As a comedian, Takeshi "Beat" Kitano became Japan's foremost media celebrity and a popular movie tough guy. But Kitano has also become one of Japan's most celebrated auteurs of the '90s. Now two of the seven films he directed are about to get released in the U.S.
An acclaimed stand-up comic voted Japan's favorite TV celebrity from 1990 to 1995, Kitano has been widely praised as a filmmaker for "Sonatine," shown at the 1994 Los Angeles Asian Pacific Film and Video Festival, and "Fireworks" ("Hana-Bi"), which won the Golden Lion at Venice last year.
At 51, Kitano is a compact man with a strong, blunt face and a quietly forceful presence. Like many comedians, when not performing, Kitano has a sober demeanor, but he can suddenly break into unexpected laughter, especially when giving a humorous reply to a serious question. Kitano talked through an interpreter earlier this year during an interview in a suite at the Hotel Nikko.
"Sonatine," due April 10, is a droll, deadpan--and ultimately romantic--gangster movie. Kitano stars, under his stage name Beat Takeshi, as a tough Tokyo mobster dispatched by his boss to Okinawa along with several henchmen to help out an affiliated gang deal with rivals, only to discover that it's a setup. In the film, Kitano revealed a driving visual style that never lags.
As a director, Kitano had developed considerable visual and psychological complexity by the time of "Fireworks," which plays the Nuart March 20-26. It is at once the story of two ill-fated veteran Tokyo cops, one (Kitano) with a wife dying of leukemia and deeply in debt to yakuza and another (Ren Osugi) confined to a wheelchair after being shot.
"Sonatine" is splendid but "Fireworks" is the work of a master, leaving you to wonder how Kitano, who has appeared in 17 films, made such a spectacular transition from comic to auteur.
Kitano became a director unexpectedly in 1990 when he took over the helm of "Violent Cop," in which he starred after Kinji Fukasaku--noted for the '60s cult thrillers "Black Lizard" and its sequel "Black Rose"--withdrew.
"By the time I was involved in the making of 'Violent Cop,' I had already moved from the stage to TV shows," he explained. "For those TV shows, I was already a director in the sense that I was always instructing the director as to what I wanted and I was also writing the scripts. So I did not have so much hesitation in taking over the direction of 'Violent Cop.' "
"For TV we had six cameras, and in making a film you can concentrate on just one. I thought that would not be too difficult for me, but when I come to think of it now, it was a reckless thing for me to do. I had had no particular desire to become a director prior to this, but now I had found with 'Violent Cop' something I could do with fewer limitations and restrictions than TV."
Kitano described the method of working he has developed over seven films:
"When I'm working on the script, the visuals come first, before the dialogue. When I'm planning a film I imagine 10 color slides--transparencies--in my mind, without either dialogue or music. Then I imagine a slide between slides 1 and 2 and on and on until the whole film exists in my mind.
"I start writing the script just before hunting for locations. I complete the script after finishing shooting. When the Kinema Jumpo [film journal] once asked me for a script to reprint in one of their issues, I told them to go to see the movie and then write the script themselves! I usually do have the basic outline in my mind as I shoot, but I do not limit myself. I leave the door open for improvisation and for ideas from my actors."
In August 1994, Kitano nearly lost his life when he crashed his motor scooter into a guardrail on a highway in Tokyo's bustling Shinjuku night life district. During his long recuperation, he took up painting, and this inspired him to have the paralyzed cop in "Fireworks" do the same.
"Then I came up with the notion that it might not be inappropriate to put my paintings in the picture," he said. "At the same time, I thought it was a risky thing to do--to put an amateur's paintings up there on a big screen in a theater."
Kitano said that he has admired many other filmmakers such as Japanese masters Akira Kurosawa and Yasujiro Ozu but sees no conscious influence from them. He was asked at Cannes in 1996 if he admired the films of Jean-Pierre Melville, whose gangster pictures are as stylized, romantic and fatalistic as those of Kitano's. "It was very embarrassing to admit I had not ever heard of Melville or Jean-Luc Godard either, but when I got back to Japan I rented the videos of their films," he said. "I liked the early Godard films, but maybe I'm too dumb to understand the later ones. I was very glad to see 'Le Samourai' with Alain Delon so that I could change the ending of 'Fireworks' so that its end would not be so similar."
Kitano pointed out that with his next film, involving a boy and his mother, half of his films have been about children, but he admits his hard-core fans especially admire "Violent Cop" and his second picture, "Boiling Point."
"When I look back at those two films, I feel both are very rough," he said. Yet he continued to make pictures about cops and gangsters, but not just because that was expected of him.
"When I want to deal with matters of life and death, especially in Japanese society, it is easier to do it with cops and gangsters. Japanese society in general tends to evade the concept of death. We become so concerned with building our careers and our families we no longer think about death anymore. I think if you want to enjoy your life thoroughly, to live it fully, you have to resist not pondering death. After all, it comes to everyone and often unexpectedly."
Kitano is a noted columnist, speaking out on whatever is on his mind, and he has published more than 50 books dealing with his concerns. He has also written poetry and fiction.
"Fifty years after World War II, Japanese society has tried so hard to adopt the American way of thinking regarding democracy and basic human rights, trying so hard to make them work," he said. "But for some reason not clear to me, Japanese society and culture, in trying so hard to adopt this American way of thinking we are forced to find ourselves at a loss over our own identity. Only two or three generations after World War II, the Japanese people have abandoned the sense of ethics we previously had."
Kitano was born into postwar poverty, the youngest of four children. But he had a strong-willed mother who wanted her offspring to succeed. Both he and his older brother studied engineering at Meiji University, but Kitano dropped out while his brother went on to become an esteemed professor of engineering. A series of odd jobs led him to becoming an elevator operator in a Tokyo burlesque theater, where he decided he wanted to become a comedian.
He eventually teamed with Kiyoshi Kaneko to become the Two Beats, hailed as the alternative comedians of the '70s. By the '80s Kitano, as Beat Takeshi, won solo stardom on a popular TV show featuring ad-libs, running gags, spoofs and satires.
In 1981 he made his film debut as a brutal sergeant in Nagisa Oshima's "Merry Christmas, Mr. Lawrence," a Japanese World War II prison camp drama starring Tom Conti, David Bowie, Jack Thompson and Ryuichi Sakamoto, who also composed the score. Many hot-tempered tough guy roles followed.
(Kitano was recently seen playing a Japanese tycoon in the 1996 sci-fi adventure "Johnny Mnemonic," with Keanu Reeves in the title role. Last month he played an especially savage hit man in Takeshi Ishii's gangster picture "Gonin.")
Kitano, who has a son in high school and a daughter in junior high, joked that his wife used to be a stand-up comedian, "but she made up her mind that she would make more money marrying me." (His marriage and career endured a 1986 scandal when he and some associates invaded the offices of a gossip magazine that suggested he was having an affair with a college student.)
Kitano said he was glad to graduate from strip joints but appreciates all his life experiences.
"The good thing about having done so many different things is that I can express so much varied experience in one medium--film. Right now filmmaking is the most enjoyable thing I'm doing, but if I could find yet another way of expression which could even include film, I would move on to that."