Takeshi Kitano is to Japanese show business what Steven Spielberg is to the Hollywood film industry: a man who, despite his public image as an eternal Peter Pan, has been the king of his professional hill for more than two decades and extended his activities far beyond the limits of most of his colleagues. Kitano, or as he is better known to Japan's TV-watching masses, Beat Takeshi, may not run a movie studio, but he has gone from being a strip joint emcee and playing the dimwit in a comedy duo called Two Beats (thus his "Beat" stage name) to appearing on countless network TV shows, writing more than sixty books, cutting hit records, and even dabbling in the curry-restaurant business.

On the TV programs that he appears on almost nightly, he is everything to everybody, clowning on one show in sailor-dress drag, discoursing on another about the latest discoveries in astronomy. Voted Japan's most popular male celebrity in polls year after year, he is too protean to easily categorize, too talented and articulate to dismiss as just another TV buffoon. Like Woody Allen, he has moved to the grown-up table of national life and has no intention of leaving.

Abroad, Kitano is better known as the director of films that, in their understated, innovative, blackly humorous explorations of society's fringes, including Japan's ubiquitous yakuza gangs, have earned him critical praise and numerous prizes. In 1997, Kitano's Hana-Bi (Fireworks), a tersely told, starkly violent drama about an ex-cop's search for redemption, won the Golden Lion at the Venice Film Festival.

In person, Kitano is utterly without the usual airs and pretensions of the entertainment-world elite. Shifting mental gears with blinding speed, he leaps from subject to subject, image to image, at times with little regard for the question at hand. He is not trying to impress so much as simply give his nimble mind free rein and, not incidentally, keep everyone laughing.

John Woo said in an interview that he thought you were the next Asian director most likely to make it in Hollywood. What kind of movie would you make if you could work with a Hollywood studio and budget? Also, do you have any desire to make such a film?

I'm working on two projects now set in America. I've written simple treatments for them. One is about two members of minorities, a Japanese yakuza and a black America who becomes the yakuza?s kyodaibun-his gang brother. They are fighting together against the larger white society and realize, in the course of the struggle, that they are brothers in the real sense of the word.

Another one is inspired by Tarantino and Scorcese and other directors who are really familiar with the Italian Mafia. It's a film set in Hawaii about the Japanese yakuza and the American Mafia. There's this old yakuza who happens to get into some trouble with another old man and discovers that he's with the Mafia. They start talking in a coffee shop about why they became gangsters. The Mafia guy says that he got involved in the gangs when he was a kid. The yakuza says that he was poor when he was a kid and that the yakuza gave him a way out. Then the Mafia guy asks the yakuza guy what kind of ceremonies the yakuza have when someone joins a gang.

The story traces their fives, from the old days to the present. When they part, they agree to meet at the coffee shop at the same time next year. Then the Mafia guy takes a walk on the beach. Suddenly there's the sound of gunfire and he falls. The Japanese yakuza thinks the American Mafia is tougher than the yakuza and that's how the movie ends. These films are just in the treatment stage. If anyone is interested, I can say I have these two treatments.

So you aren't in negotiation with any Hollywood studio now.

No, not at all. I can't make movies the way John Woo does. I don't have that kind of speed. In general, I don?t think that I have the kind of speed that you find in Hollywood - films, so it probably wouldn't work out. I don't think it would be fair to moviegoers who come expecting to be entertained.

My movie [Hana-Bi] opened at a theater in Shinjuku yesterday. Usually when a screening ends people start walking out during the credits, but after Hana-Bi ended the audience stayed until the lights went up in the theater, so they had to delay the next screening until everyone left. The schedule got screwed up because of that.

When I saw it at the Nippon Herald screening room, the place was packed, but no one left until the end of the credits. They seemed to be lost in thought.

How can we take money for bringing people down like that? [laughs] The audience is going to be asking for a refund. "Hey, I thought movies were supposed to be fun:' [laughs] "You?ve got some kind of strange mind, making a movie like that:' [laughs]

Was the reaction abroad the same?

