Entertainment Magazine

"Beat" Takeshi: The Hollywood Flashback Interview

Posted on the 26 July 2015 by Thehollywoodinterview @theHollywoodInt

I interviewed Takeshi Kitano, aka "Beat" Takeshi, in spring of 2001 regarding "Brother," his first film shot on American soil. Kitano is arguably, still, the biggest star in Japan, one whose influence crosscuts virtually all areas of media.
Memories: Kitano was surrounded by a small entourage of Japanese men, one of whom was his interpreter. He was formal and stoic in his interaction with me, but never unfriendly. As Sofia Coppola so deftly portrayed in "Lost in Translation," the English to Japanese process of translating can often be time-consuming for what amounts to seemingly little that's been said. Kitano rarely made eye contact or smiled, although when he would laugh softly, a crooked grin would form on one side of his mouth, the right. The other striking thing about Kitano's appearance was a tic, or slight tremor, that would appear on the left side of his face, the after-effect of a motor scooter accident in 1994, when he was not wearing a helmet. The accident caused extensive cranial and facial damage, requiring reconstructive surgery and rehabilitation. He later referred to it as an "unconscious suicide attempt."
One of cinema's most unique voices, both as performer and filmmaker, Takeshi Kitano continues to make films in his native Japan.


Alex Simon
If Japan had an answer to Clint Eastwood, Lee Marvin, Don Siegel and Jean-Pierre Melville all wrapped in one, it would undoubtedly be "Beat" Takeshi Kitano. An actor, filmmaker, producer, writer, television star and national treasure, Takeshi Kitano has carved a unique niche for himself in both Japanese and world popular culture. Born into a working class family in Tokyo in 1947, Kitano entered show business in 1972 after initially pursuing a degree in engineering. Using the stage name "Beat" Takeshi, the moniker he still uses as a performer, Kitano was half of the now-legendary comic duo The Two Beats, and a leading figure in the birth of the manzai (stand-up comic duo) boom in late 1970's Japan. Throughout the 1980's, Kitano became one of the most popular entertainers in the country with his distinctive art of speech and his idiosyncratic perspective.
He made his feature film debut in 1983's Merry Christmas, Mr. Lawrence, directed by the legendary Nagisa Oshima, a WW II drama co-starring David Bowie and Tom Conti set in a Japanese P.O.W. camp. Kitano's harrowing portrayal of a sadistic camp guard re-invented his image from funny man to tough guy. His next feature, Violent Cop (1989) marked his directing debut in a kinetic tale of an amoral bad-ass of a policeman, sort of a Japanese Dirty Harry, if you will. The film gained international recognition for Kitano, and launched a new chapter in his professional life, as well as a new film genre unto itself in Japan.
A Takeshi Kitano film delivers what great directors and stars (like the ones mentioned above) used to bring to their films of the 60's and 70's: spare, understated tales of amoral loners fighting the system, punctuated by bursts of jarring (and graphic) violence, the sort that deglamourizes bloodletting to the extreme, usually involving Yakuza (Japanese Mafia), rogue cops, or both as leading characters. The past decade has seen Kitano helm seven other features that made big splashes on this side of the Pond as well: fierce action dramas such as the surrealistic Boiling Point (1990), the hard-bitten Sonatine (1993), and the urban cop drama Hana-bi (or Fireworks, 1997), which won the Golden Lion at the 1997 Venice Film Festival and was named Best Non-European Film at the European Film Academy Awards. Kitano has also made comedies, often underscored with moments of great tenderness, such as A Scene at the Sea (1991), Getting Any? (1995), Kids' Return (1996) and Kikujiro (1999).
Kitano remains one of the most popular (if not the biggest) media star in Japan, having also written novels, short stories, poetry and essay collections. An accomplished painter, an interest he developed after a near-fatal motorcycle accident in the early 1990's, Kitano at times uses his artwork in his own films to startling and symbolic effect. He also sponsors an amateur baseball team for which he sometimes plays, has released several CD's, and manages a group of comedians and actors.
Kitano's latest film is unquestionably his finest, and marks the first time he has directed a film outside his native Japan. Brother tells the story of a Yakuza named Yamamoto (Kitano) who is forced to leave Tokyo after his gang has been wiped out. Hooking up with his younger half-brother Ken (Claude Maki) in Los Angeles. Ken is a small time hood, one of his associates being an African-American named Denny (Omar Epps). In spite of their initial hatred for each other, as Yamamoto shows these young men the ropes and the way of the Yakuza, Yamamoto and Denny soon find themselves heading the most powerful gang in the city, and also forming a close bond of friendship. Brother is easily one of the best films of 2001, and will hopefully be remembered as a Best Foreign Film contender for next year's Academy Awards.
Takeshi Kitano was in Los Angeles recently to promote his latest cinematic explosion of blood, bullets and brotherhood. With the help of an interpreter, Venice spoke with this accomplished renaissance man about what gives Takeshi Kitano his "Beat."
