Interviewing Takeshi Kitano
This interview took place in London in 2003.
Takeshi Kitano is part TV personality, actor, comedian and auteur filmmaker, and one of Japan's most revered celebrities. But what made him want to take on a re-imagining of his country's most famous film series?
Kitano looks exactly the same in person as he does as his popular film persona of the ice-cold Yakuza henchman. Quiet, unassuming, and going through cigarettes like they're sweets. But he's also charming, humble, and very, very funny, and full of enthusiasm as he talks about his latest project, a reinvention of the popular Japanese samurai drama ZATOICHI.
"The project was proposed to me quite unexpectedly," he explains, "by Madame Chieko Saito (one of Kitano's mentors and the executive producer and self-proclaimed "Mama" on the original ZATOICHI series). She was a very good friend of Shintaro Katsu, who starred in the original episodes of ZATOICHI." Running from 1962 to 1989, ZATOICHI's nearest equivalent in the West is the James Bond series, but if Bond had been played by Connery for all twenty-one films. Kitano was understandably hesitant. "She asked me if I would make a ZATOICHI sequel. It sounded interesting because I had never directed a period piece. When she asked me to play the lead character, I panicked. There was no way I was going to replace Mr Katsu. so I politely declined, but Madame Saito wouldn't take no for an answer." Kitano agreed, but he had one major condition: "My condition to do this movie and to direct and star was 'Okay, I'm going to keep the name of the movie and the character of Zatoichi and he will be a blind masseur, and a swordmaster. That's as much as I will be faithful to the original, and everything else would be entirely my own creation, and would that be okay?' and she said 'Yes, whatever you say.' That was the starting point."
A veteran in Japanese showbusiness since his beginnings in 1972 as part of the comedy act The Two Beats, Kitano has played many different parts in his career, with his part in the popular manzai (stand-up comedy) leading to appearances on television, before his breakout role in Nagisa Oshima's MERRY CHRISTMAS MR LAWRENCE, which displayed his talent for serious roles. That lead to a chance directing position on 1989's VIOLENT COP, which then began his career as Takeshi Kitano, director alongside Beat Takeshi, actor and comedian. But while Kitano's work has been acclaimed the world over, with his film HANA-BI/FIREWORKS winning the Golden Bear at the Berlin Film Festival, he's never had a hit in Japan. It could all change with ZATOICHI, Kitano's most accessible film to date. However, the purists might have something to say about Kitano's approach to the revered series.
"Embarrassingly enough I don't know so much about it (ZATOICHI)," Kitano remonstrates, "and I'm not too crazy about acquiring my knowledge about ZATOICHI. I did whatever I want in my movie, so it's not like I consciously tried to disrupt or deconstruct the original or add something to it, I just don't know enough about ZATOICHI to do those things. I don't really care about what the original is, and what would be a faithful restoration of the original or something like that. I saw no point in trying to impersonate his (Mr Katsu) version of Zatoichi. I set out to create a new version that would be as different as possible both physically and psychologically. My Zatoichi is actually a pretty eccentric person. He has platinum blonde hair and a blood-red cane sword. Also, in terms of mentality, my Zatoichi is far more emotionally detached from the other characters. Mr Katsu's Zatoichi was more about almost heart-warming relationships he made with the good guys and meek town people. Mine doesn't fully mingle with the good guys. He just keeps slaying bad guys!"
However, whilst ZATOICHI is able to slay bad guys left right and centre, he's also blind as a bat, which gave Kitano a considerable problem when it came to shooting. "Usually when I act in movies, I'm not really good at memorizing my lines at all so I usually ask the AD or PA to put up a huge board where my lines are written in bold letters, so I can glimpse during the take and I can do my dialogue without memorizing everything. I obviously couldn't do that with my eyes closed, and of course the swordfighting was difficult, so we did quite a few rehearsals and tests of the movements beforehand, and with your eyes closed you cannot judge distance with yourself and the actors that are coming to get you, so in the rehearsal I was supposed to hunch to this angle, but instead I hunched farther, and because of that an opponents sword was swung this close to my eye, and I nearly become a real life Zatoichi myself."
