Invited to meet Takeshi Kitano in his favourite London hotel to talk about his latest film Dolls, we were soon talking, as one does with Takeshi, about his interest in the Japanese mafia. ‘I just interviewed one of the most senior Yakuza figures in Japan,’ he admitted to me, via his twenty-something personal translator from Office Kitano, who translated Takeshi’s deadpan pronouncements with a kind of annoyingly fractured LA whine. ‘It’s very good because now none of the lesser Yakuza call me up and try to meet me, which is what they always do. Once they read I had met and become friendly with Seijo Inagawa the phone went silent’.
Beat Takeshi, the yakuza pin-up, is a curious individual, even by Japanese standards. Born in Tokyo in 1947 he had an early career as a one of the most successful TV comedians in Japanese history. A whole generation grew up with his mashed-up ugly face permanently on their TV screens, both as part of the comedy team known as Manzai from 1972, and then later as a solo comic. In 1983 he was cast against type as the sadistic POW camp officer brutalising David Bowie in Merry Christmas Mr Lawrence. But the most unexpected of his career changes came in 1989 when one day the director of Violent Cop Kinji Fukasaku fell ill and Takeshi stepped into the breach and direct as well as star in the film. The cool, melodic style of his direction was a revelation: he was a natural. Since then he’s directed a succession of features including Hana-Bi which won the Golden Lion at Venice, as well as working constantly as a much-used character actor in his own right. Attempts to translate him for Hollywood – starring opposite Keanu Reeves in Johnny Mnemonic and his ill-fated attempt to recreate his Yakuza genre re-zoned LA three years ago called Brother – have failed, despite the admiration of people like Quentin Tarantino. In career terms it's as if an actor with Harvey Keitel’s raw physical presence becomes Dan Ackroyd for a decade before morphing in Clint Eastwood when Don Siegel fails to turn up to direct Dirty Harry.
Dolls continues a change of direction and mood that’s been detectable in Kitano’s films since 1994, when a near-fatal motorcycle accident saw him hospitalised for nearly six weeks. He nearly died and the knock on the head didn’t do him any good. Now after a couple of relative commercial failures – Kikujiro in 1999 and Brother in 2000(he’s a gangster in both) - his formerly limited colour palette has burst into life and he’s returned to the same kind of bruising melancholy to his storylines last seen in Hana-Bi. In this film violence happens but you don’t see it: you’re more likely to see petals falling and kimonos being rustled than blood being spilt. Takeshi isn’t acting in it and Han-Bi’s sense of artifice is much more to the fore: stylised exquisite costumes by Yoji Yamamoto (who also dressed him in Brother) and aspects of traditional Japanese Kabuki and Bunraku theatre dominate many of the scenes. It’s a calculated move destined to please western audiences. Needless to say the Yakuza still feature, but these men are not the same characters we saw in Boiling Point (90) or Sonatine (93). They are no longer indestructible; they are no longer even happy with their work. One of the three storylines in Dolls features an ageing Yakuza named Hiro – wracked with terminal illness – suddenly realising that the youthful sweetheart he never returned to thirty years earlier has been turning up at a park bench, and waiting for him, every Saturday ever since.
Dolls is a film full of people getting crushed, of things being crushed, whether its butterflies and plastic children’s toys under the wheels of a car, or bodies being squashed by lift doors trying to close on the scene of an assassination, or blind men and gorgeously bedizened beggars falling from great heights. People are hobbled by ropes to each other and to car seats and tied by the leg to surf-board harnesses (a visual reference perhaps to his third and best film A Scene By the Sea from 1992, an early indication he was very good at bleached-out mood pieces not far from this). People have problems walking and problems seeing, and wear eye-patches like Kitano did after his accident.
As we talk I notice Takeshi is still afflicted by the nerve damage from that motorcycle crash: his right eye trembles and it looks as if he has had a stroke. It’s a face already alarming enough, but those liquid black soulless eyes, that implacable visage than can suddenly vividly transform into a laugh that’s all teeth, is now etched with a long-passed storm of paralysis. He’s lost an inch from his arm and an inch from his leg which has qualified him for a disability pass, a mutilation affecting that rolling trademark walk, once so arrogant and self-confident in Sonatine. ‘Colours affect me differently now,’ he’s telling me as he chain smokes and his bent hand picks at his grungy sweatshirt. ‘Ever since the accident I’ve been seeing colours very intensely’.
We talk a bit about Yamamoto (‘his costumes are a true contribution to the film’) and even about his sexually ambiguous roles in Takashii Miyake’s Gonin (95) and in Oshima’s ‘Gohatto’ (01) (’I’m not really comfortable playing gay characters’, he says, boringly – end of subject) but try as I might things just keep coming back to the Yakuza. You look at Kitano’s face and all his characters keep swimming up from the abyss: the thugs and the wide-boys and the blank psychotics. This man represents the Japanese Id, ‘a tulpa, a materialised thought form’ as cyber-punk author William Gibson once memorably described him.
‘I grew up with those people, the yakuza,’ he tells me of his impoverished, Mean Streets childhood in post-war Tokyo. ‘It was old-fashioned then and these days they’re more corporate and more businesslike. I guess you can say their existence is quite anti-social and that they basically use violence, but when I look at Japanese history I can’t help the feeling that those shoguns who fought their way to the top were no different. They were prepared to do whatever they had to do and take any risk. The Yakuza can’t be seen in a half-hearted way – its either huge respect or huge disapproval’.
It’s clear to me which of those two choices Kitano cleaves to. He has a visceral feel for them and the drama of their lives and the problematic cleansing power of violence. Later when I track down the interview (never published outside of Japan) he mentioned he had conducted with Seijo Inagawa a ‘self-made man in the Japanese Yakuza’ as Kitano describes him (apparently his self-confessed status is not a problem in their native country) I notice him becoming quite obsessed with the 87 year old’s venerable 60 stitch machete wound on the head, an event which happened way back in 1937 and we’re told was an incident borrowed ‘for a film by Toei’. I mention this interview only because I believe it shows Takeshi more candid and more himself than he ever is with interviews with western journalists. Although all of Japan treats this recidivist and jailbird rather like a film star, Takeshi’s interview with the old rogue is like a teenager’s love-in with a pop star (one of the stories in Dolls) ‘you have such presence in your face, even when you smile, it’s going to affect me all day’ he gasps, and when the old man wipes sentimental tears from his face with Takeshi’s proferred handkerchief, Takeshi coos ‘I’ll never wash it’.
But does he actually socialise with these people? Does he break bread with the granite-faced big bosses, drop sake with the henchmen down at the pool hall, share quips with the hitmen?
‘I have this professional life as an entertainer so you can’t outwardly be with these people’, he says.
So that’s a maybe then.
This article was published in 2002. You can keep up-to-date with Kitano's prodigious output at his own website here and there's a more recent interview with him at the excellent Midnight Eye website