Michel Ciment [italic]: Zatoichi is your first period film, but Dolls, with its esthetics (especially that of the costumes) very stylized, had to prepare you with this new experiment?

Takeshi Kitano [plain]: Partly, yes. As you know it, I worked very closely together with Yohji Yamamoto, in particular in the design of the kimonos, which appears in the last part. I liked this clothing, which took on a traditional Japanese form, alot. During the preparation of Zatoichi, I asked Yohji to work with me again, but it was a production of such a size, that he could do it by himself. We then asked the daughter of Akira Kurosawa, Kazuko, to draw the costumes. Thus we became a trio, but the costume of Zatoichi, is what Yohji wanted. It was him who suggested changing the color to the elegant blue. That also led me to change the color of the swordstick. In the original series, it had a tone of unbleached white and I wanted that it to be bright red. By rebound, that made me decided to my hair blond. I kept this hair color in my television shows during the six months which preceded the end of the film in Japan, to accustom the audience to see me like that! Generally Japanese films take place in a more remote past, up until the 18th century. Zatoichi, as the Legend of the great judo and Barbarous, take place in the 19th century.

What was your inspiration to recreate this period?

I could have chosen a reconstitution meticulous person and worked out, insofar as at that time, for example, the way of going of the samurai and that of the townsmen were very different. But that posed problems almost impossible to solve, because the actors of today, neither have the build, the postures nor the size of the Japanese of the 19th century. Thus I gave up on the idea of an absolute fidelity of the period. During the 19th century, the head was shaved and people carried wigs, which changed the shape of the head. I realized that we in some way had to apply make-up, so despite all the care that we would put in it, it was impossible to hide the dividing line between the head and the wig. To dissimulate this imperfection, I made many attempts and generally gave up the fixed plan I usually like, but who in this case would have been likely to reveal this artifice.

Usually, you begin to write the scenario according to images that you have at the head. Did you work in a similar way, in spite of the need for building a very elaborate history with many characters?

I did not change my routines significantly for Zatoichi. As I always do it, I started from the images, this time (like often) four. The first: Zatoichi entering the small city; the second: the meeting of the peasants with the townsmen and their ill treatment by malicious Yakusa; the third: the combat begins, the shadies and the bodyguards of the yakuzas on the one hand, and Zatoichi of the other; the fourth: final dance.

It is the first time that you carry out a film that comes from an external proposal. What was the origin of the project?

It was proposed to me by the lady who is owner of a theatre in the eastern part of Tokyo, and one of the preeminent personalities in the world of the spectacle. In fact, Mrs. Chieko Saito had been one of my mentors there about thirty years ago, when I was beginning as a comic actor, during my Asakusa period. She was also a very close friend of the actor Shintaro Katsu, who played Zatoichi in the original episodes with the cinema (25 films) and television (a hundred telefilms) between 1962 and 1986. She came to see me, a few years ago, so that I took the role of Zatoichi, while honoring the memory with Shintaro Katsu, who died in 1996. Originally she asked me to be the director, but, when we discussed the choice of the actors to play Zatoichi, she told me that of course it should be me! I panicked at the idea of playing a character identified with a specific actor. I finally told Mrs. Saito, that I accepted her proposal only on one condition: I would keep attributions of Zatoichi - he would be a blind masseur and a genius in the handling of the sword; apart from that, everything else would be my own invention. She agreed with me as the only way the film could be done.

What was your approach to the character? He seems, for example, deeply indifferent to the others, that he protects them or that he fights them...

He is very different from the original, who had more sympathy for the characters around him, cared more for their problems, and fighted for them. My Zatoichi resembles more a killing machine, detached compared to its entourage. He is in particular so because I wanted this film to be a framework for all forms of entertainment: comedy, action, dance, musical. The characters and the interpreters are there to show their talents, their art, to show who are the best. For me, the spectacle, in Zatoichi, was as important as the central intrigue for the protagonist. If I had stressed the human aspect of Zatoichi more, I would have had to develop the other characters more, as well as the dramatic or emotional scenes. By doing this, I would have approached the films by Katsu with the risk to copy them, and I didn't want that in any way. Nor did I wish to imitate the style of Shintaro Katsu.

