With seven TV shows and four magazine columns, TAKESHI ‘BEAT’ KITANO is a household name. In Japan. Now Brother could do the same for the cult actor and
director here. Words: Richard Mowe
THE EAT GOES ON
verywhere he goes. Takeshi Kitano moves with an army of black-suited young minders keeping a watchful eye behind dark shades.
That's only sensible at home in Tokyo for a media superstar who would be mobbed and féted. Outside his own territory it may seem a trifle superfluous. There are no besieging hordes outside the Hotel Normandy in the sleepy seaside town of Deauville where his latest film featured in a Festival ofAmerican Cinema.
And why is be included in an American festival in the first place? Kitano. 53. has just launched Brother. his first directorial project in English. In it. he plays a tough guy abandoned by his Yakuza clan and forced to leave Japan for Los Angeles in search of his younger half-brother. Once he masters how to tip bell-hops and deal with taxi drivers. he establishes himself as an utterly ruthless gang leader ready to take on the Malia.
The character doesn’t speak much English. then neither does Kitano (or so he claims). He prefers to speak through an interpreter. although you suspect he understands more than he admits. To enable him to leave home for the seven- week shoot. he had to pre-record enough of his TV programmes in advance to tide him over. Usually he spends one week on a film. followed by a week of television production in which he records enough footage for two weeks of broadcast. This allows him to work on a film every other week which was the way he made his award-winning actioners Hana-Bi. Violent Cop. Boiling Point. and his best known film to date in the west. Sonatine.
‘Three years ago my producer Jeremy Thomas whom I‘d met when l was acting in Merry Christmas Mr Lawrence. suggested I make a film abroad.‘ says Kitano. ‘I agreed if I could cast it. have final cut and use my own crew. So as the
humour and moments of visual lyricism. He played a wheelchair-bound police officer who turns to art. It was in part based on his own experiences after a motorcycle accident that almost killed him about six years ago. Many of his own drawings featured in the lilm and he believed that by introducing art be avoided many of the cop movie cliches.
It‘s no surprise then that one of his most fervent admirers is Quentin Tarantino. who persuaded Miramax to put its might behind .S'onutine in the States. But Kitano refuses to be drawn on his own influences. citing Jean-Luc Godard as someone who made an impression merely because he tried to understand his lilms and failed. ‘He made me think i was stupid because i did not get his films. I try not to watch many films because I don‘t want to be influenced or to see something so striking that it would stop me making films. I‘m told that I‘m like (‘lint liastwood. and I‘m very honoured. But the only way we are similar is that he directs himself as the main actor and so do l.'
Just to prove he could work in a different register. he recently went off and made Kikujiro. a sentimental road movie about a loser and a plucky young boy. He admits he had become fed up with gangster movies. ‘lt‘s pretty much like food. If you eat the same food over and over again you get fed up. and sometimes you want to eat something different.‘
Born in 1947 Kitano grew up in a tough working-class neighbourhood at the time US consumerism was beginning to bite in Japan. causing a cultural identity crisis. ()riginally his mother sent him on a course to be an engineer. He attended university at the time of student unrest in the 608. but his faculty was closed down and he stopped his studies. ‘I went to a club to see a stand-up comedian and became
‘I don’t think I’m a proper film director. I don’t know what half the technical words mean.’
film was to be made in the States and I‘m Japanese with a mixed command of English. it clearly had to be about a Japanese guy going to America.‘
The violence and especially the bloodbath finale could have been orchestrated by Sergio Leone. but Brother is no stereotypical shoot-‘em-up. Its brutality is neither exploitative nor expected. ‘Although there are some modern gangster films that I like. the ones with all those car explosions are just repellent to me.‘ he says. ‘There's a tradition of Yakuza gangster films in Japan so I wanted to adapt that concept to America.‘
He was determined not to go for picture-postcard images of Los Angeles: much of the film is shot indoors in gleaming offices. hotel rooms and underground parking lots. It is steeped in codes of honour and Samurai tradition. ‘The main character goes to the States because he wants to find the strongest way to die.‘ says Kitano. ‘That‘s very much according to the Samurai code.‘
Kitano has ceased to be irritated by the constant questions about the violence in his films. Violent Cop in
I999 and Sonatine in 1993. for example. were full of
stylised shoot-outs. ‘I don‘t give it a second thought: it‘s
something I can create any time.‘ he says. waiting a cloud of
smoke from one of his endless cigarettes. In Hana-Bi. which won the Venice Golden Lion in 1997. Kitano combined stomach-churning violence. slapstick
18 THE LIST 29 Mar—i2 Apr 2001
interested.‘ he recalls. ‘I started off simply like that. gathered a reputation. then went on to do comedy on television and became famous.‘
He teamed up with Beat Kiyoshi to form The Two Beats. a hugely successful partnership and hence the ‘Beat‘ he hangs onto in his name. ‘And then I branched out into filmmaking. I'd never considered it really and even now I don't think I'm a proper film director. I don‘t know what half the technical words mean.‘
His trademark in comedy was that he talked three times faster than any other person on Japanese television and tackled taboo subjects more along the lines of American comics. Most of his humour was improvised. Even today in normal speech the translator has an uphill struggle to keep pace.
He works like he talks: at speed. lt‘s partly because of his tight schedules and partly out of choice. ‘lt‘s like the philosophy of Japanese cuisine. If you fumble with the raw materials too tnuch the smell of your hands get into the food and make it stale. Many things in life are like that. It's often best to shoot simply and get to the point right away.‘
Brother opens on Fri 23 Mar, GFT, Glasgow; Cameo, Edinburgh. The Lumiere, Edinburgh, screens Kikujiro Sun 6 May, Sonatine Sun 20 May and Hana-Bi on Sun 27 May.