The prospect of an interview with Takeshi Kitano is a daunting one. Arguably
Japan's most famous person, this filmmaker churns out violent mobster flicks and
has a personal reputation to match.
There are any number of reasons to be nervous about the prospect of sitting
down for an interview with Japanese movie director Takeshi Kitano.
First of all, there's the fact that while he's not a household name in the
West, the 49-year-old Kitano is probably the most famous person in Japan. He
began his career in 1972 as a comedian--his popular nickname, Beat Takeshi, is
left over from his days with a manzai, a crosstalk duo called The Two Beats--but
he has since branched out into almost every area of the entertainment and media
business. He is host of eight television shows a week, appearing on every
network in Japan. He has published poetry, criticism, essays and three
well-regarded novels. He is a columnist who comments on everything from sports
to politics, and recently he has taken up painting. In a nation known for social
conformity, Kitano is a popular iconoclast, trusted by more people than almost
anyone else in Japan.
The second reason for concern can be found in his movies, which are cult hits
in Europe but are the least commercially successful aspects of the Kitano empire
in Japan. After making his breakthrough as an actor with a role in Nagasi
Oshima's Merry Christmas, Mr. Lawrence, Kitano began directing with 1989's The
Violent Cop--a yakuza (gangster) movie in which he starred as a stone-faced cop
whose disregard for the rules makes Dirty Harry look like Barney Miller. In the
opening sequence of the film, Kitano, his face an impassive mask, slaps a
confession out of a teen-aged thug who has just mugged a beggar. The film ends
in a hail of bullets and bodies all over the place, but Kitano's terrifying
stoic mask remains unchanged. He played similar roles in his next two yakuza
films, Boiling Point and Sonatine: crazy, nihilistic tough guys who stare death
in the face without blinking and who kill without mercy.
More troubling than the movies, however, is a newspaper clipping that
suggests Kitano's tough-guy act isn't limited to the screen. According to the
report, in 1986, Kitano and a few associates entered the offices of a Tokyo
scandal sheet that had printed a picture of him with a young woman, and slapped
around the editors and staff of the rag. Stories like that suggest that when
you're talking to Kitano, you should choose your questions carefully.
Kitano is accompanied by a trio of men in dark suits as he arrives in the
interview room at the Hotel Vancouver. He is staying there while attending the
Vancouver International Film Festival (which ended yesterday) for a screening of
his latest film, Kids Return. But if he plays a tough guy on film, in person
Kitano confounds his fearsome reputation. He is a small, soft-spoken man with a
quick laugh and an easy smile. He is handsome but he looks a little beat up,
still bearing the scars of a 1994 motorcycle accident that almost took his
Kids Return once again finds Kitano visiting the world of the yakuza. The
film tells the story of Masaru (Masanobu Ando) and his loyal sidekick Shinji
(Ken Kaneko), two marginal high school students who pass their time goofing off
and extorting money from other students.
"It's very hard for someone in the West to understand, because mobsters are
supposed to be underground, but in Japanese society, yakuza are very much part
of the everyday world," says Kitano through an interpreter when asked about the
frequent presence of the yakuza in his films. "If you go out drinking, you will
probably end up in a bar owned by the yakuza and if you work in the
entertainment industry, you are bound to meet someone who is yakuza. Japanese
society has become more Westernized, but Japanese family relations are still
taken to a high degree, where the parent will sacrifice his life for a child and
the child will do the same for the parent. As you see, in yakuza society that is
taken to an extreme in the bond between the boss and the apprentice. So I think
by using yakuza, you can see how Japanese society works."
But if Kids Return revisits familiar territory, it also marks something of a
departure for Kitano. In his other yakuza movies, the protagonists die, either
at someone else's hand or at their own. At the end of Kids Return, Masaru and
Shinji are still alive, their future a huge question mark. Kitano says his work
on this film was influenced by his own brush with death in 1994.
"After the accident, the doctors thought I was dead and when I survived, the
entertainment community thought I would never return," Kitano said through his
interpreter. "Funny thing is, I have returned. My personal experience, however,
has changed my views in certain ways. In my previous films, death has been an
answer for the characters. They were looking for the right way to die. In this
film, although they choose to live, the characters haven't found an answer;
living is in some ways the harder choice."
The new film has been something of a breakthrough for Kitano in Japan, the
first of his films to do well at the box office. He said that in spite of his
popularity in other spheres, being accepted as a film actor and director has
always been a challenge for him.
Early on, he says, his celebrity as Beat Takeshi worked against him.
"The first role I took was a violent part," he says. "Problem was that people
started to laugh, because they thought I was the comedian Beat Takeshi. The
first role that people took me seriously in was Merry Christmas, Mr. Lawrence
with Mr. Oshima. That made Japanese people realize that I could act as well." He
faced similar problems when he made his debut as a director. Violent Cop was
supposed to be directed by Kinji Fukasaku, a noted gangster-movie director who
dropped out when it became apparent that he could only get Kitano, who was busy
with television commitments, for 10 days at a time. The producers asked Kitano
if he would be interested in directing the film.
"I said yes," he said. "The problem was that I had never directed and I had
never studied directing, even though I had watched a few films in my time. There
was a crew who had been in the industry for a long time and who had studied the
usual methods, which were based on the Western influence--moving the camera,
getting different camera angles. The problem with moving the camera in Japan,
though, is that when you move it, you always get something you don't want in the
frame. So I had to fight with my staff to get these shots with very little
movement. After the movie came out, people said I didn't know how to make
Kitano's use of long, static shots and the eerie calm he brings to the
performance lends a chilling tranquility to Violent Cop, Boiling Point and
Sonatine. Violence explodes from silence and is captured by a still, unblinking
camera. Kitano says his approach to film violence was influenced by the famous
documentary footage of a suspected Viet Cong guerrilla being shot by Saigon's
chief of police during the bloody Tet offensive of 1968.
"There is no movement in the camera," says Kitano. "No up or down, but it's
the most shocking thing I've ever seen. Violence is like comedy; it affects us
suddenly, without warning. In boxing, I think it's scarier to watch one punch
than to watch someone being beaten."
Which brings us to the touchy subject of Kitano's relationship with the
press. The interpreter raised his eyebrows when the question about the incident
is posed, but Kitano laughs. Although critics still refer to Kitano's invasion
of the scandal-sheet office in Tokyo, it's obviously old news to the director
"Ten years later, those guys still dog me," he said with a smile. "They're
still at it. But I will say this about the Japanese mass media--they are very
sensitive to the way the outside world thinks. They may have not taken me
seriously at first, but since Sonatine and Violent Cop received such a positive
response in Eupope, the Japanese media have started to take my films more
seriously. It's been a long and hard road, though."