Kitano Takeshi's "Zatoichi" follows the generic contours of an old Katsu movie but bends them in unexpected ways: Zatoichi's mandatory antagonist (the ronin Hattori, played by Asano Tadanobu) is the quietest and most ambiguous adversary the character has ever faced, and the subplot about two vengeful geisha turns out to mask a tale of a boy forced to pose as a girl and pressed into prostitution. Most unexpected of all, Kitano has taken the "leftist" aspects of "Zatoichi" movies (oppressed peasants, threatened village traditions) and combined them in full-scale rhythm'n'dance scenes performed by the tap-dance troupe The Stripes. This obviously connects with Kitano's own roots as a vaudevillian, but it also relates to his growing impatience with the limitations of genre film-making, as seen in all his work since "Kids Return" (1996). This may e more of a "Beat" Takeshi film than a serious Kitano Takeshi film, more of an entertainment than a directorial statement, but it takes one tendency of his movies further than ever.

The following conversation took place in one of Kitano's favourite Tokyo restaurants (a tempura bar run as a hobby by a professional jazz singer) on 28 August, two days before Kitano flew to Venice to premiere his film. Most of it felt more like bantering with the comedian "Beat" Takeshi than conducting a serious interview with director Kitano Takeshi. There were a couple of helpful interpolations by Mori Masayuki, founder-president of Office Kitano and one of the films producers. Translation was by Usui Naoyuki, to whom many thanks.

Tony Rayns:About six years ago Miike Takashi wanted to do a Zatoichi movie, and I told him you were the only choice to play the character. Does this project have anything to do with Miike's idea?

"Beat" Takeshi: When Katsu Shintaro died, his management company Saito Entertainment wanted to revive the Zatoichi character with other directors and actors, and the head of the company Madame Saito Chieko approached me directly to ask if I'd be interested. She may have been trying to do something with Miike's project, but she didn't mention it.

Mori Masayuki: Actually, there was a story in the film magazine Kinema Junpo that Takeshi-san was going to star in a Zatoichi film for Miike, but nothing was ever official. When Saito Entertainment sounded me out, we discussed it and had to turn them down. We'd concluded that if Takeshi-san was ever going to play Zatoichi he'd had to direct as well. So when the official proposal came from Madame Saito, that was already a given.

I heard a rumour, that Miike's project ran into trouble with some yakuza who'd been close to Katsu.

MM: The rumour I heard is that Miike wanted Zatoichi to die in his film, and Saito Entertainment wouldn't accept that.

That's very credible: Miike told me he wanted to call it "The Last Zatoichi Movie".

BT: You know my worst nightmare? That they'll expect me to make a series.

Once you'd agreed to direct and star in it, how did it take shape?

BT: My first thought was to play up the yakuza side of Zatoichi and pit him against a yojimbo (bodyguard) character, very generic. But then Madame Saito told me that she had a very beautiful onnagata (female impersonator) under contract and asked if I could use him in the film. I said "ok" and then she came back and said she wondered if I could also use his boy onnagata they had...

Does Saito also represent tap dancers?

BT: No, they wouldn't make much money with tap dancers! At the very start of the writing, I knew I wanted to end the film with a dance scene. Some day I'd like to make a straightforward, all-out tap-dancing movie, but this couldn't be that. As you know, many Japanese period movies end with some kind of rural festival, and so I thought I'd use that convention - but with a modern twist. Actually, The Stripes were the instructors of Convoy, the troupe I used as extras in "Kikujiro", so there's a family connection.

You use two earlier scenes with The Stripes to set up the ending.

BT: I thought it would be too abrupt if we suddenly went into a dance finale, so I wanted to prepare the audience. The first time they appear, when they're farmers in the rice paddy in the background of the shot, I gave them the situation and asked them what they could come up with. The second time, when they're builders, it's an intricately edited sequence: I asked them to use tools and implements to create rhythms and we shot them with two cameras. The Stripes' appearances are stronger each time: It's like gradually increasing the does you're giving the audience. But the three "dance" scenes affected the way I edited the whole film - the whole thing is very rhythm-oriented.

It must also affect the way you work with the composer, right? I noticed you didn't work with Hisaishi Jo this time?

BT: Our method was quiet unusual. We needed something recorded in advance to choreograph the dance scenes, so I asked The Stripes to lay down a rhythm track first. The percussions element was actually composed by The Stripes. Then, in post-production, I had to ask the composer to come up with a score to be laid over the existing rhythm tracks. It was a long, hard struggle to get the music right - he had to rewrite it five or six times - but it finally worked out.

