English Daily #3
Few directors have bridged the gap between the realm of world cinema and that of mainstream entertainment like Takeshi Kitano did. Comedian, actor, filmmaker, painter and writer — at the age of 76 Kitano remains a singular artist in Japan: always iconic because of his countless TV appearances and forever adorned for his monumental contributions to the history of film. You could call him a jack of all trades, and master of all.

As a celebrity known for his comedic talents, it wasn’t easy for Kitano to transition into the more respectable artform of film. When he snuck into a cinema to witness how a local audience would respond to his breakthrough performance in Nagisa Ôshima’s Merry Christmas Mr. Lawrence (1983), he was struck by the reactions of the moviegoers, who spontaneously laughed when they saw their beloved comedian on-screen in such a grave film. Kitano, however, persisted, establishing himself as a talented director with classics like Violent Cop (1989), Boiling Point (1990), Sonatine (1993) and Golden Lion-winner Hana-bi (1997), films in which the director often also stars as the leading role. Combining hyperviolent scenes with touches of absurd humor, all handled with a delectable deadpan delivery, Kitano’s films masterfully blend genre tropes with existential narratives. This hybrid of hyperrealist absurdity might be called Kitano’s signature style, but the film auteur has often varied in his prolific oeuvre that spans over twenty directorial efforts and many more roles as an actor.

Zatôichi (2003), his successful foray in the samurai film, sees Kitano in a more toned-down mode. It’s a masterpiece of Japanese cinema that resonates with the greatness of legends like Akira Kurosawa and Masaki Kobayashi. With the long-awaited Kubi, which finally premiered at this years’ edition of Cannes Film Festival, Kitano returns to that period genre to tell the tale of all-out warfare at the end of the Sengoku period, where attempts to overthrow the feudal lord Oda Nobunaga resulted in massive bloodbaths. It’s a real-life historical story that has been on Kitano’s mind for over thirty years. That patience and contemplation has manifested itself in Kubi, a beautiful film with lush greens, crimson reds and deep blues that manages to squeeze a dense and intrigue-filled plot in a kinetic thrill-ride clocking in just over two hours. While this years’ extraordinary Guest of Honor was unable to attend the Yerevan Premiere of his latest opus, he welcomed the GAIFF Daily for a long conversation about Kubi and his career as a filmmaker.

You often play the leading role in the films you direct yourself, as is the case with Kubi again. How do you see that relationship between directing and starring in your films?
“The most difficult part was actually the fact that I was initially known as a stand-up comedian in Japan. Because I made so many people laugh while I was on stage, it had a huge influence on the way the audience perceived me. Even when I had a role in a serious movie, or a yakuza movie or horror film for that matter, the audience would laugh because they were still used to seeing me as the comedian. It took a long time to convince the audience to actually perceive me in these different roles that I also perform in my own films.”

On that note, it’s fascinating to behold the humor you put in your work. Kubi is a very violent film, but also a very funny one.
“You know when you’re participating in a wedding ceremony or a funeral, and you sometimes can’t help but laugh, even though the situation wouldn’t allow you to do so? Movies, like Kubi in which we depict the violence during the Sengoku period of Japan, allow you to safely laugh at things that would be frowned upon in real life. Of course, if you’d lived in that period, you wouldn’t laugh about the violence and killings, but from an outsiders position it’s allowed. So that's our strategy: to make these violent movies that will also make you laugh.”

In earlier films like Violent Cop and Boiling Point, the way violence was shown seemed to be a little bit different, in the sense that there was a certain cutting of the action. We wouldn't really see the most violent aspects itself. Kubi marks a change, because its violence is way more graphic and explicit. What motivated that change in the depiction of violence?
“In films like Boiling Point and Violent Cop, we cut away at the right time, to make the audience think about the aftermath, about what happens next. You let them imagine the violence in their own minds. But since Kubi is a historical film, based on historical facts, there is the need to clearly present what was happening. Otherwise, the audience, even a Japanese one, wouldn’t understand the story. That’s why Kubi feels different from Violent Cop and Boiling Point, and that’s why I didn’t use that cutting style I employed before.”

Kubi is so beautiful and colorful and bright, especially when the blood starts flowing and the red splashes on the screen. How do you think about your films in terms of their beauty?
“In the past I was known for the “Kitano Blue” style, because I like to use blue as a dominant color in my films. This style hasn’t changed much over the years, however, each time I do add specific color to my signature color scheme. So, in the case of excessive violence, you have to add some reds. You could say that we’re used to doing this, and we do it effortlessly. My cinematographers know how to shoot a film and know which colors they need.”

Considering you’re also a gifted painter, could you say you see an overlap between your work as a filmmaker and your work as a painter?
“Well, I don't think that the paintings made by me are that great. More so, I see making films and painting as separate things. But I’ll say about my relationship with art that I once had a motorcycle accident in 1994, during which I hit my head. After that there was like a flash of Picasso and I started to make paintings. However, when I’m filming, I’m not thinking about paintings. I’m thinking about my films as a sequence of photos. Making a film is like doing a photoshoot.”

Did that near fatal accident change the kind of stories you wanted to tell in your cinema, because you had such a close brush with death?
“You know, to be honest, I was expecting that the accident would result in some sort of profound psychological change in my mind. But unfortunately, there weren’t any changes at all. I’m just as stupid as I was before the accident!

Coming back to the love and care that you put in your films: the many historical samurai costumes in Kubi are incredible. You’ve worked with costume designer Kazuko Kurosawa, Akira Kurosawa's daughter, on multiple projects now, including Zatôichi. What does that collaboration mean to you?
“She's actually often standing behind me during shootings. She supports me in many ways, even suggesting to me how to shoot with regards to her costume parts. She also sometimes suggests how her father would film a scene, which really helps me a lot.” HE