Tell us how you came up with the idea for Brother, which is really a story about culture clash.
Takeshi Kitano: I had been thinking of a story like this for a long time--a fish out of water story, if you will. Then (Producer) Jeremy Thomas asked me at the London Film Festival if I wanted to do something outside of Japan. I immediately said 'yes,' and told him this idea I had been developing for a long time, that idea grew into Brother.
Kitano and Omar Epps in Brother.
Is it different working with American actors, as opposed to Japanese actors?
Well, yes and no. For example, Susumu Terajima has been working with me for more than ten years. He used to be an extra when I did my first film, Violent Cop, and since them has regularly appeared in my films, gradually upgrading the characters he played. In Brother he plays his biggest role so far. Because we've been working together so long, he knows my working style and the type of characters I want in my films, so it was very natural working with him. In terms of the American actors, obviously most were not familiar with my films or my working style. I usually do only one or two rehearsals before shooting, then only do one take. So at first, the American actors were like "That's it? Wait a minute, I didn't prepare enough!" Once they got to know the rhythm of the shoot, I think they found my style comfortable. In terms of how I like to direct actors, rarely will I tell an actor to do something different in a scene after we've rehearsed. If he's doing something I don't like, I'll try to think up a new way to shoot it, a different angle. I've never been the kind of director who gives minute instructions to the actors.
Who have been some of your biggest influences as a filmmaker?
It's very embarrassing to say this, but I was never brought up on cinema as a kid. I was never even a film buff. For that matter, I didn't really start watching films seriously until I became a director myself. After my first film festival in Europe, all these journalists started asking me if I'd been influenced by people like Jean-Luc Goddard, Kurosawa, and others, and I'd never even heard of these guys! So when I got back to Japan, I asked my assistant to get video copies of films by these guys, and I studied up.
Let's talk about your background.
I was born and raised in Tokyo. My father was a house painter, and allegedly used to be a Yakuza, and if not, was generally just an outrageous kind of character. My mother was a very hard-working woman who would work in the bean cake factory during the day, and at night would work manufacturing children's toys, part-time. She was very education-minded, and was very keen on having her son get a better education so we could get out of these poor conditions in 50's and 60's Japan. My neighborhood was a typical working class area. Most of my neighbors were either Yakuza, or craftsmen. Japan was going through rapid growth economically at the time, so my mother told us kids to concentrate on scientific studies like engineering, subjects that were practically advantageous in terms of getting a good job. So as a kid, I was never allowed to read comics, read novels, watch films. I had to concentrate on my studies, which led me to the engineering department at the university.
So that's where your fascination with the Yakuza comes from. You grew up around them.
That's true. Actually, in my neighborhood amongst us kids, there were two types of people that were considered cool: professional baseball players and Yakuza, who usually dressed and looked really cool. The Yakuza were always very good to us kids. They would give us allowance money, buy us candy, and things like that. At the same time, they played an education role. If they found us having a smoke, or drinking, they would scold us. They would say things like "Always be very kind to your parents and stay in school, otherwise you'll end up like me," which was very weird, right? But it also got through to me.
Kitano in Violent Cop, his directing debut.
It sounds like you're describing growing up in a place like Brooklyn, NY. here.
Yes, but instead of guns, we had knives. That's probably the only difference. (laughs)
So initially, you went to university to become an engineer. What happened?
I went to a middle level university to study engineering. In my university, you literally had to be a straight 'A' student to go to companies like Toyota and Honda. Because it wasn't a top-notch school, you had to work that much harder if you were going to go anywhere. When I was a sophomore, I thought that the laser beam would be more commonly used in engineering, so I studied that. This was a time in the 60's when there were lots of student protests going on, and suddenly the whole campus was locked out. Because the professors couldn't hold their lectures, they had the students submit essays. But if you're an engineering student, you can't write an essay about what you're studying! So I had to drop out eventually, and this is also a time when a lot of experimental theater was happening in Tokyo. One of my friends went into that. So I went to the asakusa area, which is the entertainment section of the city, and got a part-time job in a strip joint as a busboy. One day, while I was working, the owner showed up and said they were doing this sketch comedy thing, where one of the actors was sick, and why don't you fill in for him? So that's how I became a comedian--by accident.
Kitano in Sonatine.