There is a contrast between the more visual and stylized aspect of Zatoichi and the humanity of the secondary characters: both sisters, and even their adversary the samurai Hattori, are in regards to the context more developed.

I undertook this film with the notion, that the public already knew Zatoichi, his past, the framework of his actions. I decided to leave aside the background of his character, since I worked on an asset. In addition, at that point, I could not let myself be concerned about the international public. I thought only of the average Japanese public. If not doing so, it would had been necessary for me to make a three hour film. Of course, it was a very different Zatoichi from certain sides, and in my head I always thought of the past of my Zatoichi. He was a child given up, a bastard, probably of a Portuguese merchant who coming to Japan had been involved with a country girl before going back to his country. The kid was born blind and was persecuted by his comrades because of his blindness during his childhood. Obliged to defend oneself against its attackers, he developed a talent with the sword. It was out of question of filming these sequences, the more so as, as I said, Zatoichi is a trade mark, an icon of film in Japanese costumes. In regard to the other characters, it is a rule in the series of Zatoichi that those opposing him are powerful and skilful adversaries. I subjected myself there. I made of Hattori, in spite of his talent, a samurai without master, a ronin. Curiously, he does not have work. To explain this contradiction, I showed the reason behind that; if one is very gifted for the traditional combat with the sword, he cannot use the sword drunk to allow twisted blows. Thus one sees him being made beat by a ronin under the eyes of his lord. And for that he loses his employment. As for both geishas, it was a practical need, which made me add them to the account. Daigoro Tachibana, who plays the transvestite geisha, worked for the Chieko Saito and she asked to me if I could use this young very gifted actor by putting a female make-up to him. I then thought of a new character, and I had to rewrite the scenario. After having done that, Chieko Saito returned and talked to me about another boy, younger, but as good actor as Tachibana, with a very beautiful face, to which I could entrust a role. So I created a second transvestite geisha whom Yuko Daike incarnates, in the flash-back. From where a new version of the scenario!

Usually it is the hero who has an understanding woman, but, here, it is Hattori.

In several episodes of Zatoichi, Katsu fell in love with a geisha or the girl of a merchant or a craftsman. But I did not want that, for the reasons, as I've already said, emotional scenes would resemble those interpreted by Katsu, and for that reason I gave to Hattori a very beautiful wife.

The choice of the interpreter of the bodyguard was capital to establish a contrast with Zatoichi. Did you think immediately of Tadanobu Asano, and for which reasons?

I had worked with him in a film by Nagisa Oshima (Gohatto), and even then I knew he was an actor of great talent. Frankly speaking, I did not really like the way that Nagisa Oshima had directed him in the film. I would have directed him otherwise. He has an impressive presence on the screen and I wanted to use his potential in a better way. It was a good reason to make him play the rival of Zatoichi.

In all your films, the choreographic aspect is very developed; here still you attach a great importance to the movements of the bodies in the scenes of combat, but also in the peasants who work in the fields, or the final ballet. One thinks of a musical.

When you make a costume film and is a Japanese director, directing it in a traditional and authentic style, critics, inevitably, will compare you with people like Kurosawa. Thus I wanted, for Zatoichi, to radically change the style of historical film. My goal was to create a tempo during the entire film and to finish with the intensive rate/rhythm of the tap dance. As for the introduction, I adopted this speed of execution, so that the viewer had the feeling of having only one breath until the conclusion. The rate/rhythm of this film is much faster than in any of my other films, and that enables me to mask the historical inaccuracies! In addition, if the combat with the sword are indeed unusually sharp, the handling of the weapon and the movements of the combatants are very authentic. I always was uncomfortable with representation of this kind of combat to the screen, which often appeared staged and far from any reality to me. I wanted to renew the kind by mixing these elements varied in only one film, and seeking a greater truth.

Did you have recourse to experts in martial arts?

I was assisted by a sword fighting specialist, but, in fact, I choreographed almost all the scenes of action myself. Not only those of Zatoichi.

In your police films, the sequences of shooting are always very spectacular. What brought this new discipline to you?

