Refusing to be pigeonholed by the violent genre works that made his name, Kitano Takeshi likes to test himself. In 'Dolls' he takes a puppet's-eye view of personal stories set in a Japanese landscape, as he explains to Tony Rayns.

Kitano Takeshi's Dolls (Dooruzu, 2002) opens with a traditional bunraku theatre performance of Chikamatsu Monzaemon's 1711 play The Courier for Hell. The joruri singer-storyteller and his shamisen musical accompanist are brought into view by a revolving stage, and as they start to tell the sad tale of the hapless messenger Chubei, it's acted out by large puppets on the stage beside them, each 'doll' manipulated by three black-swathed puppeteers. The bunraku Dolls will return in the film's closing scenes, as mute 'observers' of a human tragedy, but the main body of the film juxtaposes three highly stylised tales of love gone wrong performed by live actors. If this ensemble sounds like an odd conceptual basis for a film, it sure is.

Kitano has picked up on the fact that bunraku plays are often more moving and cathartic than live-action shows, and he sets out to create an essentially cinematic equivalent of the bunraku stage aesthetic to see if the pity and terror can be translated to film. His method is simple: he reverses the polarities of the theatre, making the Dolls the storytellers and onlookers and reducing the humans to the level of emotional puppets. The tales he tells are distant echoes from Chikamatsu: a young executive is bound forever to the girl he jilted by a red silken rope; an elderly yakuza godfather in constant fear of assassination discovers too late that his first love never stopped waiting for him; a former pop idol, hiding from the world since she was disfigured in an accident, comes to terms with the blind devotion of her fans.

The sheer idiosyncrasy of the film bespeaks the singularity of the position Kitano has carved for himself as a director. No film-maker currently active - not the Dardenne brothers, not Sokurov, nobody - gives less thought to the impact of individual films on his or her career. Kitano has no impulse to build on past successes, or to go any significant distance towards meeting audience expectations. Each film is a challenge he sets himself, the working-out of a conundrum or speculation, and his primary concern is that his directorial skills and judgement be equal to meeting the challenge. In one sense, his position is not unlike that of a contract director in the heyday of the studio system. He makes the best he's able to of each project that comes his way, greeting successes with self-deprecatory modesty and shrugging off failures while gearing up for the next one. Box-office performance hardly enters the equation.

The difference between Kitano and a contract director of the old school, of course, is that he has no producer feeding him scripts. His only taskmaster is himself. In the past, the questions he asked himself through his films were clearly quite personal. Boiling Point (1990), A Scene at the Sea (1991) and Kids Return (1996) specifically address the implications of being considered a 'loser' in Japanese society. Sonatine (1993) addresses his worries about loyalty and commitment, not to mention his not-so-subconscious death wish. Kikujiro (1998) works through the implications of an irresponsible low-life (not unlike his own father, whose name happened to be Kikujiro) being forced into an active parental role. In Brother (2000) and Dolls, though, the ground shifts to less immediately personal areas.

The reactivation of yakuza-genre themes and tropes in Brother could be seen as a retreat into an arena where Kitano felt secure, a defensive measure against the uncertainties and risks of filming outside Japan for the first time and working with non-Japanese actors. But the film is also an oblique reflection on the Pacific War, a working-out of his ambivalent feelings about the 'kamikaze spirit' of the Japanese. It's as if the proposal to shoot a film in the US set him thinking about Pearl Harbor, and he took it from there. By the same token, Dolls could be seen as his response to finding himself cast as a 'Japanese artist', feeling the need for the first time to respond to a cultural tradition he had previously rejected. The film's stories may have autobiographical roots, but its motor is its curiosity about the effect of reversing theatre's polarities for film.

I discussed Dolls with Kitano in a Chinese restaurant in Tokyo last July, soon after the film was completed; it was the first time he'd talked about it with anyone outside his immediate circle. In the interests of full disclosure, I should note that the second half of our conversation was marked by an interruption at the mid point: another diner came to the table to greet Kitano. This turned out to be baseball legend Nagashima Shigeo ('Mr Giants'), who happened to be celebrating his birthday in a private room upstairs. I have never seen Kitano lose his cool as completely as he did at that moment; he spent the next ten minutes explaining that Nagashima is one of the few men in Japan he genuinely admires and that he felt so ashamed that Nagashima came to greet him rather than vice versa. Kitano generally wears his humility lightly, but at that moment it overcame him.

Tony Rayns: As promised, you've made a film connected with the bunraku doll theatre and the playwright Chikamatsu Monzaemon. But how exactly do you see the connection?

Kitano Takeshi: Chikamatsu is still the most performed playwright in the bunraku repertoire. In the theatre, it takes three people to manipulate each doll. My idea here was to reverse that: what if the doll manipulated the people? If the Dolls told stories, they might well tell stories like these.

Chikamatsu's plays are generally about ordinary people, people who aren't too smart. For example, a shop clerk who spends all his savings redeeming a prostitute. My protagonists aren't very smart either. And my love stories are somewhat like his, in that they focus on obstacles and failures. Most present-day Japanese love stories tend to make everything seem fluffy, nicer than it could possibly be in real life. My love stories aren't fluffy and they don't end happily.

Not fluffy, but not realistic either. Is there any way in which they reflect real life?