Pretty much the same I think. When they screened it at Venice, the audience was quiet until the end and I thought, "Uh oh, this isn?t good . ' Then after the lights went up, there was some applause, so I felt relieved. "At least they're applauding it." But there was a gap between the end of the film and the applause. Finally, they gave it a big hand.

Your work is so different from what the West has been getting from Asia lately-a lot of the Hong Kong movies or Hollywood movies made by Hong Kong directors.

Hong Kong films are like a kind of dance, a show. You?ll never see anything like that in real life. When they show fight scenes, they just go on and on. There's no way that people can keep punching and kicking each other like that, making it look so beautiful. In real life, there's one punch and it's over. So I don?t think of my violent films as being entertainment. In Hong Kong movies, there's no realism to the fighting or shooting. It's all a show.

Whereas Hong Kong movies seem to be influenced by Chinese opera, yours seem to have a more distinctly Japanese quality. The way you use pauses reminds me somehow of Noh drama [laughs]. Your gang movies seem restrained compared to what has been coming out of Hong Kong. Did you intend to inject a traditional Japanese quality into your films?

No, not all. In the neighborhood where I grew up there were a lot of yakuza around. I used to see them fight each other and usually it would be over with one punch. I never saw them punching away at each other-they might trade as many three punches, then one guy would be getting the worst of it and give up. I never saw them go at each other the way you see in a cowboy movie. Usually it would be one-sided-one guy working over another. I would see one guy kicking another, that kind of thing. I never saw what you would describe as boxing match.

What about the influence of Japanese yakuza movies from the sixties and seventies Ken Takakura charging into a nest of rival gangsters with a sword?

Those Ken Takakura movies were popular when the student movement was at its height. Radical students would go to the theater and applaud Ken Takakura. But I knew there was no way for that kind of thing to happen-for one yakuza to take on a whole rival gang with a wooden sword. It was totally unrealistic. I thought, well, it's only a movie, but when I made movies myself I could never do that. Stories like that were made into manga. At the end Ken Takakura says, "I'll go alone." The other guys in the gang say "Go ahead, we're not stopping you." [laughs].

In the seventies the Jingi Naki Tatakai (Battles Without Honor) series by Kinji Fukasaku tried to inject more realism into the yakuza genre.

His camerawork had a documentary feel. Now they would use a Steadicam, but back then they would shoot like a reporter chasing a TV star, with a wobbling handheld camera. Especially in the fight scenes-it would heighten the tension. Fukasaku was quite good at that.

When I saw your first film, Sono Otoko, Kyobo ni Tsuki (Violent Cop, 1989) I thought that you were trying to get away from what had been done in the past and make a different kind of gang movie.

The story, the camerawork-the whole process of making films has it own rules, like baseball. When I made my first film I tried to learn the rules and I followed them until Hana-Bi. I had pretty much figured out how to make a movie by then. In the beginning, I didn't know very much about how to move the camera and so on. So the movie turned out looking like a souvenir snapshot. After my second or third film, though, I started to figure out how to move the camera.

With Hana-Bi I felt that you were putting in everything you had learned about filmmaking. It was a kind of summation.

If I compare Hana-Bi to an entrance exam for a public university, where they test you on five subjects- English and Japanese and so on--I think I scored an average of sixty points on all the subjects and passed. But in some scenes I scored ninety percent and others ten percent. If I had been taking a test for a private college, where they only require three subjects, Hana-Bi would have -scored pretty well, though. (laughs] But a lot of movies that apply for that national university of film score better than Hana-Bi.

Are you going to take a different approach for you nextfilm? Or are you going to expand on the themes you explored in Hana-Bi?

When you think about the most popular stories with audiences, the ones that seem to work the most consistently are about parents and children. One story is a child visiting its mother during the summer vacation. They meet and various things happen, then the child goes back to its grandmother. That?s a classic story. Various people have told it and each one has his own way of telling it. So now I'm thinking how I can tell it differently.

