Dressed to kill

With the exquisite Dolls, Takeshi Kitano continues to move away from the dark violence of his early work. But Japan's gangster underworld still fascinates the director. He talks to Roger Clarke about his friends in low places
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The Independent Culture

I'm talking to Takeshi Kitano in a London hotel about his latest film, Dolls, and the subject turns, as it always does with Kitano, to his interest in the Japanese mafia. "I just interviewed one of the most senior Yakuza figures in Japan," he admits, via his twentysomething personal translator, who interprets Kitano's deadpan pronouncements in a fractured LA whine. "It's very good because now none of the lesser Yakuza call me up and try to meet me, which is what they always do. Once they read I had met and become friendly with Seijo Inagawa, the phone went silent."

"Beat" Takeshi, the Yakuza pin-up, is a curious individual, even by Japanese standards. Born in Tokyo in 1947, he had an early career as one of the most successful TV comedians in Japanese history. An entire generation grew up with his mashed-up ugly face permanently on their TV screens, both as part of the comedy team known as Manzai, from 1972, and then later as a solo comic.

In 1983 he was cast against type as the sadistic prison camp officer brutalising David Bowie in Merry Christmas Mr Lawrence. But the most unexpected of his career changes came in 1989 when the director of Violent Cop, Kinji Fukasaku, fell ill and Kitano stepped into the breach and directed as well as starred in the film. The cool, melodic style of his direction was a revelation: he was a natural.

Since then he's directed a succession of features, including Hana-Bi, which won the Golden Lion at Venice, as well as working constantly as a character actor. Attempts to translate him for Hollywood - starring with Keanu Reeves in Johnny Mnemonic, or his ill-fated attempt, three years ago, to rezone his Yakuza genre in LA, in Brother - have failed, despite the admiration of people such as Quentin Tarantino. In career terms, it's as if an actor with Harvey Keitel's raw physical presence became Dan Ackroyd for a decade. Before morphing into Clint Eastwood when Don Siegel fails to turn up to direct Dirty Harry...

Dolls continues a change of direction and mood that's been detectable in Kitano's films since 1994, when a near-fatal motorcycle accident saw him hospitalised for six weeks. He nearly died, and the knock on the head didn't do him any good. On the upside, as could be seen in the bruising, melancholy Hana-Bi, his formerly limited colour palette burst into life. In Dolls, in the same way, violence happens but you don't see it - you're more likely to be shown petals falling and kimonos being rustled than spilt blood. Kitano doesn't act in it, and Hana-Bi's sense of artifice is much more to the fore: exquisite stylised costumes by Yohji Yamamoto (who also dressed him in Brother) and aspects of traditional Japanese kabuki and bunraku theatre dominate many of the scenes. It's a calculated move sure to please Western audiences.

Needless to say, the Yakuza still feature, but these men are not the same characters we saw in Boiling Point (1990) or Sonatine (1993). They are no longer happy with their work; they are no longer indestructible. Dolls is a film full of people getting crushed, of things being crushed: whether it's plastic children's toys under the wheels of a car, or bodies being squashed by lift doors trying to close on the scene of an assassination, or blind men and gorgeously bedizened beggars falling from great heights. People have problems walking and problems seeing, and wear eye-patches - as Kitano did after his accident.

I notice that Kitano is still afflicted by the nerve damage from that motorcycle crash: his right eye trembles and it looks as if he has had a stroke. His face is already alarming enough, with those liquid black soulless eyes, that implacable visage that can transform into a laugh that's all teeth. But now it is etched with a past storm of paralysis. He's lost an inch from his arm and an inch from his leg, which qualifies him for a disability pass. The mutilation affects that rolling trademark walk, so arrogant and self-confident in Sonatine. "Colours affect me differently now," he says as he chainsmokes and his bent hand picks at his grungy sweatshirt. "Ever since the accident I've been seeing colours very intensely."

We talk a bit about Yamamoto ("his costumes are a true contribution to the film") and even about his sexually ambiguous roles in Takashi Ishii's Gonin (1995) and in Oshima's Gohatto (2001). "I'm not really comfortable playing gay characters," he says - end of subject. But things just keep coming back to the Yakuza. You look at Kitano's face and all his characters swim up from the abyss: the thugs and the wide-boys and the blank psychotics.

"I grew up with those people, the Yakuza," he says of his impoverished, mean-streets childhood in post-war Tokyo. "It was old-fashioned then and these days they're more corporate and more businesslike. I guess you can say their existence is quite antisocial, that they basically use violence, but when I look at Japanese history I can't help feeling that those shoguns who fought their way to the top were no different. They were prepared to do whatever they had to and take any risk. The Yakuza can't be seen in a half-hearted way - it's either huge respect or huge disapproval."

It's clear to me which of those views Kitano cleaves to. He has a visceral feel for them and the drama of their lives and the problematic cleansing power of violence. In the interview with Seijo Inagawa (never published outside Japan), Kitano describes him as a "self-made man in the Japanese Yakuza" - apparently his self-confessed status is not a problem in their native country - and Kitano becomes obsessed with the 87-year-old's 60-stitch machete wound on the head, an incident that happened way back in 1937. Kitano is more candid, more himself with this man than he ever is with Western journalists. His conversation with the old rogue is like a teenager's love-in with a pop star (one of the stories in Dolls). "You have such presence in your face, even when you smile, it's going to affect me all day," he gasps. When the old man wipes sentimental tears from his face with Kitano's proffered handkerchief, Kitano coos: "I'll never wash it."

But does he actually socialise with these people? Does he break bread with the granite-faced big bosses, drop sake with the henchmen down at the pool hall, share quips with the hitmen? "I have this professional life as an entertainer, so you can't outwardly be with these people," he says.

So that's a maybe, then.

'Dolls' is released on 30 May