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, Zaitoichi.

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 Zatoichi?

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 cinematic element.

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 movie.

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 cartoonish?

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 back.

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 changing.

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 director.

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 the difficulties.

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 eyes closed.

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 you.

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 sticks.

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 changes.

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.

By Matthew Turner (original interview). The interview is reproduced by kitanotakeshi.com with the kind permission by Matthew Turner. All rights are reserved by Matthew Turner and kitanotakeshi.com.