Through generally known to American audiences as the director of bloody, violent art-house hits such as Fireworks, Sonatine and Zatoichi, ?Beat? Takeshi Kitano is also one of Japan?s most popular television personalities. He?s also a painter, a writer and a few other things. We asked the cult director about the unique single-mindedness that it takes to create such a varied work.

Your films Fireworks and Sonatine were most popular in Europe. So what are your thoughts when you release a film for America?

Takeshi Kitano: Fireworks was shown in places like L.A. and New York, but I don?t really feel like it was a great hit. For that reason, I don?t have very high expectations.

Why do you think that is? Is it because your films are different from standard Hollywood hits?

TK: Well, if one compares they two, then the scale is a lot smaller, and they don?t contain the kinds of things that really excite the American audiences. It makes one wonder who is going to be watching the films? (laughs)

Actor, director, comedian, writer? Is there a single method of expression that you find the easiest?

TK: In the early days of plastic model kits, companies like Tamiya designed the kits. We are talking about the job of first making the model, then one separates the thing into parts and makes it into the kit. So, whether I am acting or directing or doing entertainment on TV, in the midst of that there is the same kind of idea as with the people making the parts for the kits in the model shop. I think of myself in this way. So I think that all of these things are not really completely separate at all.

While making Fireworks, you produced a lot of paintings, but since then you have not really exhibited any of your work, have you?

TK: That makes it sound as though the paintings just circulate of their own accord. Well, for all intents and purposes, I suppose they do? They?re not exactly the kind of thing that?s normally good enough to show. Actually, I usually give most of my paintings away. Most of the paintings from Fireworks were given away to small restaurants and the like. However, my office says that they made a note of where all of the paintings went. There was talk of some situation arising when we may need to borrow the paintings.

With Zatoichi, what kind of difficulties did you encounter in trying to turn such a popular series of films into a film?

TK: Well, it was really something that I did because I was asked. I couldn?t just make a copy of what (the original director Shintaru) Katsu had done. I can?t mimic that. But Zatoichi is blind and is a master swordsman and is also a masseur. One can?t change those things ? they make up the whole base of the film. I did, however, change things such as his hair color, the color of his sword cane and his clothes. Also the speed with which he moves around was increased. But it doesn?t really matter how hard you try and change things. It won?t really change much, because we both started with the same story. There is, however, a bit of a gap between Katsu?s era and today: films have a certain rhythm, like music, and the pace in the old days was a little more sedate. Now we are more concerned with this rhythm. That?s why I added stuff like the tap dancing. I was most concerned with things on the side that would really add to the film. After all, however one makes the film, it is basically just the story of Zatoichi going to unknown towns where he helps fight against bad guys and then disappears again. Apart from that, there is not much else to do.

With Sonatine, Violent Cop and also with Zatoichi, there is what you might call a ?calm violence.? This is something very unique to your films?

TK: Well, how can I explain? If one things in terms of the way (Akira) Kurosawa frames things: he would place all the actors within a defined frame, and get angry if an actor moved only a fraction out of the frame. I think if Kurosawa went to a safari park in Africa he would probably tell the lions how to act when he was filming them. With me, I would probably just step back and film the lions. That?s how I am. So, therefore, the way the actors are placed within the frame when filming is different. Kurosawa is obsessed with that kind of thing. (Nagisa) Oshima, too. But there was nothing before them, so they were putting the rules together.

We are the second generation. We have to make things that really blow people away. But there is nothing that really starts here. The techniques come from America and Europe, and the Japanese follow by using that information and by looking at the skilled people from over there. We have reached the point where many modern people really dislike that idea, and it is about moving slightly away from these basic standards of filmmaking. So one could say that my films have moved away from these standards. Or maybe I purposefully don?t worry about all that?

Are there any Western directors that you have been influenced by?

TK: It?s an odd story, but I only started to know about foreign directors when I was making Sonatine and Fireworks, and I would often be invited over there. When I was answering their questions, I realized, ?Oh, I really should watch some foreign directors? work!? I was asked that question before I had even been influenced by anyone!

Is there anyone who really made an impression on you?

TK: When I was a student, I saw some pretty intense stuff, but I can?t really say whether they were actually good films or not. If you include things like that, then I would say Cannabis with Jane Birkin and Serge Gainsbourg. At that time, it was a bit shocking. I keep thinking that I should watch it again, but I never have any time. I also watched Pietro Germi in The Railroad Man with my older brother, but I guess I just thought ?This is a sad film.? The other day I saw a film about young Brazilian gangs, and I thought, ?Wow, this guy does some amazing editing!?

Your films seem to be more about violence than action. Godard once said that the blood in his films simply meant ?red? and nothing else. What meaning does blood hold for you?

TK: When I use it, I think of it as soy sauce, but maybe foreigners would think of it as some other kind of confiment (laughs). That?s all I really think about it.

People like (Quentin) Tarantino and (Takashi) Miike use bloody scenes in a very cheap way, but the blood in your films seem more warm and real.

TK: Well, I think it is simply the fact that different people put a different amount of sauce on a beef cutlet or on a potato croquette. Some guys make it swim in sauce. Maybe it is the same as the difference between people who can enjoy vulgarity in a vulgar way and people who can?t really enjoy vulgarity.

Out of all the films you have made, is there one that really sticks with you?

TK: Getting Any? was criticized as my worst film, but for me it was my magnum opus. If you think of it from a standpoint of comedy, everyone wasn?t in fits of laughter when they saw it, and the jokes were really nothing special, but rather it is making fun of comedy itself. It is laughing at my own comedy (laughs). Well, that doesn?t mean I can?t make a real comedy, but I don?t really want to make that kind of thing, anyway. I only realized later that it had turned into something that I was making unfunny on purpose. They called it the worst film ever, but it was the most interesting.

Your films always seem to have a kind of absurdity. Even Zatoichi doesn?t really have a happy ending, with everyone beaten to a pulp and dying?

TK: First of all, you have the bad guys, and if we talk about what they are going to do, they are going to kill regular people aren?t they? In American films such as Speed or Die Hard, the amount of people that are killed is pretty amazing, and moreover the hero kills a load of people, so the idea of having a happy ending is a bit of a dirty trick. I think that guys who kill people have to be prepared to die themselves. Relatively speaking, my films are more painfull. So in America they say, ?Why do you like violent films?? But I say to them, ?So your films aren?t violent? Like when an airplane full of innocent people suddenly falls out of the sky?? ?No, that?s entertainment!? The picture I paint is more painful to watch.

Is there anyone you?re watching out for in the film world in Japan at the moment? A certain director, for example?

TK: If we?re talking about rivalry, if you have the same kind of audience, then you?re fighting to attract that audience. But my audience is completely different, so there is none of that. My audience is my audience.

What kind of people do you think make up your audience?

TK: People who think that it is not good just to watch Western movies. Perhaps they see the films and think that the films are trying to express slightly complex ideas. The fact is that (the films) don?t actually say anything. I had some films that were a big succes, but I don?t really care. But I guess there must be people out there who like that kind of thing. I want absolutely nothing to do with that kind of thing. The reach of my work is certainly becoming narrower and narrower, because I don?t make compromises. However, I do think that if I do that kind of thing, then maybe some people will come and see it. But I?m not making it for the general audience.

By Daisuke Nishimura (Tokion, Number 46 ?The Famous Issue?, March / April 2005, pp. 66-69). All rights are reserved by Daisuke Nishimura and "Tokion". The interview is reproduced by with the kind permission by Maxwell Williams.