Refusing to be pigeonholed by the violent genre works that made his name,
Kitano Takeshi likes to test himself. In 'Dolls' he takes a puppet's-eye view of
personal stories set in a Japanese landscape, as he explains to Tony
Kitano Takeshi's Dolls (Dooruzu, 2002) opens with a traditional bunraku
theatre performance of Chikamatsu Monzaemon's 1711 play The Courier for Hell.
The joruri singer-storyteller and his shamisen musical accompanist are brought
into view by a revolving stage, and as they start to tell the sad tale of the
hapless messenger Chubei, it's acted out by large puppets on the stage beside
them, each 'doll' manipulated by three black-swathed puppeteers. The bunraku
Dolls will return in the film's closing scenes, as mute 'observers' of a human
tragedy, but the main body of the film juxtaposes three highly stylised tales of
love gone wrong performed by live actors. If this ensemble sounds like an odd
conceptual basis for a film, it sure is.
Kitano has picked up on the fact that bunraku plays are often more moving and
cathartic than live-action shows, and he sets out to create an essentially
cinematic equivalent of the bunraku stage aesthetic to see if the pity and
terror can be translated to film. His method is simple: he reverses the
polarities of the theatre, making the Dolls the storytellers and onlookers and
reducing the humans to the level of emotional puppets. The tales he tells are
distant echoes from Chikamatsu: a young executive is bound forever to the girl
he jilted by a red silken rope; an elderly yakuza godfather in constant fear of
assassination discovers too late that his first love never stopped waiting for
him; a former pop idol, hiding from the world since she was disfigured in an
accident, comes to terms with the blind devotion of her fans.
The sheer idiosyncrasy of the film bespeaks the singularity of the position
Kitano has carved for himself as a director. No film-maker currently active -
not the Dardenne brothers, not Sokurov, nobody - gives less thought to the
impact of individual films on his or her career. Kitano has no impulse to build
on past successes, or to go any significant distance towards meeting audience
expectations. Each film is a challenge he sets himself, the working-out of a
conundrum or speculation, and his primary concern is that his directorial skills
and judgement be equal to meeting the challenge. In one sense, his position is
not unlike that of a contract director in the heyday of the studio system. He
makes the best he's able to of each project that comes his way, greeting
successes with self-deprecatory modesty and shrugging off failures while gearing
up for the next one. Box-office performance hardly enters the equation.
The difference between Kitano and a contract director of the old school, of
course, is that he has no producer feeding him scripts. His only taskmaster is
himself. In the past, the questions he asked himself through his films were
clearly quite personal. Boiling Point (1990), A Scene at the Sea (1991) and Kids
Return (1996) specifically address the implications of being considered a
'loser' in Japanese society. Sonatine (1993) addresses his worries about loyalty
and commitment, not to mention his not-so-subconscious death wish. Kikujiro
(1998) works through the implications of an irresponsible low-life (not unlike
his own father, whose name happened to be Kikujiro) being forced into an active
parental role. In Brother (2000) and Dolls, though, the ground shifts to less
immediately personal areas.
The reactivation of yakuza-genre themes and tropes in Brother could be seen
as a retreat into an arena where Kitano felt secure, a defensive measure against
the uncertainties and risks of filming outside Japan for the first time and
working with non-Japanese actors. But the film is also an oblique reflection on
the Pacific War, a working-out of his ambivalent feelings about the 'kamikaze
spirit' of the Japanese. It's as if the proposal to shoot a film in the US set
him thinking about Pearl Harbor, and he took it from there. By the same token,
Dolls could be seen as his response to finding himself cast as a 'Japanese
artist', feeling the need for the first time to respond to a cultural tradition
he had previously rejected. The film's stories may have autobiographical roots,
but its motor is its curiosity about the effect of reversing theatre's
polarities for film.
I discussed Dolls with Kitano in a Chinese restaurant in Tokyo last July,
soon after the film was completed; it was the first time he'd talked about it
with anyone outside his immediate circle. In the interests of full disclosure, I
should note that the second half of our conversation was marked by an
interruption at the mid point: another diner came to the table to greet Kitano.
This turned out to be baseball legend Nagashima Shigeo ('Mr Giants'), who
happened to be celebrating his birthday in a private room upstairs. I have never
seen Kitano lose his cool as completely as he did at that moment; he spent the
next ten minutes explaining that Nagashima is one of the few men in Japan he
genuinely admires and that he felt so ashamed that Nagashima came to greet him
rather than vice versa. Kitano generally wears his humility lightly, but at that
moment it overcame him.
Tony Rayns: As promised, you've made a film connected with the bunraku
doll theatre and the playwright Chikamatsu Monzaemon. But how exactly do you see
Kitano Takeshi: Chikamatsu is still the most performed playwright in the
bunraku repertoire. In the theatre, it takes three people to manipulate each
doll. My idea here was to reverse that: what if the doll manipulated the people?
If the Dolls told stories, they might well tell stories like these.
Chikamatsu's plays are generally about ordinary people, people who aren't too
smart. For example, a shop clerk who spends all his savings redeeming a
prostitute. My protagonists aren't very smart either. And my love stories are
somewhat like his, in that they focus on obstacles and failures. Most
present-day Japanese love stories tend to make everything seem fluffy, nicer
than it could possibly be in real life. My love stories aren't fluffy and they
don't end happily.