You were a member of a famous comedy team called "The Two Beats," which is how you got your nickname. Is stand-up in Japan the same as here?
Well, they have this theater where most of the comedy performers gather. It opens at 10 in the morning and stays open 'til 9 in the evening, so these were my working times. My principal place for my performance was theater, rather than clubs, like here in the States. Although there are clubs there where you can make a lot of money, but principally it was the theater. What happens if you perform in nightclubs, or cabarets, these are the places where the Yakuza guys hang out. If they like your performance, they'll invite you to have a drink, then tell us legendary stories of the big bosses, and that's how I came to acquire that knowledge, some really interesting stories.
How did you make the transition from comic to playing tough guys?
Merry Christmas Mr. Lawrence was done when I was sort of at the peak of my popularity as a comedian, and was suddenly becoming very well known throughout Japan as a comedian. But, I knew that this was not going to last long, being a stand-up comic. I knew I had to do something different, and that is when Mr. Oshima offered me the role in Merry Christmas Mr. Lawrence. Without knowing what acting really was or what filmmaking was all about, I said 'Okay, that would be great.' I thought I might surprise people, playing this kind of part. After seeing the film, I thought my performance was not bad at all, actually, so I was looking forward to see the reaction of the audience. One day I snuck into a theater to see their reaction, and was quite surprised to find that the first scene where I appear, the whole audience suddenly burst into laughter, as if I had suddenly appeared on stage doing a routine! I was devastated by their reaction, because this character was supposed to be very intimidating and mysterious, not somebody to be laughed at! (laughs) But here they were, still perceiving me as this funny, crazy comedian. After that, I only accepted parts playing serious, dark, evil characters. It took ten years of my playing those types of roles before I was perceived as being a serious actor.
You made your directoral debut with Violent Cop in 1989. Originally you were only slated to act in it, right?
Yes. What happened was, the original director wanted me to be available for one consecutive month so I could concentrate on the shooting of this film, which wasn't an option for me because of my TV commitment, which consisted of seven or eight weekly shows at that time. I can devote one week for a film's shooting, but the next week I have to devote to TV. So we tried to find a compromise, but couldn't, so the original director dropped out and the project was almost abandoned, until the distributor approached me and suggested that I direct the film according to my own schedule, and I saw no reason to decline their offer.
What kind of television shows are you involved with in Japan?
They vary in content. Right now I have seven weekly shows, one of which is like a Discovery Channel show, a scientific variety program. I'm also doing an art variety program in which we invite amateur painters, sculptors and musicians to the studio where they can display and perform their work. I also have a debate program, sort of like "Politically Incorrect" here. I also have a late night slapstick comedy show. The newest show is very interesting in which we call in 100 Japanese-speaking foreigners into the studio in which we discuss the strange behavior and disposition of the Japanese people, again, kind of like a debate program. I think my interest in science comes from my engineering background.
Kitano about to win a fight in the international hit Fireworks (aka Hana-Bi).
You had a near-fatal motorcycle accident in the early 1990's. Did surviving that accident change your outlook on life, and did it change your outlook as a filmmaker at all?
It was quite a terrible accident and I was told by the doctors that it was a miracle I survived. I struck the right side of my face so badly, that I had to have an operation to reconstruct it. Once I recovered and regained consciousness, I thought 'Wow, this is a big opportunity for me.' You always read about someone surviving a horrible accident and they suddenly have a religious and philosophical enlightenment or suddenly snaps in the brain and turns the person into a genius. I thought to myself, 'Oh, that can happen to me, too!' (laughs) That's the reason I took up painting after the accident. I thought some disorder resulting from the accident would turn me into a genius painter, another Picasso. Well, as it turned out, I was totally wrong. I haven't changed at all! (laughs) The very first painting I did, I realized that. So it was very disappointing.
Kitano in a rare moment of vulnerability in Boiling Point.
What advice would you have for first time directors?
My advice is: trust nobody. Don't listen to what anybody has to say, just stick to your guns and trust your instincts. If you start to listen to people and put their ideas in your first movie, then you'll have to compromise more on your second, and it will just get worse and worse from there. You can always listen to advice on your third or fourth film, but on your first, stick to your guns. Just be prepared to be labeled a "box office unfriendly" director, like I used to be, if you do this. (laughs)

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