This interview was conducted Friday the 23rd January at 3pm in the Nordam room at the Westin hotel in Rotterdam.

You changed the character of Zatoichi, not only in terms of his blond hair, but you also gave him a bad attitude, as he just keeps slaying people. Why did you change the character of Zatoichi so much?

Well, in the original film series the character was played by Katsu Shintaro and his Zatoichi was much more sympathetic, as he liked to get involved with the villagers and their problems. Apart from having to do some rebellious act against the fact that I had to remake such a popular series, I just wanted to do my (Zatoichi) as preposterous as possible, and having my hair colored blond was part of that rebellion. I want the audience to see, that what I am going to do is totally different from Mr. Katsu's version, not only in appearance, but also mentally, as his mind is more detached from the characters around him, he looks like he is only interested in who is stronger than him in sword fighting and he slays bad guys as if he is some sort of killing machine. I just wanted the audience to know, that his is totally different from the original.

Every now and then I feel and eerie similarity between Zatoichi and the current president of the USA, in the sense, that he shows up and turns a town upside down, then leaves, regardless of what the villagers really want.

Was it hard acting, especially fighting, as a blind man?

When I act, both in my own films and with other directors, I don't go on the set having memorized all my lines. I usually get an assistant to write my lines on huge pieces of paper in huge bold types, for me to read - even during a take I will peak on these pieces of papers. Not to be able to do that was the hardest part. Playing blind, that was impossible.

It was also pretty difficult to do the sword fighting scenes with your eyes closed, especially because I had this very specific idea about having the characters fight so close, that they could reach for their opponent's sword. This is not really in the tradition of chambara movies, where you always pretend that they are fighting by the angle of the camera or the position of the actors. I wanted them to get close enough for them to touch their opponent with their sword, and that was difficult. It was especially hard for me, as I had to fight with my eyes closed. The shots where the camera was behind me were easier, but I still couldn't open my eyes fully. Actually, if you look at the upper left side of my nose, you can see the stitches of where my opponent's sword nicked me during shooting. I was pretty close to becoming blind myself.

Did you choreograph the fight scenes yourself?

I did all the choreography myself. I had a very specific idea to make the sword fights very swift, as it is in Iaijutsu - not as in kung fu style, where its so obvious, that the character is swinging to hit his opponents sword and not his head. That just looks phony, I wanted my sword fights to look and be realistic.

You worked with the Kurosawa Kazuko, the daughter of Kurosawa Akira, on this film and it's been said, that many of the scenes were homage's to Akira. Can you elaborate on this?

Well... She always stood behind me, watching the monitor over my shoulder, so I made some jokes. When I did the big sword fight in the rain, I said to her, "This is my homage to Shichinin no Samurai", and she would say, "No, no, no, it's nothing like it". In Zatoichi, there is also this idiot, who runs around screaming, believing to be a samurai. In one scene, he runs around a house, and I said to her, "This is my homage to Dodesukaden", and she would say, "No, no, no, it's nothing like it". Then one day, it was getting late and I was tired, I drifted away into sleep in my chair, and I was woken up by her hand on my shoulder. She then told me, that when she was a little girl, she always stood behind her father watching him direct, that he always would drift into sleep and that she would wake him up like she did me.

When you and Morisan appear in public, you both always smile and appear so agreeable. But how would you describe the relationship between Morisan and yourself is in reality?

Well... To put it simple and to exaggerate our relationship at the same time, we are a homosexual kinship (laughs). But we are not really engaged or anything. (laughs again).

All jokes aside, basically, what is good about him as a producer and a manager is, that he has this, his own, criteria of judgment, which is very similar to my own, so what's not worth my consideration, he will decline politely in advance and he will only present me with the offers, that I will be interested in. So it's a good collaboration with much respect.

The division of work between my self and Morisan is clearly defined, in the sense, that he is the president of the production and management company, while I'm just a talent, a client. So I don't have any saying or complains about schedules, or fees, or costs or monetary things. I can be very meticulous about such things, so Morisan handles all business matters.

However... lately I can't help noticing, that he is driving a very expensive car and has gotten a new, very expensive, watch. Where does he get all that money??? (laughs)

What about the relationship between composer and director, because this is the first time you had to use prerecorded music and didn't work with Hisaishi?

Since there are a number of scenes with rhythmic performances and the film end with a dancing finale, we needed to make a demo tape of the rhythm sections prior to the shooting of those scenes. I knew from the early stages of development, that this film would be a very rhythmic orientated film, going from one pace and running towards the tap dancing finale. There are a number of scenes where the characters are working in the background, using props as percussions. So this rhythm orientated disposition of the script affected the way I shot and choreographed the sword fighting sequences; it is about the continuous rhythm throughout the film and to match the rhythm of the sword fights with rhythm of the film.

I got The Stripes, with whom I collaborated on this film, to make the basic rhythm for the scenes. To ask Jo Hisaishi, who is a very authentic and classical trained composer, to make music that would need to be adjust along as we went, was not the way to do it on this film. So we decided to work with a musical producer type of composer, who had a greater flexibility that would allow him to adjust his music to the existing rhythm, instead.

Even in your most serious parts, you tend to do comedy. In Zatoichi for instance, you break a serious conversation with you having painted "eye" on your eyelids. What causes that itch and what makes you want to scratch it?

It's actually pretty simple. It's a habit of mine, I just can't help doing those small gags every now and the. Its like, the more dignified or serious the situation is, like a wedding or a funeral, the more nervous and stressed I get, so I have to do something funny to shake it off, to make me relax. It's just an instinctive reaction I have.

In "Zatoichi", as Osei is practising his dance, you cut to him doing it as a child, and during the final dance number, we suddenly see Osei and Okino as children again. Do you believe, that Japanese people have to stay child at heart to survive or to keep one's humanity?

I have to say, that Japan over the last 50 years has been modernized, westernized, with a rabidly pace, and due to that, the Japanese people are getting less and less restrictions year by year. Because of that, Japanese people are becoming more and more jaded and increasingly loosing their innocence as children.

With the success of Zatoichi, can we now expect another jidei-geki from you?

I am sure, that after the amazing success of Zatoichi in Japan, Morisan now has a better platform than ever to work on a jidei-geki movie. But I don't really feel like making another costume period piece right after having made one. I would like to try different genres for a couple of films for now, and then, if they fail miserable, I can always go back to my career saving plan of making another period piece (laughs).

Can you tell us something about what your next project will be?

In terms of film activity, I will, for the next year or so, stick to acting. Recently I began feeling really unconfident about my abilities as an actor, so right now it's as good a time as any to work with other directors on their films and have them train me as an actor. So that is what I will be doing, working on a couple of film as the leading actor.

In terms of director activity, I have just begun working on this idea of mine with a very complicated narrative form. It will probably be my next film as director. I can't go into details, as I just begun working on the idea of realizing cubism in cinema. So it will take a bit of time to finish. Until then, I'll stick to acting.

Japanese names are in the traditional form: surname first. Many thanks to Richard Lormand and Mori Masayuki for arranging this interview and to Usui Naoyuki for translating.

By Henrik Sylow (Kitanotakeshi.com January 2004). All rights are reserved by Henrik Sylow and Kitanotakeshi.com.