Takeshi Kitano: Mr Tough Guy

He likes playing hard men. But a blind masseur who moonlights as an avenging swordsman? Fiona Morrow talks to him
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The Independent Culture

I first met Takeshi Kitano eight years ago. He was in London promoting Kids Return, his first film following a near-fatal road accident. The opportunity to attend a dinner with the Japanese tough-guy director of Violent Cop and Sonatine was not something to be turned down lightly: Kitano is cool. He's like a Christopher Walken character, but for real.

Sadly, dinner had to be British; Simpson's on the Strand. Kitano entered looking expensively casual in black shirt and trousers, followed by his much sharper-suited entourage: his manager, his assistant/interpreter and his doctor. Menus delivered, the Japanese men made collectively horrified noises at the idea of eating British beef, promptly ordering all the ducks in the restaurant.

Then things began to get a little surreal, not least because every other table seemed to be occupied by Japanese tourists. Now, Kitano may be something of a cult icon here, but in Japan he's a huge star, appearing on TV a couple of times a week and known as much for being a comic as a film-maker. The rubber-necking was intense and was followed by exceedingly polite pleas for autographs. "I have had mothers follow me into restaurant bathrooms," giggled Kitano. "They all want me to get their kids jobs on TV."

Though his associates were at all times deferential and professional to the point of stiltedness, Kitano couldn't suppress his natural exuberance, his eyes almost dancing out of their sockets in amusement. Though he insisted on speaking through a translator, he clearly understood a fair amount of English.

Encouraged by the flowing wine, and Kitano's sense of fun, I began to get a little cheeky. We covered his attitude to women (not always very enlightened), his girlfriends (he's had numerous affairs), and the Yakuza (my ankles took a kicking from worried tablemates over that one). Kitano chortled away in a gruff wheeze disarmingly similar to the Wacky Races' Mutley. It was an evening so decidedly unusual, I've sometimes wondered if I didn't dream the whole thing up.

Fast-forward to last year's Venice Film Festival and the premiere of Kitano's latest film, Zatoichi (see review, page 6). A new spin on an old Japanese B-movie character, Zatoichi stars Kitano as a bleached-blond blind swordsman and masseur, travelling the Japanese countryside, sorting out villagers' problems. It's beautiful, bloody - and has a spirit-lifting tap-dancing finale. And why not?

The Venice press screening was crazy: huge cheers, people hoofing their way out of the cinema. No surprise, then, that Kitano walked off with the Golden Lion.

Later, when I meet Kitano, it's a sunny winter's afternoon and we're in a makeshift corner of a Park Lane hotel. He's dressed for comfort: jeans, sweatshirt, exceedingly white trainers. He smokes incessantly. At 56, he's looking tanned and fit, the only visible remnant of the crash all those years ago a twitch that every now and then sends a shudder across his face. His eyes have yet to abandon their mischievous dance.

Since Kids Return, Kitano has added substantially to his filmography: Hana-bi; Kikujiro; Brother; Dolls. It's a typically eclectic bunch from a man whose CV could include film-maker, novelist, actor, comedian and artist (all the paintings that featured in the divine Hana-bi were Kitano's own).

Though the misjudged gangster flick Brother was meant to be Kitano's cross-over into mainstream Western consciousness, it's Zatoichi that looks set to become his most commercial film outside Japan. He couldn't be more surprised. "During the production, I wasn't even sure how the Japanese audience would react to the film," he admits. "I certainly couldn't see a Zatoichi film travelling more widely." He laughs when I ask about the script: "It's a Zatoichi movie! There wasn't much I could do in terms of narrative. He's a blind masseur, sword master, who wanders across Japan protecting beleaguered townsfolk from bad guys. He kills all the bad guys and then the townsfolk throw a party."

It's true, there's little more in the way of plot, but Kitano's Zatoichi is that rare thing - a pulp idea that is both thoroughly entertaining and somehow elevated into art. Even the blood is exquisitely wrought.