It's like a piano recital where everyone plays the same number, but one performance is somehow better than the others. I would like to try something like that once. Everyone has his own idea of how to tell a story about family relations. You have the Tora-san approach, you have the approach of Masahiro Shinoda in Shonen Jidai (Takeshi: Childhood Days) So I would like to try making the same kind of film and see how I could do it differently.

In the same way, I've seen a lot of younger Japanese directors try to make films like Yasujiro Ozu. They may be making a parody, but at the same time they're trying to match themselves against the master-again, like classical pianists playing the same composition.

When I see Ozu?s movies, I'm impressed with the shots he gets when the characters go outside-you can?t find those kinds of backdrops in Japan anymore. You couldn't make those kinds of shots today, the right scenery isn?t there anymore. There's too much extraneous stuff in the background. So the only way you can still imitate Ozu now is to shoot on a set. Once you go outside it would be too difficult.

People are talking about how Japanese films are reviving, but when you compare them to what was made in the Golden Age of the 1950s by people like Ozu and Kurosawa, there's still a gap.

Japanese movies are still pretty bad. Back then there were a lot of good movies being made, so a lot of people went to see them-that's why it was called the Golden Age. The release of movies like Mononoke Hime (Princess Mononoke) and Shitsurakuen (Lost Paradise) that draw people back to the theaters is a good thing, but the films themselves are not that great [laughs]. To have a Golden Age you need to have both good films and a lot of people who want to see them. If we had three or four really great directors, we might have a new Golden Age, but we're not there yet.

In the past couple years a lot of young directors have been making their first features. Have you seen any that you thought were really good?

I've been collecting videos of films by young directors. I'm judging the Tokyo Sports Film Awards this year. We're totally free to pick any movies we want, whether or not they're from a major studio.

There have been a lot of "problem" films recently, especially films about enjo kosai ["paid dates" in which older men buy the sexual favors of teenage girls]. But I think that kind of subject would be more interesting as a documentary When you think about the possibilities of film, that kind of subject matter seems to limit what you can do visually. I wouldn?t have very much interest in that doing that kind of film. I just don?t like message or problem films anyway.

A lot of younger directors are coming from backgrounds other than films-music videos and TV commercials and so on. When you made your first movie nine years ago, there was a certain prejudice in the industry against outsiders directing but that doesn't seem to be case now,

When we're looking for locations, sometimes they won?t let us shoot. A temple might let Kurosawa shoot there, but not me, because I am a celebrity and they are afraid they won't be able to control the crowds. But since I've taken the prize at Venice, places like that will let me shoot there. It's become a lot easier. Before we'd get a lot of static from people saying "you can?tt shoot here, you can't shoot there.'

But when I interviewed Kurosawa a few years ago, he complained about the same thing. Japanese bureaucrats and police make it hard for anyone to shoot movies in this country.

Japanese bureaucrats earn their bread by budding roads, but the money they use comes from taxpayers like me. I can?t tell them "I've paid for this road, you have to let me use it," but I would like them to give me a straight explanation for why they are saying no.

A more important problem for a lot of Japanese filmmakers, though, is to get the money to make a movie in the first place.

When you come down to it, there are only about four movie companies that finance film production. Now you also have the TV networks joining with the film companies to make big projects like Mononoke Hime. I think that co-financing with the TV networks is one way to go. They can do a lot to publicize a film.

That was certainly true in the case of Shall We Dance?, which got a lot of TV publicity from one of its backers, the NTV network. The problem with the films that TV networks make is that a lot of them end up looking like TV dramas.

There was no need to make Shall We Dance? as a movie-it's made the same way as a TV drama. You have a bunch of actors talking on a set---l think that film has more possibilities than that. With films you can have a bigger scale, more visual beauty-but just filming a bunch of actors talking on a set, you might as well do it with a TV camera.

Yet another problem, especially for makers of independent films in Japan, is distribution, which is tightly controlled by three companies.

