There's no violence in Kitano Takeshi's new Cannes entry "Kikujiro". Tony Rayns talks to the director about how he was inspired by "The Wizard of Oz".

Chairing a Hana-Bi talkshow with Kitano "Beat" Takeshi at the 1998 Rotterdam Film Festival, I asked him about upcoming projects. His answers sounded like typical deadpan jokes. He was tired, he said, of foreign journalists and critics asking him about the violence in his films, and so he was determined to make a movie without any. And he had it in mind to make a road movie. "You mean like Wim Wenders used to?" My question must have sounded vaguely nervous. "No," he replied. "More like The Wizard of Oz."

Visiting the shoot of what was then known as Kitano Volume 8 last August, I saw nothing to suggest that Kitano's film-making had changed direction. The usual compact crew was setting up on location alongside the River Sumida in the Asakusa district of Tokyo - the working-class area where Kitano himself was born and raised. Nearly everyone present was a veteran of previous Office Kitano productions, from the cinematographer Yanagijima Katsuini (back from the year's sabbatical in London which prevented him from shooting Hana-Bi) to Kishimoto Kayoko (the silent wife in Hana-Bi, here again playing the Kitano character's partner but this time a floozy in tigerskin-pattern pants and high heels). Once filming began, it was the usual highly efficient operation: brief rehearsals, shots involving Kitano the actor lined up by Kitano the director with a stand-in, rarely more than one take of each shot, fast transitions from one set-up to the next.

And the content seemed equally normal for Kitano: wry subcultural vignettes with a comic edge. Very shitamachi, meaning the old downtown parts of Tokyo where (it is widely held) the Japanese are still truly Japanese. Gone-to-seed yakuza type Kikujiro and his wife Miki are chatting on the riverbank. Miki notices three schoolboys smoking and upbraids them; Kikujiro pretends to disapprove too, to please her. And then they encounter a much younger boy, Masao (Sekiguchi Yusuke), who will be the focus of the entire story. He comes running over the Sakura Bridge and pauses to greet Miki. As soon as he's gone, she explains his situation to Kikujiro: Masao's falher is dead and his mother has moved far away; he is being raised alone by his grandmother.

After lunch the location shifts to Sumida Koen, a nearby park. We're a little further along in the story: Kikujiro is now saddled with looking after Masao, but the lures of gambling and liquor make him a neglectful guardian. Masao, told to wait outside a bar, has wandered into the park and fallen prey to an aging paedophile (played by the butoh dance star Maro Akaji, increasingly visible as a character actor in Japanese movies from Hayashi Kaizo's "Maiku Hamma" trilogy to Mochizuki Rokuro's The Outer Way). The old man has lured the boy behind the park toilet and persuaded him to undress. Kikujiro comes looking for Masao in the nick of time.

Thanks to Maro's pantomime-ogre performance, the scene seems more funny than shocking. But as it progresses, it looks very much as if Kitano's Rotterdam vow of abstinence from violence has bitten the dust. Deprived of his prey, the paedophile turns his attention to Kikujiro and manages to get the man's pants down. Kikujiro fends him off (the shot requires two takes because Kitano cracks up the first time Maro lunges at his underpants) and then beats him up. It's true Kitano doesn't film the actual beating, but the sequence ends with a shot of the prone paedophile with a piece of park fencing rammed up his arse. Or rather, that's how it's scripted to end. As night begins to fall Kitano is struck by a new visual possibility and decides to add a shot of himself and Masao leaving the park. It starts raining just before the camera is ready to turn, but they rush to get the shot anyway...

The cast-and-crew screening of the finished film takes place in a lab outside Tokyo in early November. During the post-production, Volume 8 has picked up a real title: Kikujiro no Natsu - literally Kikujiro's Summer- but it will be known internationally as Kikujiro. The screening is packed; there's even one uninvited interloper, a critic from Le Monde in town for the Tokyo Film Festival who breaks the press embargo by filing a gushy review as soon as he gets back to Paris. (Endorsed by Cahiers du cin?ma and its acolytes, Kitano has become something of a cultural icon in French film circles since the hit release of Hana-Bi.) The film is watched in attentive silence, punctuated by occasional gales of laughter.

And Kikujiro turns out to be exactly what Kitano told me it would be: a film without violence, quite close to the spirit of The Wizard of Oz. Whatever violence was filmed or implied during the shoot has been cut in the editing - the final shot of the wounded paedophile, for instance, has gone. The plot turns on the fact that Masao is alone for the summer vacation as his classmates go away with their families. Miki all but orders Kikujiro to keep the kid company and Kikujiro does his limited best to entertain Masao. After the episode with the paedophile, though, Kikujiro responds to Masao's obvious distress and loneliness by promising to take him to see his mother. The journey begins in a stolen taxi and proceeds on foot and with hitched rides in strangers' cars and trucks. Masao never meets his mother, because Kikujiro tries to shield him from the discovery that she has remarried and doesn't want to see him but it transpires that Kikujiro has the ulterior motive of visiting his own mother in a home for geriatrics.

