usually you have to follow it. You can't go the people in charge and
say "I don?t like this." You'll get fired [laughs].
Akira Kurosawa used his drawings to give his staff a feel for the kind of
look and feel he wanted in the scene. They served as a kind of storyboard.
You've also taken up painting-some of your paintings were used in Hana-Bi. Did
you make them for the same reason- to use as a visual guide for your
Even if I were to make a drawing of a location for the staff, it only exists
in my head-I haven?t been there, my staff hasn?t been there. First we have to go
to the actual place where we're going to film and look around. Also, I like to
play it by ear so I can fool the lighting and camera directors. They want
everything to be perfect, but I like the mistakes-I like changing the direction
of the action so the light isn?t shining where it's supposed to or the camera
isn?t pointing where it's supposed to. Of course, I can?t ignore them
completely--they're professionals who know their jobs. But they'll tell me I
can't do this or that-otherwise they'll look bad. At first, I would tell them
what I wanted them to do, but they wouldn?t listen to me. So now I fool them.
I'll shoot it the way I like, without the proper lighting, and tell them I'll
throw the footage away, but later on I'll edit it in. [laughs].
You're involved in the whole process, from scriptwriting to editing. Do you
think that editing is the most important part of the job?
Editing is making a plastic model. You have the numbered parts-the shots that
you filmed-and editing is the process of putting them together. Having someone
else do the editing for you is like having the people at the factory build your
model for you. The job of putting the parts together is mine and for me it's the
most interesting part of the whole process. Of course, sometimes you don't have
the parts you need, and you have to improvise. It?s like having not having a
steering wheel for your model and putting a tire in its place. You just hope
that people don?t watch the movie two or three times-they're going to find you
Sometimes when my mind is really clicking, I'll be cutting in my head as I
film. I think if I film in such and such a way l'll have such and such a
sequence of cuts. There's one scene in Hana-Bi of a punk standing by a car. He
throws away a box lunch and suddenly my fist flashes out and he's on the ground.
I filmed it exactly that way- that's all the footage I had to work with.
Ordinarily, I would have shown the punch making contact with the punk?s face,
but I thought it would be more interesting the other way. Usually, though, I
filn more footage for insurance and then end up throwing it away.
So sometimes you have a clear image of what you want to shoot before you
Yes, when I'm really clicking. Before I shoot the scene, I'll be watching the
movie in MY head. Then I can film one scene after another; but sometimes my mind
goes blank. That's when I shoot a lot of footage on the set. That's when I have
the most trouble editing--it takes a lot of time to get what I want.
Do you go through the same process of visualization when, say, you're making
a TV program?
Not at all. When I go to a TV station, it's just to play. I never go there to
work. I never read a script. Sometimes I don't even know what program I'm
supposed to be on (laughs].Even if you prepare, TV programs have a way of going
in a different direction and you have to be ready to go with it.
With movies, you have more of a line to follow. Once I was on a two-hour
program where they gave us food and booze. I starting drinking and after about
thirty minutes I passed out and slept through the rest of the show. The other
guests were talking about me-"Oh, Takeshi's still sleeping" [laughs). I didn?t
mean to pass out, but it made the show more interesting. That's just the way TV
is, so what's the point of preparing?
Did you ever look around at all the young faces and wonder what you're doing
here and how much longer you'll be around?
Yes, the turnover is high. TV talents are always being compared with each
other "Takeshi's getting a little stale." But now Takeshi is also a movie
director. That?s a kind of insurance. Now that I've become famous for my films,
it's easier for me to do TV. I don?t have to compete with the other guys out
there. I'm coming from a different place. I think it's tough for older guys who
only have television to fall back on to be appearing on shows with all these
You also have books-you've written more than sixty books now. In some of them
you comment on serious issues. What social issue are you most interested in
After the war the system changed completely and we had the high-growth era.
Now that postwar system has developed a lot of problems and, fifty years after
the end of the war, with all those problems coming to the surface, we can
finally say that the post war period is over.
I was born right after the end of the war and was raised on American TV
sitcoms--Life with Father and all those other shows. Watching them I thought
that the middleclass lifestyle they portrayed-the house with the yard, the big
refrigerator, the nice father, the happy family with everyone talking to
everyone else-was typical. In Japan we've been trying to live up to that model
for so long. But we're starting to realize that not many Americans really live
that way, that we been chasing after a dream.
In the same way, we been trying to imitate the good parts of the American
system--democracy and human rights. But now we've having all kind of problems
with that system, in education and other areas. Kids hitting teachers, kids
dropping out, parents killing their kids. And when we look at America we see the
same thing. The jury system that produced the O.J. Simpson trial, the criminal
law system that lets criminals out on the streets. The American culture of guns
and drugs. The American conflict between blacks and whites.
But for fifty years after the end of the war, we've been following in
America's footsteps and heading in the same direction. When we look at the Japan
today and wonder why we have all these problems between parents and children,
with drug use--well, we just have to look at America and see what kind of
country it's become, where their form of democracy has taken them. Parents have
become scared of their own kids. It used to be that adults would scold kids who
were running around and making trouble on the train, but now no one does that.
When I was a kid I used get scolded by adults all the time, but that doesn't
We've lost the ability to distinguish between rights and duties. Now the
emphasis is totally on rights-no one talks about duties any more and we're going
in a very strange direction as a result.