Yes. Toei, Toho, and Shochiku all have theater chains, leaving only a limited number of independent theaters, such as Theater Shinjuku. But nowadays, with the growth of multiplex cinemas, you can rent more independent theaters for your films. We've been able to get Hana-Bi into a fairly large number of theaters-sixty or seventy-around the country. So there are ways to get around the chains.

Before you started distributing through your own company, Office Kitano, you made three films with Shochiku. With the third, Sonatine (1993), you had some differences with the producer Kazuyoshi Okuyama. Is that what persuaded you to start distributing your films independently?

Yes, the wonderful Mr. Okuyama [laughs], When he saw the rushes he got mad and said "This is not a movie:' He said he didn't want his name on the film as a producer, so we had some trouble over that.

After Sonatine won a prize at the Taormina festival in Italy, he kept it a secret. Two years later, when I went to the Cannes film festival, an Italian journalist asked me how I felt about winning the prize. I said, "What prize?" Shochiku had been holding onto it all that time. I felt like saying "What do you guys think you?re doing?"

Now that you've had so much success as a director, havey ou started to wonder what your real job should be? Do you ever think of chucking TV and concentrating on films?

Appearing on television gets me the money and fame I need to work as a director, so television has its good points. Also, if I just made movies, I couldn't eat [laughs]. With Hana-Bi I may earn enough money to make a living off my movies, for the first time ever. Before there was no way l simply couldn't make enough money at it. So for me, being a director is a kind of hobby.

Also, because I'm a comedian, making movies and working on television gives me a lot of good material for gags. And because I have the status of being a movie director, I can get mad at people and they can't say anything [laughs]. So doing both jobs has a kind of synergy that's worked well for me. But it's become hard to do both in terms of time and stamina. I've got eight regular programs now and that may be too many. If I just made one film year and cut back on my TV schedule, it would be physically easier, but then I wouldn?t have enough money to live on (laughs].

You've been working regularly on television for more than twenty years. It's amazing that you've been able to stand the pace this long.

It's because I goof off on the job--I don?t work at it and I do?t think about it.

But how do you make shift from the film mode to the television mode, from the serious filmmaker to the television comedian?

If you compare films and television to games, like professional football or major league baseball, you play football according to football rules, baseball according to baseball rules. In the same way being a TV talent has its own rules and so does working in films. For me comedy is the best way to go on television. But in movies, I want to do more serious things, such as play yakuza.

A lot of comedians have tried to make the shift from comedy to serious drama, but you're the only one I can think of who has played such tough characters in films.

Even since I appeared in [Nagisa Oshima?s] Merry Christmas, Mr. Lawrence as a camp guard, I've been playing serious roles. Because I first came up as a standup comedian, whenever I appeared on the screen, audiences would start laughing, no matter what role I was in. It took about fifteen years until audiences started to regard me as something other than a comedian and really pay attention to what I was doing. Until then they would just laugh.

I also played a lot of bad guys on TV dramas and got a good reaction. Finally audiences started to distinguish between Beat Takeshi the comedian and Takeshi Kitano the actor and filmmaker. But it took a long time. It was as hard for me as it was for Michael Jordan to hit a home run in the major leagues.

Do you enjoy shifting from one mode to another for a change of pace?

I regard the two as being in completely different categories. It's like eating Japanese food and Italian food. The TV and movie work influence each other, but they are completely separate.

You appeared in one Hollywood film, Johnny Mnemonic, and it seemed thatyou might do more work with Hollywood directors, but since your accident, you seem to have given up those plans. What happened?

I thought Johnny Mnemonic would be good chance to work in a Hollywood movie with a big actor like Keanu Reeves, but after the shooting was over I felt like a Japanese kid who had been taken to the real Disneyland in America but had to come home without riding on anything [laughs]. I didn't really feel like I was in a Hollywood movie. I'd be happy to do it again, but this time I want to go on some rides [laughs].

Why did you feel that you didn't get to go on any rides?