Not fluffy, but not realistic either. Is there any way in which they
reflect real life?
All three relationships shown in the film are too pure for the modern
advanced-capitalist world. Too pure to be true. As the film's storyteller, the
surrogate joruri as it were, I think it would be too greedy to push them to
happy endings. Too easy, and too selfish in a way. Of course it's always selfish
to pursue love, but I can't imagine present-day stories in the real world
working out like these.
Chikamatsu's plays are generally tragedies too.
You could take that aspect of the film as a tribute to Chikamatsu. But this
is somehow ingrained in us Japanese: we expect love stories to end tragically.
The notion of love gone wrong dates back very far in Japanese culture. 'Happy
ever after' isn't part of our vocabulary. Whenever you talk about love in a
Japanese context, there's an inevitable element of self-sacrifice.
But I sense that there are personal resonances in these stories too. Are
you willing to admit to any?
None of it is entirely based on my own experience, but around half of it is
at least indirectly personal. As you know, I grew up in post-war Japan as the
country modernised and the economy grew very rapidly. When I imagine what it
would have been like to grow up in the Edo period, I can very easily see myself
running off with a woman. Ever since I finished the film I've had this creepy
feeling that some ex-girlfriend is going to come up to me and say, "Wasn't that
For example, like the old yakuza in the film, I went out with a girl when I
was in college and then dumped her to pursue my career as a comedian. Some time
afterwards I found out that she was still alone and unmarried. I checked it out
and was kind of devastated. I sent other people to her with money and gifts to
try to repair the damage.
And what about the disfigured, reclusive former idol Haruna? Is she
Obviously her story parodies my own experience after the motorcycle accident.
There were 'celebrities' and fans in Chikamatsu's time, too, and his plays
suggest that the liaisons between idols and their fans were even more extreme
than they are nowadays. Anyhow, like everything else in the film, the notion of
a fan blinding himself to spare the feelings of his idol is a caricature. It's
the relationship between a celebrity and a fan as seen by a Chikamatsu doll.
What this story tries to get at is not just 'love' but any kind of intense
relationship: between a nation and a citizen, say, or between a yakuza godfather
and one of his loyal footsoldiers. That strong bond. It's not fashionable to
speak of it nowadays, and it's not as visible as it once was, but I suspect it
still exists, just out of sight.
After my accident I did receive many letters saying things like, "I'm so
upset, I'm giving up my favourite food until you're back on TV." Then, when I
did return to television, there were follow-up letters: "I ate sushi again, but
it wasn't as great as I remembered." I remember wondering why the hell they felt
the need to tell me this.
How did you arrive at the structure?
My original idea was to make it much more complex. It was supposed to be more
like a game of go, where you have to watch very closely to see the real balance
of power between white and black. I wanted to make it quite puzzling, but when
the crunch came I wasn't adventurous enough, or didn't have the stamina to do
it. So what you see is much simpler than I intended. You know, I haven't yet
reached the point where I feel I can express myself freely - I'm still very
conscious of the potential audience. The idea that an entertainer has to 'do his
thing' for his public is very hard to shake off, even after all these years.
What thinking went into the film's colour scheme?
From the start, I wanted to capture Japan's landscape as seen throughout the
four seasons. But I asked Yamamoto Yohji to design the costumes and (as he said
he would in our meetings) he treated the project as a new collection and came up
with totally unrealistic costumes - lots of primary colours, nothing very
wearable. Partly because of these costumes, I decided to go for a stage
I've used colour more or less realistically in the past, but this time I went
for stylisation. But I didn't plan it in detail, only roughly. I'd never been
that big on red or green - blue and blue-grey were more my taste - and during
the shoot my sudden openness to a broader colour spectrum panicked some of the
veteran members of my crew. I kept telling them these were stories told by
Dolls, so we could do whatever we liked, but they didn't get it at first. There
were even arguments and fights. The only thing that pacified the doubters was
the thought that you can fix things in the lab these days, you don't have to do
it all in the shoot.
Do you have conscious artistic goals these days or is your directorial
career more of an ongoing work-in-progress?
I feel as if I've got through the qualifying heats and reached the Olympics.
Now I'm at the point where I want to make films that fulfil my creative needs.
In Dolls, for example, you could frame virtually any shot and - for better or
worse - end up with a picture-book image. At this stage in my directorial career
it's what I needed to do. You could say it's rather pathetic that it's taken me
nine films to get to this point, but there it is.
Anyhow, now that I've been selected for the Olympics, I have no ambition to
set a world record. Maybe I'm more like a marathon runner who keeps pace with
the field until the home straight and then stumbles, takes 20 minutes to catch
his breath and comes last. That's how I'd like my career to be, as of now.
Excuse me for being metaphorical!
Would you call yourself an optimist or a pessimist these days?
Metaphorically again, if there were a scale measuring optimism and pessimism,
I'd be a notch more optimistic than I used to be. As a comedian/artist I used to
want to become number one. Now I'd rather be second best. It's not easy to be
'best' in the Japanese film and entertainment business and many people are
trying for that status. To become second best requires more planning and more
purpose. Maybe I do have some subconscious ambition to conquer the world, but my
conscious ambition is to be an artist pursuing the status of second best.
Thanks to Mori Masayuki, and to Usui Naoyuki for translation. All Japanese
names in the traditional form: surname first. 'Dolls' opens on 30 May.