The interview took place at the Dorchester Hotel, London, during the London
Internationa Film Festival (October 22 - November 6, 2003).
We were lucky enough to secure an exclusive interview with Takeshi Kitano, a
man not well known to Western audiences, but an enormous film and TV star in his
native Japan. In a career that started as a comedian back in the seventies his
has risen to act in and, in some cases, direct a selection of Japan's most
successful films, including Violent Cop, Battle Royale. He has also appeared in
film such as Johnny Mnemonic outside of Japan. We talked to him during the
promotion for his latest, and likely to be rather successful work,
Matthew Turner (italic): Your character has striking blonde hair in the
movie. Were you tempted to keep the look?
Takeshi Kitano (TK): Well I wanted to keep my hair blonde, but I've got a TV
movie coming up where I'm supposed to play a historical figure in Japan. You can
not really show up with blonde hair to play that character.
You have thrown 3 or 4 elements from contemporary culture into the film,
for instance the bleached hair, the modern dance, the computer generated blood
and the use of the gun. Do they add to or disrupt the popular myth of
TK: In order to add or disrupt something in existing film or art or whatever,
you have to know precisely and have extensive knowledge of the original.
Embarrassingly enough, I don't know so much about them.
I'm not so crazy about acquiring my knowledge of the original Zatoichi
(Kitano's film is based on a series of popular films starring the character).
Basically I did whatever I want in my movie. It's not like I consciously tried
to disrupt, or deconstruct the original, or add something to it. I don't know so
much about Zatoichi enough to really do these things.
That is because when Madame Saito became our executive producer, when she
proposed me to do the 'Zatoichi' movie, my condition, my concession to do this
movie, to direct and star in this movie, was OK, I'm going to keep the name of
the movie and the name of the character and he will be a blind masseur and a
sword-master man, that is as much as I would be faithful to the original.
Everything else would be entirely my own creation. She said yes, that would
be OK. So basically I don't really care about what the original is, or a
faithful restoration of the original. I can't really tell what I add or disrupt
from the original.
Going on from that, there are characters in the film who are very
contemporary in their type - the transvestite, and the lunatic neighbour who
fantasises about being a samurai. He's almost like the obsessive fan figure who
was in Dolls, I was wondering where those ideas came from. Also if he sees the
characters as being contemporary people in period dress perhaps?
TK: Well actually transvestites, or the lunatic running around, or even tap
dancing are not new in Japanese history. We have a traditional Japanese
entertainment like Kabuki, where the female actors are banned from appearing on
stage. They used the young boys to play the female characters in the Kabuki
plays, so cross dressing, or transvestites existed in Japan in other eras.
Also I read a lot of folklore about the loons running around half naked, and
just wanting to be a Samurai or what not. He's the idiot boy in the
neighbourhood. With tap dancing, again in Kabuki they have a similar form of tap
dancing, where the Kabuki actors would wear the wooden clogs and just stomp on
the wooden floor to make a sound. All these existed for real in Japanese
history. What I did in Zatoichi was to take all these existing ideas and to
somehow rearrange them in a modern - or my interpretation. To use it as a
The sword fighting in Zatoichi is lightning fast, and almost over before
it begins. Was this a decision from the beginning? It expands on the myth of
Zatoichi as a larger than life unstoppable character.
TK: It had to be as quick as possible, because if you swung the sword slowly,
it would just be not too exciting visually. (Laughs.) And if I draw sword at a
very slow speed I had to have a lot of action to make it more attractive. It
just had to be fast.
Plus from the writing stage I wanted to include rhythmical performance scenes
sporadically in the movie, and to end the film with the festival dancing scene.
So I was very conscious about giving the right tempo and speed or rhythm to the
That affects the way I edit the movie, and also probably it affects the way I
choreographed and shot the sword fighting scenes. I was very conscious about the
speed and the tempo of the whole movie.
Can you speak a bit about the decision to use computer generated blood
over fake blood?
TK: I did use fake blood and a blood pumping tank thing during the shooting.
But while I was watching the rushes with the realistic blood pumping scenes I
thought it was too realistic and painful. So I decided to exaggerate the blood
spattering to give it a more video game look because otherwise it would be too
painful and cruel a depiction.
I had a lot of discussion with CGI artists. One of the most frequent requests
that I gave them was that I wanted the blood to look like a flower blossoming.
Since the sword fighting scenes are so intense I also created other elements. I
ended up using more gag scenes than I thought originally. Again it's one of the
things that I had to do to keep the film rhythmically comfortable.