During the sword-fighting scenes, Kitano also employed the use of CG blood to add to his vision of ZATOICHI as a larger than life almost cartoonish story. As he explains, "I did use real prop blood and a blood pumping tank during filming, and while I was watching the rushes of the more realistic blood pumping scenes, I thought it was too realistic and painful in a way, so I decided to exaggerate the blood splattering to give it a more videogame look, because otherwise it would be too painful and too cruel a depiction. I have not felt comfortable using (CGI) in my films in the past. But to use it in a period piece, it can give the film an almost cartoon-like tone, which is more suitable."
Keeping in line with his control on all his films, Kitano not only directed and starred in ZATOICHI, but also wrote the screenplay, edited the film and choreographed the lightning fast swordfighting scenes. If you thought KILL BILL and THE MATRIX RELOADED had some fast moves, they're the comparative snails compared to ZATOICHI. As Kitano explains, "Sword fights are all about timing. You can't be slow. I had to be fast. To capture the swift sword movements, we used both a high speed and regular camera. The advantage of using two cameras simultaneously is that if one camera doesn't catch a certain moment, you have to rely on the other. We had a sword fighting choreographer on the set, but I ended up choreographing almost all the sword-fighting myself. I didn't want the scenes to resemble those in past films where you can tell the same combinations are being used. I was very conscious about giving the right tempo and speed and rhythm to the whole movie, and perhaps that affect the way I edit the movie, and also probably the way I choreograph and shoot the swordfighting scenes. I was very conscious about the speed and tempo and rhythm of the movie."
While ZATOICHI is a period movie, it has a very contemporary feel to it, especially with the issue of transvestism and the hip-hop tap-dancing style rhythm that runs throughout the film. So how did Kitano approach infusing these elements into a classic samurai film? "Well, actually transvestite male person or even tap dancing are not new in Japanese history, because of tradition in Japanese traditional activity like Kabuki where the female actors are banned from appearing on stage. You use the young boys to play the female characters in Kabuki play, so cross dressing or transvestite existed in Japan in Edo era. When I completed one of the first drafts of the movie, there was only Zatoichi and bad guys and the ronin in the story. And then Madam Saito came up to me and she recommended this young actor who cross dresses on stage and handed me his picture and said 'Takeshi, would you be using him in the movie, he's a kid and he's really good.' Well, I think about it, and basically I didn't know what to do with him. A teenage actor who is good at cross dressing, where would I put him? And then I come up with this transvestite geisha. But you cannot just have a transvestite geisha on his own in the movie, so I created his older sister geisha, and let them become one pair, the wandering geisha."
"Tap dancing again, they have similar form of tap dancing back then where the Kabuki actors would wear wooden clogs and just stomp on the wooden floor to make a sound, and all these existed for real in Japanese history. But what I did with them in ZATOICHI was taking out all these existing ideas and historical fact and to somehow rearrange them in a modern form, or my interpretation to use them as a cinematic element." Kitano used The Stripes, an incredibly famous tap dancing group who are the Japanese equivalent of Stomp, to help with the rhythm of the film, as well as the music. "Before composer Keiichi Suzuki can work on the score, we have to shoot the rhythm performance scenes fast, so I ask The Stripes to compose a basic rhythm patterns of those scenes, including the tap-dancing scenes. So what I asked of Mr Suzuki was to make full use of the existing rhythm track and sound sample that The Stripes composed and to put something on top of it. For me personally, Mr Katsu's original ZATOICHI is a bit too long and a bit too boring, because it's slow paced all over in terms of tempo. So for my movie I didn't want the audience to go 'Wow, boring, too long, too slow', so I was again very conscious about doing a comfortable rhythm."