To be honest, I probably should have looked at the script more closely before I agreed to do the film. I should have turned it down-it was a boring movie.

Are there any Hollywood directors or actors you especially want to work with?

It's hard for me to tell about the actors-they all look good to me. I'm not a native speaker of English, so I have so read the subtitles. It hard for me to tell whether they're really reading their lines well or not. I know there are good and bad Hollywood stars, but I can't get a feel for which is which. I might read in a magazine that this or that actor is good, but that's all I know-so anyone would be all right [laughs].

Would you feel more comfortable about appearing in, say, a gang movie than another science fiction film?

Yes, a gang movie would be all right-either a European or Hollywood action film would be all right, but the range of what I can do is rather limited. I have to play a tough guy. Also, I make a big impact on the screen, so I have to have other actors around who can keep up with me. But if both those conditions are met, then I would be interested in seeing a script. With Johnny Mnemonic, I agreed to do it without first checking the script. When I got to the set I was surprised to see what was going on, but by then it was too late. So if I appear in a Hollywood movie again, I want to have a better idea of what I'm getting into.

In Johnny Mnemonic I was supposed to wear a yakuza tattoo. In Japan everyone knows what yakuza are and what yakuza tattoos are supposed to look like, so there's no problem, but over there they have unions for the technical people and the makeup people and they're very strong. They tell you what they're going to do and you have to listen to them. They wanted me to wear a tattoo like something on an aloha shirt [laughs]. I wondered what the Japanese audience wouid think when they saw that.

It would have been different if I had stated in my contract what kind of tattoo I would wear, but instead I found myself in this strange place where I didn't know the customs and they were telling me to how be a yakuza. I should have turned down the part. I can understand that there might be some differences, but I didn't know that it would be so different.

Speaking about different working methods, I remember being surprised when I went to the set of Hana-Bi and heard you talking with your staff about how to end the movie. I know that you had a script but it almost seemed as though you were making up the story as you went along. Is that the way you usually work?

Usually we have a synopsis when we start. After we begin filming though, I don?t like to force the actors to do what they're uncomfortable with, so once they get into their rhythms, the story naturally starts to change. I don't change the script on my own, but in consultation with my staff. This can create problems. One time we going to use a ferry boat and, when the story changed, we had to cancel. So one of the staff had to go to the ferry boat people and apologize. All he could say was "the director's changed his mind. That's kind of thing happens a lot. When you?re faced with a choice, you have to go with the one you think is best. But when you?re making a Hollywood movie, you have a script and usually you have to follow it. You can't go the people in charge and say "I don?t like this." You'll get fired [laughs].

Akira Kurosawa used his drawings to give his staff a feel for the kind of look and feel he wanted in the scene. They served as a kind of storyboard. You've also taken up painting-some of your paintings were used in Hana-Bi. Did you make them for the same reason- to use as a visual guide for your staff.

Even if I were to make a drawing of a location for the staff, it only exists in my head-I haven?t been there, my staff hasn?t been there. First we have to go to the actual place where we're going to film and look around. Also, I like to play it by ear so I can fool the lighting and camera directors. They want everything to be perfect, but I like the mistakes-I like changing the direction of the action so the light isn?t shining where it's supposed to or the camera isn?t pointing where it's supposed to. Of course, I can?t ignore them completely--they're professionals who know their jobs. But they'll tell me I can't do this or that-otherwise they'll look bad. At first, I would tell them what I wanted them to do, but they wouldn?t listen to me. So now I fool them. I'll shoot it the way I like, without the proper lighting, and tell them I'll throw the footage away, but later on I'll edit it in. [laughs].

You're involved in the whole process, from scriptwriting to editing. Do you think that editing is the most important part of the job?

Editing is making a plastic model. You have the numbered parts-the shots that you filmed-and editing is the process of putting them together. Having someone else do the editing for you is like having the people at the factory build your model for you. The job of putting the parts together is mine and for me it's the most interesting part of the whole process. Of course, sometimes you don't have the parts you need, and you have to improvise. It?s like having not having a steering wheel for your model and putting a tire in its place. You just hope that people don?t watch the movie two or three times-they're going to find you out ([laughs]).