The film seems to have a dream like structure, the order the events
happen, and the way we dart about between different characters seems quite
random at times. Also, towards the end when the overall leader gets revealed as
a different person it's quite nightmarish. I wondered how intentional this was.
And if it was intentional, was it another attempt to make the film more
TK: I hope I can say it's intentional, but it isn't. It's sort of accidental.
When I completed a first draft of the movie, there was only Zatoichi, and bad
guys, and the Ronin in the movie. And maybe farmers and the townspeople.
And then this Madame Saito, who is the executive producer of the movie, she
also owns the vaudeville theatre troupe, and she recommended this young actor
who cross-dresses on stage and she handed me his profile.
She said, "Takeshi, would you use him in the movie, he's a good kid". I said,
"Well I can think about it", and basically I didn't know what to do with him. A
teenage actor who is good at cross-dressing? What am I going to do with him?
I came up with a transvestite geisha on his own in the movie so I created his
older sister geisha and let him become half of a pair of wandering geisha, and I
completed the second draft.
And then Madame Saito came up to me again. "Takeshi sorry to bother you so
many times, but this younger kid here, he's also in the same troupe. Would you
use him in the movie?" Well, the younger boy? What am I going to do? OK, flash
Every time I finished a draft she would come up to me and recommend somebody
which forces me to change the whole story and to add new characters and
anecdotes. About the grandpa guy, and him being the real head of the bandits?
That I came up with during the first week of shooting. When I was shooting the
guy who owns the tavern I thought, well his voice and his posture is so
distinctive, every viewer would know that's him.
That wouldn't be too exciting to watch, so lets prepare another older guy who
is working for the owner and acting very humble, but he's behind the whole bad
deeds! Even during the writing and shooting process the script kept evolving or
Can you talk about the decision to make the Ronin much more of a human
character by showing his life at home with his ill wife, and why he wasn't just
a faceless slayer?
TK: In normal cinema I should depict the background of the main character -
namely Zatoichi. But at the time of the movie's production I didn't really think
that far about Zatoichi's character. He's a film icon, or almost a clich? in
Japanese cinema. I simply didn't bother to depict his background. He'll be
sitting at the opening scene and that's it.
At that time I didn't think about European audience or journalists. I thought
I have to depict the background of this Ronin and how he ended up becoming
lawless. It was simply not in my mind to depict the background of Zatoichi.
After I watched the completed film I thought, wow, looking at the whole movie,
Zatoichi almost looks like he's an outsider.
Can you talk a little about the percussive score? It almost tells a story
in itself. The basic stripped down percussion sounds pretty modern, a very
untraditional score, quite rhythm oriented.
TK: In terms of music it was very much a collaborative effort. Before the
composer - Kazuki - can work on the score, we have to shoot the scenes. I asked
the Stripes, the tapdancing group that I worked with on this move to compose the
basic rhythmical pattern of the scenes, including the tap-dancing.
What I asked of Kazuki is to make full use of the existing rhythm and sample
the sounds that the Stripes composed and to put something on top of it. Again
it's about the rhythm of the movie. For me personally the original Zatoichi (by
Mr Katsu) felt a bit too long. All of his films are slow paced in terms of
tempos. So for my movie, I didn't want the audience to go, wow too slow. I was
very conscious about giving the comfortable rhythm.
Throughout your whole career in film, you're fearless both behind and in
front of the camera. Is there anything you wouldn't do?
TK: Several days ago I was in Paris for the French premiere. We did it in a
multi-plex place. I was told by the publicist that I was going to do 2 stage
appearances beforehand, so I must have known that I'm gonna do the same thing
twice. But after I did the first stage appearance, they took me to the theatre,
they took me out of this screening, I walked through the corridor.
I walked into the second venue and it had the exact same look, in terms of
where it's located, where the stairs are and stuff. As I moved into the cinema,
it was a total deja vu. And it was the exact same security guards protecting me,
the exact same publicist. And it was really spooky. I thought, didn't I do this
once already? Am I dreaming? What's going on in my mind? Am I going crazy? It
was a scary moment. It was surreal and weird experience.
I had a terrible motor bike accident a few years ago. I was bed ridden. Later
the doctors told me that accident could have been that fatal. I still remember
the moment I woke up from the accident. Every now and then - when I'm working in
Japan, or here, talking to the British journalists, asking me about my film,
it's a privilege to have that opportunity and it pleases me very much, but
giving interviews I can't help shaking this fear of what if I'm still dreaming?
After all these years I've made several films and what if it were just a
dream and I would wake one day and find out about the real condition I'm in?
What if everything that happened after the motor bike accident was a dream?