But how do you approach the writing of such an ambitious project? "Well, not just about ZATOICHI but with all my other movies, I usually come up with four images like four strip cartoon comics that you see in newspapers that have the beginning, development, twist, and ending. First I will come up with these four basic, basic, basic images and I will implement the in-betweens by adding the detail, that's how I always proceed with a script. So what I would do afterwards is to shoot the scene in accordance with the shooting script and then once I finish shooting, I would rethink on how to sequence that footage, so it often happens during the editing to switch the order of the scenes, and do a lot of editorial changes, even during the editing, after I finish the shoot. What I want do someday in my movie is to come up with a script, shoot the whole thing, and during editing scrunch up the whole footage that I shot, randomly, and just pick randomly the rushes and put that in order of your original choice and to make one film out of it, and to make the audience understand the whole film and the story, and that would be the birth of cubism in the movies."
Along with Kitano, starring in the film is the popular actor Tadanobu Asano, who appeared with Kitano in the homosexual samurai drama GOHATTO, and most notoriously as the charismatic sado-masochist Kakihara in Takeshi Miike's controversial ICHI THE KILLER. Asano is seen in Japan as the heir to Kitano's 'throne of cool', and in ZATOICHI is the title character's main nemesis. However, Kitano took a deeper look at the life of the Ronin in the film, while almost ignoring his own character. "Well, maybe in normal cinema I should depict the background of the main character," he says, "but at the time of the production of the movie I really didn't think that far about Zatoichi's character, because it's a film icon and clichÃ© amongst Japanese cinema, and I simply just didn't bother to depict his background, because he could just be sitting there like in the opening scene. At that time, I didn't really think about Europe or that, so I thought okay I have to depict the background of this Ronin and how he ended up becoming lawless, but it was not in my mind during the whole process of production. After the film was completed, I saw looking at the whole movie ZATOICHI almost looks like an outsider."
Kitano has always been seen as almost two people, with the director Takeshi Kitano sharing a life with the entertainer Beat Takeshi. How does he feel about this? "Well it's not so much a dual or multiple personality I feel, it's more like 'Okay, comedian Beat Takeshi Japanese national star and Takeshi Kitano actor in serious movies or serial killer or all these psychopath characters and Takeshi Kitano the director' and all of those are like to me like marionettes, and the real me is more like a manager or producer or manipulator who is thinking 'Okay, for the next job it's gotta be comedian Beat Takeshi, so there you go.' and basically manipulating these marionettes from above, and that's what I feel about this personality thing."
Equally fascinating is the connection with the sea that is displayed in his films. Many scenes are set by the ocean, and it always plays a part in his films in some way. However, his explanation of the significance is typically honest for the man who is Takeshi Kitano. "Well it's more a pragmatical choice, because Japan is a fairly small country, and when you want to shoot a movie in a very smooth way, not distracted by autograph or photograph mongers, it's simply the convenient place to go, the ocean. But French journalists are not really satisfied with just giving the pragmatic reason, so every time I go to Paris, thank god I didn't have to do it this time, but every time I go to France I have to give this big lecture on every human being originated from the ocean, and the original lifeform kept on evolving in the period of 350 million years into human beings, and to put the most advanced formed creature, human beings, in the ocean, that would stress the irony of whatever stupid and mundane things human beings are involved in, and facing the mother of all living creatures is the contrast. And later I would always add that's just a bullshit answer for that interview. When I'm shooting a movie I want to concentrate, I don't want to give autographs during a rehearsal."
With taking on ZATOICHI and his career in general as an entertainer, Kitano seems fearless. But there is one underlying thought that he carries with him. "I had a terrible motorbike accident several years ago, and I was bed ridden and later the doctors told me that I could have been dead, and it was near fatal. I still remember the moment the first time I woke up from that accident, and every now and then while I'm working in Japan, or talking to the British journalists asking me about my films, it's a privilege to have that opportunity, and it pleases me very much. But I can't help shaking this fear of what if I'm still dreaming, and after all these years and I made several films after the accident, and all of these are just a dream and I would wake up one day and find out about the condition I'm in, and what if everything that happened after the accident was a dream? I'm not sure if I call it a fear, but it's a running emotion or feeling that I frequently have. When it happened I couldn't just open my eyes straight away, so every morning, for instance this morning I wake up, I can't instantly open my eyes. Gradually I open my eyes and think 'I'm in London, I'm doing promotion.'