The Two Beats: Takeshi Kitano Talks About His Populist Streak in "Zatoichi"
by Ryan Mottesheard
If you only know Japanese filmmaker Takeshi Kitano by his signature tough-guy roles in "Fireworks," "Sonatine," "Brother," and the like, then you may not quite be prepared for his take on the famed blind swordsman, Zatoichi. Make no mistake, Kitano's sightless masseur kicks ass -- look no further than the giddily blood-soaked opening scene in which Zatoichi slices the limbs off a gang of samurai who think they can take advantage -- but Kitano's film is also filled with enough slapstick humor and sight gags to make the Farrelly Brothers feel at home.
This shouldn't come as any surprise when you consider that Kitano is a wildly popular comedian back home. He first achieved fame as one half of a standup comedy team "The Two Beats" (he still acts under the moniker Beat Takeshi) and even today, he hosts a David Letterman-style talk show on Japanese TV. He is so famous back home, that he can't walk down the street. Kitano cites this as the real reason his films have so many scenes set outside Tokyo. (Scenes on empty beaches have since become a Kitano trademark.) But it is the stoic Kitano -- usually playing a yakuza or a cop -- that has garnered the filmmaker acclaim on the international film scene. His first films ("Boiling Point," "Violent Cop") helped shape the "Extreme Asian Cinema" genre -- in many ways Kitano is bridge between guys like Kenji Fukasaku and Takashi Miike -- while later films like "Fireworks" and "Dolls" find Kitano pushing himself further as a filmmaker. (He has admitted to taking his career as a filmmaker more seriously after a 1994 motorcycle accident almost killed him.)
But there's still enough "Beat" in Kitano for him to retain his impish streak. In "The Blind Swordsman: Zatoichi," more so than any other Kitano film save for the little-known "Getting Any?," a gag is just as important as a story point. (And this is without even getting into the tap-dance finale.) But while you definitely get the feeling that Kitano doesn't give a shit about offending any Zatoichi purists -- Shintaro Katsu played Zatoichi in twenty-plus films from 1962 on -- he likens the blind swordsman to John Wayne or Zorro. "Most of the people who know the name of Zatoichi have never even seen those films (with Katsu)."
indieWIRE corresponded via email with Kitano about commercial success, screen violence, and taking on a revered character from Japanese pop culture. Miramax opens "Zatoichi" tomorrow.
indieWIRE: "Zatoichi" was your biggest commercial success in Japan, why do you think this is?
Takeshi Kitano: I don't have any logical explanation for that. I feel like a gourmet chef with a very classy restaurant but no customers, who is asked to cook cheaper, more popular food and suddenly sees people lining up to eat. I prefer to make more personal films, but these jobs for hire are a nice thing to fall back on. They're like unemployment insurance in case my own films don't do very well, and maybe one day I will need to make more of this kind of movie.
But to be perfectly honest, I'm not that happy about the success, because success can be very bothersome. In Japan I can't walk down the streets without people wanting to talk to me and asking for autographs. That's why I enjoy coming to Europe and the U.S., because nobody knows me there. I'm sure the producers of this film are very happy with the success, because it brings in a lot of money, but it doesn't help me lead a quiet life.
iW: Will this success lead you to try something more commercial or less commercial?
Kitano: I don't really give much thought to whether it's commercial or less commercial, which I believe simply results from its box-office. Once you start getting self-conscious and analytical about what made you popular or highly acclaimed by the critics, then you are prone to repeat what you have already done and make a parody of yourself to flatter your audience. And generally speaking, the public can be very sensitive toward that kind of pretension and is very likely to despise you for selling out.
iW: You made a lot of changes to the Zatoichi character, such as giving him a red cane. Did you feel it necessary to do all this to give the film your own stamp?