MM: I suggested to Takeshi-san to use Suzuki Keiichi this time because I could see we would need someone more like an arranger than a composer. It had to be someone flexible enough to work with the existing rhythms and structures, not someone who would try to impose his own music on the film.

You chose Asano Tadanou to play the ronin Hattori because you'd worked with him on Oshima's "Gohatto"?

BT: Actually, I didn't like his swordfighting style in "Gohatto": too slow, too awkward. So I asked him to practise swordplay with a trainer for three months before we started shooting. He turned out really good.

Did you have to train too?

BT: I trained a lot in orthodox swordplay when I was an aspiring comedian in Asakusa. But that was in a very old-fashioned "show-piece" style, so I had to practise Zatoichi's distinctive backhand style myself. I also carried a stick around with me everywhere, to get used to Zatoichi's cane-sword. I damaged a lot of things - one time I hit my driver's head quiet hard. I realised that the way Zatoichi holds the sword is quiet like bowling in cricket: the way you hold the all, the over-arm action. I did most of the swordfight choreography in the film myself, including most of Asano's.

How is it to go through a whole movie playing blind?

BT: The worst thing was having to go without an assistant hold up my dialogue on a card! That's why I cut out much of the dialogue I gave Zatoichi in the script! To be serious, it's quiet hard to do the fight scenes with your eyes closed. It's hard to judge distances.

You have a gag in the opening scene about that: a man drawing his sword wounds the man standing next to him by accident.

BT: I wanted to show that because you never see it in jidai-geki movies.

What's the main difference between making a jidai-geki period film and something with a present-day setting?

BT: The camerawork. In modern stories you can get away with not moving the camera much at all. A jidai-geki somehow demands movement, that's what I felt.

I was surprised you took such a sympathetic view of the effeminate boy forced into prostitution.

BT: That wasn't a taboo in the Edo period. I guess it started from the time when young men began playing the female roles in kabuki - after the authorities banned women form the stage. The government saw that actresses were also prostitutes, but the boys who replaced them became prostitutes too. Wealthy patrons of the theatre could buy them for the night, as a kind of luxury. You know the Chinese character we use to write "temple"? It read as ji - and it's not a coincidence that that's a homophone for the word that means "anal haemorrhage". It implies that it was a fairly common problem for Buddhist monks.

Did you ever meet Katsu Shintaro?

BT: Several times. He was completely out of his mind.

Drink? Drugs?

BT: Both, I think. I took him for a very traditional type of entertainer, an all-rounder. Back in the 1950s an entertainer was expected to be technically accomplished and very versatile: playing musical instruments, singing, dancing, performing swordplay and so on. He kept asking me what I could do: "Takeshi, can you do handstands? Can you dance?" He came from a stage tradition and used his movies to show off his various skills.

As a kid were you a Zatoichi fan?

BT: Not especially. I didn't see many of the series. One was enough, really, since they were all basically the same. I used to make fun of Zatoichi in my stand-up days. I did a sketch ased on the observation that a blind man couldn't really be smart.

Now that you've made a Zatoichi film, do you think this will become a new franchise?

BT: I'm not too crazy about the idea. Mind you, if they gave me a budget equal to a "Matrix" or "Terminator" film... I'd like to do a scene with someone firing a machinegun at Zatoichi. In slow motion, he's batting the bullets away with his sword, one by one, and then slicing them in half. It'll probably turn up in "Zatoichi III".

Finally, without giving it away to people who haven't seen the film, I have to ask you about the punchline.

BT: That's the one thing every Japanese journalist I've spoken to so far has asked me about. They take it very seriously. Is it meant metaphorically or literally? Does it mean that a blind man somehow "sees" more than a sighted man? I always throw the question back at them: "What do you think?" They give me their opinion and I always answer, "You know what? You're right!" They can interpret it any damn way they want.

Years ago you used to complain that Japanese critics never took you seriously as a director. Things have clearly changed!

BT: Nowadays when they interview me, they seem to think it's obligatory to come up with a "smart" question. But it's not really appropriate in this case. In "Zatoichi", what you see is what you get.

Japanese names are in the traditional form: surname first.

By Tony Rayns (Sight and Sound, November 2003, p21-23). All rights are reserved by Tony Rayns, Sight and Sound and The British Film Institute (BFI). The article is reproduced by with the kind permission by Tony Rayns.