In this film, I realized that the major difference between staging a scene of shooting and that of engaging with swords is the distance between the characters. With firearms I never worry about distance, since the combatants can be far from eachother, separated on films and in the end, they all shoot it out. But, in a combat with the sword, the proximity is imposed. So much so, that one time during the shooting of the last Zatoichi with Katsu a tragedy accident happened, as they used real weapons, and he seriously wounded his adversary. In my film, we did not use real swords, but I insisted that the distance between the combatants was veracious. I did not want to cheat with space. The repetitions were dangerous. Especially as, playing a blind man, I played with the closed or lowered eyes... I can tell you, that more than a few times the swords of the other actor strafed my eyelids, nearly transforming me into the real Zatoichi! The EC what I know, the goal is not as well to cross into two the adversary as to reach it at certain precise points, like the artery carotid, to neutralize it of only one blow. It was thus a challenge to regulate these engagements. However, when I was a young comic actor, during my Asakusa period, I did lots of parody duels, which helped me much. In this film, I used many elements acquired during my youth: not only the using the sword, but the dance, which I had learned back then, as well as the mime or the comic gestures, which re-appears in certain episodes. All that comes from my period of training.

How did you work with your chief of photography, in terms of cutting, framing and light?

In general, I cut on the set, with my camera operator and my director of the photography. For the scenes of combat, I used two cameras, which I never do usually. The camera operator held camera n? 1, with precise instructions on framing and the movements I wanted. His assistant held the second camera. I told him to improvise, spontaneously to let himself guide by what it saw. Generally, I chose the shots made by camera n?2, which was freer, more organic, which made my camera operator furious! For lighting, I have the same director of the photograph since the beginning, and I let him do what he wants. He is so good! For the dancing finale, I used six cameras, for the first time.

You did not work with your usual composer, but with Keiichi Suzuki.

Joe Hisaishi, my usual collaborator, is demanded more and more... and has gotten more and more expensive! More seriously, whatever your field, if you work too much, you arrive to your limits in terms of invention and creativity. He was overworked, between my films, the animated film of Miyazaki and others, so I had the feeling, that he was going to deliver to me something familiar, less original. That is at least what I feared. And I knew, that I would need a very rhythmic music, for the scene of the clappers. Thus I worked from the beginning with this troop of dancers called The Stripes. Usually, the film is made and the musician arrives after its cut to compose his partition. But, because of these scenes of dance, Stripes conceived the rhythmic reasons in advance. For this film, I wanted a collaborator very close, who was able to integrate these preexistent elements, to adapt his own melodies and his arrangements into them. I needed somebody of very flexible. However Keiichi Suzuki is less a one creator to be strictly accurate than a producer and arranger. As it was a very atypical work, I had to ask him to six different versions. He even had to spend six days and six nights practically without sleeping, to give the music to I wanted!

Were the sequences where the peasants in the fields work in rate/rhythm, prerecorded?

We had prerecorded rhythmic parts, which were playbacked on the set, through huge loudspeakers. I wanted a perfect fluidity musical, the music is heard and then the sound mixes with it with the spades or the plough in rate.

Has the troop of Stripes existed for a long time?

Hideboh, the director of the troop, thought of it in New York, when studying under Gregory Hines. Having learned this shape of clappers very specific to the American black dance, he returned to Japan, where he founded the troop with two other guys a few years ago. I adore them, and personally, I find them superior to the famous Irish troop, The Stomps. I have taken myself of the courses of clappers for two years with Hideboh.

It seems already difficult to carry out a film which one interprets oneself... But, moreover, to do it with the closed eyes was not to facilitate the things! Did you make repetitions the open eyes?

I could check the shots on the video monitor after having made them, so that did not pose a problem. The only difficulty was that I had a hard time remembering my text. However, usually, I ask an assistant to walk with my text written in large letters on panels, behind the camera... With the closed eyes, it was not possible!

By Michel Ciment and Yann Tobin (Positif N?513: November 2003). All rights are reserved by Michel Ciment, Yann Tobin and Positif. The article is reproduced by Kitanotakeshi.com with the kind permission by Michel Ciment.

Translated freely by Henrik Sylow