FILM / What's the big joke?: In Japan, they'd like to be prime minister. But Takeshi Kitabno doesn't have the time. Sheila Johnston met him

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The Independent Culture
The Orient's answer to Clint Eastwood was cracking jokes in what looked very much like an emu suit. Impossible to be altogether certain, since the video was unsubtitled, but it seemed, all the same, rather unbecoming conduct for the hard man of Japanese cinema.

But Takeshi Kitano is versatile. He is the star of eight regular weekly TV programmes (eat your heart out Tony Slattery), recording up to three shows a day. He is a columnist and advertising endorser. Since 1989, he is a film director, with four movies to his credit in as many years. The popular appetite for Kitaniana is insatiable: in a recent poll asking whom the Japanese would most like to see as their prime minister, he came top (he has as yet no plans to squeeze that into his schedule). And he sleeps eight hours a night.

It all started in 1971 with a live television comedy double-act called 'The Two Beats', which earned him his popular nickname, Beat Takeshi. 'I was both the straight man and the funny man. The other Beat was not so talkative: there were times when he was the audience and I was the double-act'. Huge laughter from the Kitano entourage: interviews with him take place before a small claque of associates / admirers.

A Beat Takeshi joke: 'A boy finds a little dog and takes it home. His mother says, 'Get rid of it.' So he takes it away but the dog follows him home. The mother says, 'Dump it on the other side of town.' So the boy takes the dog across town, but then he gets lost. So he follows the dog home, and the mother goes, 'What a great dog.' ' Gales of mirth from across the table. Maybe it lost something in the translation. Maybe it's the way Kitano tells them. 'The delivery was my selling point,' he says.

It's difficult to get the measure of his humour: sophisticated political satire or knockabout comedy. But he is reputed to to be down-to-earth, cynical and outspoken in a way that most Japanese are not. And it may be that, in a famously conformist culture, his room to manoeuvre is more cramped than we could ever imagine. 'I saw the Monty Pythons making fun of the Queen on one of their shows. If I were to make jokes about Japanese royalty, I would get killed. Maybe that's one of the main differences between Japanese and Western humour.

'One reason why I dress up so funny is that I come over as a wacko. The things that come out of my mouth might offend a lot of people, but because I'm dressed like that I can get away with it. If I said the same thing in a suit it would have a very different effect. Even so, I often made people mad. If you make fun of the yakuza, they usually come up with death threats although these can be resolved by payment of money.'

Time for that ancient Oriental custom, the exchange of business cards. The names fanned out on the table reveal: Takeshi's official translator, his publisher, and the president and director of Kitano Inc. Everyone hangs attentively upon Kitano's every word. Everyone keeps laughing uproariously at remarks that, when translated, seem, well, rather bland. Everyone is neatly turned out in suit and tie, except for Kitano, cool and relatively suave in a black turtleneck.

Kitano, Inc is big business. Apart from all of the above, he has since the early Eighties published 'about 40' books. Around this time, he also launched into acting with a leading role in Oshima's Merry Christmas, Mr Lawrence. He has just completed a big-budget Hollywood sci-fi movie, Johnny Mnemonic. And then there are his own films, in which he invariably plays brooding, ruthless gangsters or - their blood brothers - Dirty Harry-style cops.

Thanks to these roles, he has not had to spend too much on pacifying the local underworld: the yakuza has become Kitano's Number One fan. 'That's kind of a problem too. You get kidnapped and forced to drink with them - that has happened to me on a number of occasions. It's also a bad image: if the yakuza go around saying, 'Hey, we're big friends of Mr Kitano', it doesn't look good for me.

'I grew up in a very poor section of Tokyo. It was surrounded by gangsters, so I didn't need to research them for my movies. My own father was a member of the yakuza.' Another Kitano joke: 'A father scolds his son. The son says 'Dad, I'm going to be a serious guy.' The punchline is that the father is in the Mob.' Bellows of laughter all round.

Japan remains an enigma to the West, and one still viewed with huge suspicion, but Kitano finds our Nippophobia is ill-founded. 'Japan-bashing has been going on for decades; it's not a new thing. But our nationalism has really diminished. A leader of a very small right-wing party went into one of the biggest newspapers in Japan and told everyone Japan should become more Japanese. Then he shot himself in the stomach with two guns: hara-kiri. If it had been a Western country, he would have tried to shoot the president. But two days later, the Japanese public had already forgotten about it.'

Kitano's 'Boiling Point' opens at the ICA next Friday. His previous films include 'The Violent Cop' and 'Sonatine'

(Photograph omitted)