All three relationships shown in the film are too pure for the modern advanced-capitalist world. Too pure to be true. As the film's storyteller, the surrogate joruri as it were, I think it would be too greedy to push them to happy endings. Too easy, and too selfish in a way. Of course it's always selfish to pursue love, but I can't imagine present-day stories in the real world working out like these.

Chikamatsu's plays are generally tragedies too.

You could take that aspect of the film as a tribute to Chikamatsu. But this is somehow ingrained in us Japanese: we expect love stories to end tragically. The notion of love gone wrong dates back very far in Japanese culture. 'Happy ever after' isn't part of our vocabulary. Whenever you talk about love in a Japanese context, there's an inevitable element of self-sacrifice.

But I sense that there are personal resonances in these stories too. Are you willing to admit to any?

None of it is entirely based on my own experience, but around half of it is at least indirectly personal. As you know, I grew up in post-war Japan as the country modernised and the economy grew very rapidly. When I imagine what it would have been like to grow up in the Edo period, I can very easily see myself running off with a woman. Ever since I finished the film I've had this creepy feeling that some ex-girlfriend is going to come up to me and say, "Wasn't that about me?"

For example, like the old yakuza in the film, I went out with a girl when I was in college and then dumped her to pursue my career as a comedian. Some time afterwards I found out that she was still alone and unmarried. I checked it out and was kind of devastated. I sent other people to her with money and gifts to try to repair the damage.

And what about the disfigured, reclusive former idol Haruna? Is she you?

Obviously her story parodies my own experience after the motorcycle accident. There were 'celebrities' and fans in Chikamatsu's time, too, and his plays suggest that the liaisons between idols and their fans were even more extreme than they are nowadays. Anyhow, like everything else in the film, the notion of a fan blinding himself to spare the feelings of his idol is a caricature. It's the relationship between a celebrity and a fan as seen by a Chikamatsu doll.

What this story tries to get at is not just 'love' but any kind of intense relationship: between a nation and a citizen, say, or between a yakuza godfather and one of his loyal footsoldiers. That strong bond. It's not fashionable to speak of it nowadays, and it's not as visible as it once was, but I suspect it still exists, just out of sight.

After my accident I did receive many letters saying things like, "I'm so upset, I'm giving up my favourite food until you're back on TV." Then, when I did return to television, there were follow-up letters: "I ate sushi again, but it wasn't as great as I remembered." I remember wondering why the hell they felt the need to tell me this.

How did you arrive at the structure?

My original idea was to make it much more complex. It was supposed to be more like a game of go, where you have to watch very closely to see the real balance of power between white and black. I wanted to make it quite puzzling, but when the crunch came I wasn't adventurous enough, or didn't have the stamina to do it. So what you see is much simpler than I intended. You know, I haven't yet reached the point where I feel I can express myself freely - I'm still very conscious of the potential audience. The idea that an entertainer has to 'do his thing' for his public is very hard to shake off, even after all these years.

What thinking went into the film's colour scheme?

From the start, I wanted to capture Japan's landscape as seen throughout the four seasons. But I asked Yamamoto Yohji to design the costumes and (as he said he would in our meetings) he treated the project as a new collection and came up with totally unrealistic costumes - lots of primary colours, nothing very wearable. Partly because of these costumes, I decided to go for a stage aesthetic.

I've used colour more or less realistically in the past, but this time I went for stylisation. But I didn't plan it in detail, only roughly. I'd never been that big on red or green - blue and blue-grey were more my taste - and during the shoot my sudden openness to a broader colour spectrum panicked some of the veteran members of my crew. I kept telling them these were stories told by Dolls, so we could do whatever we liked, but they didn't get it at first. There were even arguments and fights. The only thing that pacified the doubters was the thought that you can fix things in the lab these days, you don't have to do it all in the shoot.

Do you have conscious artistic goals these days or is your directorial career more of an ongoing work-in-progress?

I feel as if I've got through the qualifying heats and reached the Olympics. Now I'm at the point where I want to make films that fulfil my creative needs. In Dolls, for example, you could frame virtually any shot and - for better or worse - end up with a picture-book image. At this stage in my directorial career it's what I needed to do. You could say it's rather pathetic that it's taken me nine films to get to this point, but there it is.

Anyhow, now that I've been selected for the Olympics, I have no ambition to set a world record. Maybe I'm more like a marathon runner who keeps pace with the field until the home straight and then stumbles, takes 20 minutes to catch his breath and comes last. That's how I'd like my career to be, as of now. Excuse me for being metaphorical!

Would you call yourself an optimist or a pessimist these days?

Metaphorically again, if there were a scale measuring optimism and pessimism, I'd be a notch more optimistic than I used to be. As a comedian/artist I used to want to become number one. Now I'd rather be second best. It's not easy to be 'best' in the Japanese film and entertainment business and many people are trying for that status. To become second best requires more planning and more purpose. Maybe I do have some subconscious ambition to conquer the world, but my conscious ambition is to be an artist pursuing the status of second best.

Thanks to Mori Masayuki, and to Usui Naoyuki for translation. All Japanese names in the traditional form: surname first. 'Dolls' opens on 30 May.

By Tony Rayns (Sight and Sound, June 2003). All rights are reserved by Tony Rayns, Sight and Sound and The British Film Institute (BFI). The article is reproduced by Kitanotakeshi.com with the kind permission by Tony Rayns.