The journey, of course, is the thing. It comprises encounters with assorted riff-raff including a young punk couple, two softie bikers, some small-town yakuza, a fisherman and various hotel and restaurant staff. Most of them are male, and almost all of them resort to childish behaviour in their efforts to entertain Masao. For his part, the kid is sustained by fantasies of a guardian angel, which Kikujiro tries to reify by commandeering an angel-bell mascot from one of the bikers. The film's angel is the one seen (in Kitano's own painting) at the very end of Hana-Bi; here, an unchanging motif which proliferates like a Warhol multiple across a series of Kitano paintings used as chapter title cards. The encounters on the road are interspersed with glimpses of Masao's dreams, each in a different visual idiom, which pitch the guardian angel against stylised memories of the people the boy has met.

It's strangely difficult to get a fix on the film. Kikujiro is quintessentially Kitano in its tone, imagery, characterisations and editing rhythms, but that somehow makes it all the more disconcerting. It's unlike other adult-stuck-with-child movies from The Kid and The Champ to Paper Moon and Alice in the Cities in that it doesn't present itself as a rite of passage for anyone involved. At the end Masao is still a little kid who may or may not understand the truth about his absent mother and Kikujiro is still a more or less useless surrogate parent. It's equally unlike The Wizard of Oz in that it has no climactic revelation and refuses to turn on the mediating powers of fantasy in real life. In so far as it takes the kind of low-life characters familiar from earlier Kitano films and has them behave like the hapless audience members who are placed in demeaningly infantile situations on some of Kitano's television variety shows, it may well represent a further stage in his ongoing struggle to reconcile his two personae: Kitano Takeshi the writer-director and "Beat" Takeshi the comedian. The one certainty is that the film is highly idiosyncratic and markedly original.

Tony Rayns: The people in this film are much less rude than most of the characters in your other films. Surely you aren't retreating into the stereotype of traditional Japanese politesse?

Kitano Takeshi: Obviously this is in some sense the story of a father figure giving moral guidance to a kid. It's also obvious that this kind of moral guidance can be for the better or for the worse. What I find most congenial is the idea of a bad guy who does something good pretty much by accident, so that's what I went with. It became the basic rule of the film's game: good results accidentally coming from bad actions. Not just Kikujiro himself but most of the other characters have a 'bad' side to them, and in the script they were supposed to do quite bad things to or around Masao. But I dropped most of those scenes because I needed the other characters to contrast with Kikujiro - I needed that element of contrast to give the story, its unity.

But there's also some play with audience expectations - several characters look like bad pieces of work and lead the viewer to expect the worst, but then turn out to be quite nice.

I find it natural to react against whatever I did last - in this case, Hana-Bi. The punky high-school kids who give Kikujiro and Masao their first lift were supposed to beat up Masao in the script, but I decided not to have that happen because it's so Hana-Bi. I wanted to go against audience expectations all the way through the film. Hana-Bi was very much in my mind while I was making this.

So these characters don't reflect a change in your view of Japanese society?

If I'd intended this to be a social-realist film Masao would have been raped behind the toilet in the park and Kikujiro would have sold him into slavery.

Do you really like "The Wizard of Oz"? When did you first see it?

I saw it during a summer fete when I was in primary school. It must have been one of the first foreign films I saw, and I really enjoyed it. The link with this film may be that both are about dreams - this film is like an anthology of dreams, not only the kid's but also Kikujiro's and other people's.

It can't be accidental that "Kikujiro" was the name of your own father. How much autobiographical resonance does the story have?

As far as I remember, my father never really talked to me, and never had the slightest thought of taking his kids out to entertain them. There was just one exception: he took me along with some of his fellow workers from the paint factory on a trip to the seaside. It must have been to Hayama or Enoshima, some resort in Kanagawa Prefecture, not far from Tokyo. Probably my mother told him to take his kid out, for once. We did nothing particular on that day out, and he left me alone to do what I wanted.

But something interesting happened on the way home, when we were taking the streetcar. We were standing, and there was a soldier from the US army sitting in front of us. This man suddenly stood up and offered me his seat - and gave me a Hershey's chocolate bar, which was not something I saw every day. My father actually bent his knee and thanked him very fulsomely - this was the man who beat the shit out of my mother night after night when he came home drunk from some bar. And when we got home, all he kept saying was "America is a great country!" I have the idea that this experience somehow influenced the characterisation of Kikujiro.

So you didn't get much 'nurture' as a boy, even from people in the neighbourhood?