Kitano: Yes, I did feel it was necessary. As to the visual, Mr. Katsu's Zatoichi had dark hair, dressed in a plain-colored kimono, and carried a brown cane sword. It worked well in his time especially for the first several Zatoichi films that were shot in black and white, but I couldn't do that with my Zatoichi. That would've looked too old-fashioned. So I decided to visualize my Zatoichi as a pretty eccentric person, with platinum blond hair and a blood-red cane sword. The same goes with the characterization. Whereas Mr. Katsu's Zatoichi was more about almost heart-warming relationships he made with the good and meek townspeople, I saw no point in Takeshi Kitano/Beat Takeshi doing that kind of story. My Zatoichi doesn't fully mingle with the good guys. He just keeps slaying bad guys.
iW: Your directorial style seems a little more loosened up here than in say "Fireworks" or "Sonatine." Is there a reason for this?
Kitano: Probably, because Zatoichi was the first project since my directorial debut "Violent Cop" that was not conceived from my own idea but was offered to me by other people. So I feel I wasn't in the position of an artist, but more of an artisan. I was asked to create something, so I made it with the intention of pleasing those people. Despite those constraints I enjoyed very much making this movie and found it easier to direct than my own art pieces. The total freedom I have with my own movies to direct is sometimes more difficult than works I was hired for or where the framework had been already furnished. Unlike with my own work, I don't have to deny or feel embarrassed at the straightforwardness or orthodoxness of the directorial style because I can say in excuse, "This is how I was asked to direct by those people."
iW: There's also a comedic sensibility in "Zatoichi" that is mostly absent in the other movies you've directed. Is this closer to the comedy work you do for Japanese TV?
Kitano: "Zatoichi" essentially has too much action, and too many killings and bloody scenes to be seen by a general audience. I thought comical scenes would work well to weaken the sense of too much violence and give this film dynamics and balance.
iW: Despite the title of "Zatoichi" and you playing the lead, this is much more of an ensemble film. What were your reasons for this and for appearing on screen less than you usually do?
Kitano: The bottom line of a typical storyline in a typical period piece depicts the unsophisticated heartwarming feelings of ordinary folk. This I totally dislike. I have avoided this kind of atmosphere as much as possible for my "Zatoichi," wanting to direct the film "dry" or "cool." I wanted to make my Zatoichi to be like a killing machine. His motivation doesn't seem to be out of compassion for the meek good guys. It looks as though he is only interested in whether he's the strongest swordsman or not.
Unfortunately, if I were to go the distance and depict Zatoichi's character too much in this way, the film would not work as a mainstream entertaining period piece. Therefore, for the sake of "entertainment," I included many characters other than Zatoichi, good guys and bad guys, which just ends up being more people appearing on screen.
iW: You've talked about how difficult it was for your films to be treated seriously in Japan since you were seen as a comedian, but here in the U.S., it's only the tough-guy yakuza Kitano who is known. Do you find this equally frustrating?
Kitano: It just takes time to be recognized equally in all these roles, a comedian, writer, TV presenter, director, etc. I had to spend a lot of energy and wait until people accepted me in Japan. Eventually, this is how I would like to be remembered at the end of my career. "He was never the best at anything he does; comedy, acting, filmmaking, writing, etc., but nobody was better at doing so many different things at the same time as he was."
iW: American critics in general seem to focus on the violence in your films, yet it doesn't seem like such a big deal to Asian audiences. What are your thoughts on this and what is it about violence in film that you are drawn to?
Kitano: I think my way of showing violence is unique from that of other filmmakers in that when I show it, it hurts. It happens unexpectedly and looks painful. That's how it is in real life and that's how it should be expressed. If you compare my films to something like "Die Hard," the death toll in my films is pretty low. It comes with the territory, so I decided to go in the other direction in portraying the violence this time.
iW: I've heard that you're going to be starring in a samurai movie to be directed by Takashi Miike. Can you tell me a little about this?
Kitano: The film title is "Izo." When I am starring in other directors' works, there is nothing much to say. I just act as I am told.
[You can view the trailer for "Izo" at the film's Japanese website, http://www.izo-movie.com.]