Sometimes when my mind is really clicking, I'll be cutting in my head as I film. I think if I film in such and such a way l'll have such and such a sequence of cuts. There's one scene in Hana-Bi of a punk standing by a car. He throws away a box lunch and suddenly my fist flashes out and he's on the ground. I filmed it exactly that way- that's all the footage I had to work with. Ordinarily, I would have shown the punch making contact with the punk?s face, but I thought it would be more interesting the other way. Usually, though, I filn more footage for insurance and then end up throwing it away.

So sometimes you have a clear image of what you want to shoot before you begin filming?

Yes, when I'm really clicking. Before I shoot the scene, I'll be watching the movie in MY head. Then I can film one scene after another; but sometimes my mind goes blank. That's when I shoot a lot of footage on the set. That's when I have the most trouble editing--it takes a lot of time to get what I want.

Do you go through the same process of visualization when, say, you're making a TV program?

Not at all. When I go to a TV station, it's just to play. I never go there to work. I never read a script. Sometimes I don't even know what program I'm supposed to be on (laughs].Even if you prepare, TV programs have a way of going in a different direction and you have to be ready to go with it.

With movies, you have more of a line to follow. Once I was on a two-hour program where they gave us food and booze. I starting drinking and after about thirty minutes I passed out and slept through the rest of the show. The other guests were talking about me-"Oh, Takeshi's still sleeping" [laughs). I didn?t mean to pass out, but it made the show more interesting. That's just the way TV is, so what's the point of preparing?

Did you ever look around at all the young faces and wonder what you're doing here and how much longer you'll be around?

Yes, the turnover is high. TV talents are always being compared with each other "Takeshi's getting a little stale." But now Takeshi is also a movie director. That?s a kind of insurance. Now that I've become famous for my films, it's easier for me to do TV. I don?t have to compete with the other guys out there. I'm coming from a different place. I think it's tough for older guys who only have television to fall back on to be appearing on shows with all these young guys.

You also have books-you've written more than sixty books now. In some of them you comment on serious issues. What social issue are you most interested in now?

After the war the system changed completely and we had the high-growth era. Now that postwar system has developed a lot of problems and, fifty years after the end of the war, with all those problems coming to the surface, we can finally say that the post war period is over.

I was born right after the end of the war and was raised on American TV sitcoms--Life with Father and all those other shows. Watching them I thought that the middleclass lifestyle they portrayed-the house with the yard, the big refrigerator, the nice father, the happy family with everyone talking to everyone else-was typical. In Japan we've been trying to live up to that model for so long. But we're starting to realize that not many Americans really live that way, that we been chasing after a dream.

In the same way, we been trying to imitate the good parts of the American system--democracy and human rights. But now we've having all kind of problems with that system, in education and other areas. Kids hitting teachers, kids dropping out, parents killing their kids. And when we look at America we see the same thing. The jury system that produced the O.J. Simpson trial, the criminal law system that lets criminals out on the streets. The American culture of guns and drugs. The American conflict between blacks and whites.

But for fifty years after the end of the war, we've been following in America's footsteps and heading in the same direction. When we look at the Japan today and wonder why we have all these problems between parents and children, with drug use--well, we just have to look at America and see what kind of country it's become, where their form of democracy has taken them. Parents have become scared of their own kids. It used to be that adults would scold kids who were running around and making trouble on the train, but now no one does that. When I was a kid I used get scolded by adults all the time, but that doesn't happen anymore.

We've lost the ability to distinguish between rights and duties. Now the emphasis is totally on rights-no one talks about duties any more and we're going in a very strange direction as a result.

By Mark Schilling (July 1998). All rights are reserved by Mark Schilling: "Contemporary Japanese Film" (Weatherhill, 1999). The interview is reproduced by Kitanotakeshi.com with the kind permission by Mark Schilling.