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 life.

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 films."

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 himself.

"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."

By Chris Dafoe (Western Arts Correspondent, Vancouver). All rights are reserved by Chris Dafoe. The article is reproduced by Kitanotakeshi.com.