The Japanese like to think people of the same class take care of each other as much as they do of themselves, but I don't believe that's always so. For instance, people who are badly off or sick often despise those who are worse off than themselves, and people who have suffered in their own childhood tend to be harsh towards children, not kind, In the film Kikujiro's motivation is not warm or caring; it just happens that he finds himself taking this journey with this kid.

At the Pusan Film Festival in Korea last year a journalist asked if it was true my grandfather was Korean. I answered honestly that I could well be one-quarter Korean. I got this idea because when my mother scolded me she used to say, "What can we expect? You're the grandson of a Korean!" This was a term of mild abuse - at the time, especially among people of my mother's generation, it was very common to discriminate against Koreans. I concealed this belief that I was part-Korean until I reached some level of maturity and began earning my own living. Then I asked my mother again if it was true that true that my father was half-Korean. She answered: "Worse than that! He was an abandoned child, a foundling." The fact that she thought this worse than being Korean made it very hard for me to talk about it in Korea - I couldn't tell the journalist what I've just told you, it would have been impolite, if not insulting. Anyhow, it seems to be true that my father didn't know his own parents, which means he had a very low social standing in Japan.

Any special reason for the road-movie structure?

To be frank, I chose this form because it offers the chance to bring in a wide range of characters and incidents. In a road movie you can have a murderer, a thief and a good guy side by side. As soon as you confine your characters to one place, not all that much can happen to them, but put them on the road and anything can occur. It's the best form to use if you want to get into weird and unrealistic areas.

It's a form which lends itself to changes and improvisation. How closely did you script it?

I had a general... conception is too big a word... I had general thoughts about what the characters should be. But what you see in the film was constructed during the shoot on the basis of watching the actors. For instance, the two bikers were supposed to be roughneck, Easy Rider types and the hippie-looking guy in the pink t-shirt who takes them back to Tokyo was supposed to be a burglar. But I adapted the roles to bring them closer to the actors when I saw how they were playing them.

Why does one of the bikers keep undressing?

Those two guys are members of the "Takeshi Gundan" - the stable of comedians I head. They're my comedy apprentices. It's the trademark of that guy to get undressed-he's done it so many times on television I thought I should let him do it in a movie too.

And the other actors? They're not familiar faces.

Nearly all of them are members of a dance troupe called Convoy. They work on stage in the equivalent of Broadway musicals. That explains a lot about their bad acting! I think I chose them because I had The Wizard of Oz in the back of my mind - I had this vague idea that everyone would end up dancing in the final scene. I'm sorry about their performances, but it's all my fault - I shouldn't have chosen musical actors in the first place.

They're very charming. When did you decide to divide the film into chapters with those picture-book-style captions at the start of each?

As usual I alternated weeks of shooting the film with weeks of recording programs for television and spent evenings in the television weeks editing the previous week's rushes. By the second or third week of this I gained the strong impression that this film didn't have the turning point or decisive narrative moment that my other films have had - you could watch the whole thing without feeling that any particular scene was crucial in terms of the overall shape or structure. That's when I decided to give it chapters, to make it look like the kind of picture diary Japanese kids are obliged to make in primary school. Probably the kid is looking back as he rereads this diary and remembering the journey he took with this strange man Kikujiro. This concept let me get away with not depicting all the details in a logical way, because the whole thing becomes a child's memories.

And the psychedelic dream sequences? Were you doing a lot of drugs?

To be very frank, by the time I'd shot about half the film I was quite fed up with shooting sequences on the road. I needed to come up with something else to keep my own interest up. Those dream sequences for me were a kind of game, a way of diverting myself. In some of them I tried using computer graphics for the first time - and found out that I have absolutely no talent in that area.

The dream sequences were also trials or experiments for some things I have in mind for what may be my next project. I've been talking recently with Mori Masayuki [the president of Office Kitano and one of the film's producers] about going back to a project I first thought of many years ago, and I've been thinking that Kikujiro is maybe a rehearsal for that. But if I describe the film like that it wouldn't be very respectful to the audience which comes to see it, and I have done my best to make Kikujiro a good film. But it's a fact that I've been trying things out in this film for the possible next step.

Since you have this need to defy your own and the audience's expectations, I guess we can expect the next film to be full of murders, rapes, children sold into slavery and so on.

Exactly.

Thanks to Mori Masayuki and to Usui Naoyuki for translation. Japanese names throuqhout are in the Japanese order; surnames first. "Kikujiro" has its world premiere at the Cannes Film Festival.

By Tony Rayns (Sight and Sound, June 1999). All rights are reserved by Tony Rayns, Sight and Sound and The British Film Institute (BFI). The article is reproduced by Kitanotakeshi.com with the kind permission by Tony Rayns.