"I knew from the beginning that the film would have quite a high body count," says Kitano, unabashed. "But I did want to soften the shock to the audience, so I decided to use a lot of artificial CGI blood spatter." He notes my raised eyebrows: "If I had gone for realism, with blood dripping from the wounds, it would have been a lot more painful to watch. I wanted it to look more like a computer game, or something like dancing with blood." I tell him that to me the blood seemed more like paint spattered from an artist's brush. "I had a lot of discussions about this with the CGI artist... I told him that I wanted to make it look like flowers blossoming across the screen."

The danger, of course, was that things became bloody for real: Kitano spends the entire movie walking around with his eyes shut, not the safest option during sword fights. "The actual moves weren't a problem. When I was younger, I did quite a lot of sword play in comedy routines and I remembered enough of it that I could even choreograph most of the fights. But yes, it's definitely tricky with your eyes closed; you can't really tell the distance between you and your opponent."

Thankfully, there were only a couple of near misses: "The worst was when an opponent's sword came so close to my eye, that I almost became Zatoichi for real." He pauses for a burst of Mutley-like laughter.

In fact, acting with his eyes shut presented much more mundane difficulties for Kitano. "Walking in a straight line was hardest. For one shot, I went off in the wrong direction so many times, my assistant tried hiding in the bushes and guiding me with a stick - then I trod on the stick and fell flat on my face."

His blindness also contributed to Zatoichi becoming a man of few words. "I'm terrible at memorising my lines. So I usually get the assistant director to put up a huge board with my dialogue written in bold letters. This time, of course, that was impossible so I just kept cutting away at my own lines until there were so few I could keep them in my head."

As usual, Kitano's painterly eye is in evident on screen, with stunning compositions and a wondrous sense of colour. Yohji Yamamoto designed the costumes, which, though faithful to the period in terms of shape, let rip when it comes to colour.

"As Zatoichi, I was given this wonderful combination of green, blue and red," he says. "But there was something missing. I couldn't imagine what I would look like with my eyes closed; eventually I got the AD to videotape me, and then I just thought, 'I'm going to go blond!'"

The hair is fabulous, I tell him, and his eyes twinkle. "Yes, I found a lot more girls than usual were sneaking up to me saying, 'Mr Kitano, you look so cool.' I certainly had more fun as a blond." Then he adds: "It may be more fun, but you run the risk with so many girls that you'll go bankrupt - the fastest way to be popular in Japan is to go to Chanel or Elemis in Paris and pick up the latest thing."

He sounds experienced in these matters. "Oh, I don't go there myself," he answers drily. "I send my manager." (I wouldn't put it past him; only last week, Kitano was gossip-fodder in Japan as news of his latest affair with a 30-year-old actress made headlines.)

He may cut a very dashing figure as Zatoichi, but Kitano is curiously absent from the film's rousing finale - a tap-dancing extravaganza courtesy of hoofing troupe The Stripes. "The idea to end the film with dancing was there from the get-go," he explains. "Many traditional popular Japanese movies would wind up with a Hollywood-style happy ending where characters would just burst into song. I wanted to dare to depict a cliché, but in a new way. And in Japan, we have a clog-dancing tradition as part of Kibuki theatre, where kimono-wearing, clog-clad dancers will rhythmically stamp their feet. I decided to reinterpret this through the latest African-American tap style, which is also the style of The Stripes. And they're my own tap-dancing teachers; I've been studying with them for a couple of years now."

So why isn't he up there, stamping away with the rest of the cast? Scared? He looks faintly shocked: "I could have. But I didn't, and I shouldn't. This is the celebration of the meek and the weak - you can't have a killing machine like Zatoichi joining in: in many ways he's as bad as the bad guys."

We wind up and Kitano excuses himself. As I'm leaving the hotel and I swear I see a little skip in his step as he walks away, his wheezy laughter echoing long after he's gone.