Kitano remains a relatively obscure figure in the West. It is not so long since he appeared with Keanu Reeves in the ill-fated, William Gibson- penned cyberspace caper, Johnny Mnemonic. Most British audiences first encountered him as the cheerful, martinet-like sergeant opposite David Bowie's stiff-upper-lipped British POW in Merry Christmas, Mr Lawrence. But despite being probably the most popular entertainer in Japan, he is regarded in Britain primarily as an art-house director. He claims to be amused and a little baffled by the way Europeans view his movies. "I find the European audience and European people in general more serious about how they live, how they die. The European audiences take my films a lot more seriously than the Japanese."
Yes, he admits, his new film Kids' Return is autobiographical. Does that mean that the director himself, like his two teenage protagonists, used to mug schoolboys for their money, get into scrapes with gangsters and expend any spare energy boxing at the local gym?
"The place where I was born was a very tough section of town. You could throw a stone and hit a yakuza. I grew up in a community full of yakuzas, so it was very close to me," he says.
Like Shinji, one of the leading characters in the movie, Kitano was a schoolboy tearaway. His partner-in-crime and best friend did indeed go on to become a gangster. But he doesn't know what became of his old colleague. "We are no longer in communication."
Comedy was Kitano's way of escape from his background. He attributes his success to the way he challenged traditional Japanese humour. "I was able to delve into taboo subjects. For example, I once used a handicapped person who had the shakes. In order to make him useful, I gave him a fan. Very sarcastic, cold, but also funny."
Kids' Return ends on a downbeat note. The two delinquent heroes have flunked out of school and have also proved failures as a tyro boxer and a would-be hoodlum. They may still be young, but there is nowhere left for them to go. This, Kitano insists, is the point of the movie. "Japan raves about being a free country. Every man has equality, every man has liberty. But the flip-side is that nobody has the right to drop out. You must graduate. You must go to university. You must get yourself a good job. Why can't society accept people who want to drop out; who want to go down other avenues in life?"
On one level, Kids' Return is a sociological drama, attacking conformism in Japanese society. It is also probably the best boxing movie since John Huston's Fat City, a film to which it bears more than a passing resemblance. As in Huston's picture, a promising young fighter is taken under the wing of an embittered middle-aged veteran, begins to drink, loses his fitness and his ideals, and ends up squandering his natural talent. "When I was a comedian, growing up, I also had a mentor telling me that I had to live hard; that I had to drink. I did that once and I collapsed on the show. I realise there is an envy in those older guys that they push on to kids who might have had the ability to grow up better than they themselves are."
Kitano regards boxing very seriously. "I used to go to the gym when I was a little kid. I went so far as almost getting a professional licence, but my mother said, `Don't ever box. You'll turn into an idiot.' So I had to give it up."
Although the fight sequences are elaborately choreographed and filmed with breathtaking fluidity, there is nothing remotely idealised about them. Boxers are tutored by unscrupulous coaches on how to trip and elbow opponents. "Most boxing films are so superficial, they have no realism." In his chair, Kitano begins to shadow-box, showing off some of the illegal blows his fighters use. "In my film there is a lot of foul play, foul moves behind the scenes. This was actually taught in my boxing gym. If you see a Tyson fight, Tyson uses his elbows. I wanted the boxing to be realistic. Films like Rocky are an insult to boxing, which I don't consider a sport, but more of a gladiatorial war."
There is a wonderful comic moment early in the film when Shinji and Masaru clamber on to the roof of their school and dangle a skeleton with a huge erection outside the window in front of their classmates. The face on the skeleton is the spitting image (grey hair, spectacles) of John Major. No, Kitano insists, the resemblance is not deliberate. "It's supposed to be the maths teacher. When I was shooting the film, I took an actual person, stripped him naked, and then dangled him from the roof. Obviously, this was a fairly adventurous cut and I couldn't use it in the film."
Kitano claims he didn't watch many movies when he was growing up. Nor did he go to film school. When he was appearing on his first TV shows as a comedian, he used to have five cameras taking pictures of him. "So I learnt how to direct the cameras in a certain way. In film directing you face many different problems. But television was my original inspiration."
He does, however, tell a touching story of a recent encounter with Akira Kurosawa. The venerable film-maker occupies such an exalted position in Japanese society that there is virtually no one who can address him as an equal. This made him all the more delighted to meet Kitano, the king of Japanese TV. "We're on a 50-50 level. Mr Kurosawa can talk frankly with me, which is a very new thing for him. When I went to see him, he wouldn't let me leave. He wanted me to stay and spend the night. When I look back on it, I think that he must be a very lonely and sad man in the state he's in. I'm thinking of paying him a visit again soon"n
`Kids's Return' is showing as part of the London Film Festival on Monday, 3.45pm and 8.45pm at the Odeon West End. Booking: 0171-420 1122.Reuse content