I'm not sure if I'd call it a fear. A neurotic emotion or whatever that I
frequently have. I couldn't just open my eyes straight away. This morning I
would get up, and gradually open my eyes, thinking it's not a hospital is it?
OK, I'm in London, I'm doing a promotion.
Beat Takeshi the actor and Takeshi Kitano the director are talked about as
if they're dual personalities. Do you feel any closer to being just the director
or are they holding equal sway?
TK: It's not so much a multi-personality thing that I feel. It's more like,
OK, comedian Beat Takeshi, Japanese national comedy star and what not, and
serious actor Beat Takeshi appearing in all these obscure movies or serial
killer films, and these psychopath characters, and Takeshi Kitano the
All of those are like marionettes to me. The real me is a manipulator who is
thinking for the next job, it's going to be comedian Beat Takeshi, there you go.
And basically manipulating this marionette from above.
Your films have always had a strong connection to the sea, and even
Zatoichi ends by the sea. What's the personal significance behind that?
TK: (Laughs). It's more a pragmatic choice because Japan is a fairly small
country. When you want to shoot a movie in a smooth way, not distracted by
autograph mongers it's simply a convenient location, the ocean.
But French people are not satisfied with giving just the pragmatic reasons,
thank God I don't have to do it in England, but every time I go to Paris I have
to give this big lecture, on 'every human being originated from the ocean, and
this primeval life form kept on evolving over a period of 350 million years into
a human being. To put the most advanced creature - the human being by the ocean,
that would stress the irony of whatever stupid or mundane things human beings
are involved in. To face the mother of all living creatures, is the contrast.'
Later I will always add that that's just the bullshit I make for interviews.
When I shoot a movie I want to concentrate I don't want to give autographs
during a rehearsal.
How difficult it was to act with your eyes closed during Zatoichi?
TK: It was very difficult. At the first dress rehearsal I was dressed as
Zatoichi, blonde hair, blue kimono, green obi belt, with clogs and a red cane
sword. I wanted to check myself out in the costume, so I walk up in front of the
mirror holding the red cane sword, basically with my eyes closed and find out
that there's no way I can check with my eyes how I look. That was the start of
Usually when I act in movies I'm not good at memorising my lines at all. I
usually ask the assistant directors or PAs to put up a huge board where my lines
are written in huge letters that I can glance during the take and utter my
dialogue without memorising everything. I couldn't do that, obviously, with my
I knew the sword fighting was going to be difficult. We did quite a few
rehearsals and testing of the movements beforehand. With your eyes closed you
can not judge the distance between yourself and the actors who are coming to get
In the rehearsal I accidentally hit my opponent actor with my prop sword
because it's supposed to be just a slight glance but I hit his shoulder. I was
supposed to hunch only so far, but I hunched farther and because of that my
opponents sword was swung this close to my eye, I nearly become a real life
Zatoichi myself during the rehearsal.
After all we managed to sort out the movements, the opponent actors are all
specialised bad guy samurai actors. They're really good at sword slaying. By the
time we got to shooting it was OK. Plus if the movements they make are too
complicated, I set the camera behind me so that I can at least open my eyes when
the action got too complicated.
But I found that even to walk straight when the camera's in front is
difficult, to the extent that in the scene when Zatoichi walks up to the camera
from the farmhouse I shattered the lens. It took me seven takes. That's a lot by
my standards. After the third or fourth take, the assistant director prepared
bamboo sticks to guide my walk line. On the fifth take I stumbled on the bamboo
Can you tell us about your writing process?
TK: Not just with Zatoichi, but with my other movies I usually come up with
four images, like four strip cartoons that you see in newspapers, that has the
beginning, the development, the twist and the ending.
With Zatoichi the four images were, firstly Zatoichi appears on screen,
secondly, the bad guys give a hard time to the townspeople, thirdly, the show
down with bad guys against Zatoichi, and lastly the townspeople dancing and
singing happily. So first I will come up with these basic images and that would
implement the in-betweens by adding the details. That's how I always proceed
with the script.
So what I would do afterwards is to shoot the scene in accordance with the
shooting script and once I've finished shooting I would rethink on how to
sequence the footage. It often happens during the editing to switch the order of
the scenes and to put the later scenes to earlier parts. I do a lot of editorial
What I want to do someday in my movies is to come up with a script, shoot the
whole thing, and do the editing by scrunching up the whole footage that I've
shot and randomly just pick the rushes, and put it in order of arbitrary choice
and to make one film out of it to make the audience understand the whole film
and story, that would be the birth of cubism in the movie.