The godfather of Japanese cinema is sitting in a wide chair inside a lavish central city hotel, being fussed over by a cast of doting assistants. The acts of reverence give Takeshi Kitano -- in his trademark black suit and open-collared silk shirt -- an extra dose of yakuza chic, the gangsta flair of the Japanese mafia, a look his 11 rat-a-tat-tat films have helped spread around the world.
Kitano exudes an unhurried confidence. And why not? After years of making movies about hit men that earned him admiration abroad, Kitano is finally a man with a hit film at home.
Thanks to "The Blind Swordsman: Zatoichi," his violent but beautifully orchestrated period piece about a blind sword master, which he stars in and directs, Kitano has his first bona fide blockbuster here, where the film grossed $25 million. (Released by Miramax in August in the Washington area and 30 other U.S. cities, "Zatoichi" made more than $1 million in its American run.)
Moviegoers flocked to the film, but critics remained cold. Why hasn't Kitano's international fame -- particularly in Europe, where he's viewed as Japan's most significant living director -- translated here at home? While the rest of the world bows, Japan stubbornly refuses to take Kitano too seriously, denying him the kind of academic veneration of past greats Akira Kurosawa and Yasujiro Ozu, or living legends such as Yoji Yamada, who made the moving, less violent "Twilight Samurai."
Perhaps it's because, like so many of his characters, Kitano's a man with a tough-guy image. (And, surprise, a comic, clown side. But more on that later.)
In militantly polite Japan, the problem is not just Kitano's blood-soaked movies, but Kitano himself, a bad boy on and off screen. His small army of die-hard supporters once shocked the nation by roughing up the office staff of a magazine after a photographer snapped pictures of his mistress. On another occasion, he mooned a crowd he considered unappreciative of his jokes.
Japan is also not kind to those perceived to take shortcuts, or who try to excel in too many diverse fields. Kitano -- a renaissance man who also writes screenplays and novels, and who did it all without any academic training -- is an offender on both counts. And in this era of the metrosexual, the ultra-fashion-conscious straight men of modern Tokyo who carry color-coordinated purses and smoke Virginia Slims, Kitano also seems a misfit.
"In a sense, other Japanese men envy his tough-guy image, but many also see him as kind of dangerous," said noted Tokyo-based critic Yukichi Shinada, who also sits on Japan's Oscar nomination committee. "He disregards our societal norms and has cut his own path. . . . We are generally a law abiding people in Japan, but Takeshi-san is on the edge."
Then there's Kitano as funnyman. He's still more known here for his comedic, anything-for-a-gag TV shows where he dressed up as geishas and solicitous schoolgirls. (In the United States, viewers of Spike TV's cult hit "Most Extreme Elimination Challenge" will recognize Kitano's comic side. The show adds hilarious American commentary to the surreal game show "Takeshi's Castle," which Kitano hosts in clownish regalia.)
But his newfound commercial success, Kitano said, has made little difference in how his films are received here. "Zatoichi" packed theaters and captured the coveted Silver Lion at last year's Venice International Film Festival, but Japanese movie critics were decidedly less generous. Additionally, a national panel of judges passed over the movie when selecting Japan's best-foreign-film entries for last year's Oscars -- a decision based in part, according to one committee member, on the fact that Kitano's films continue to be seen by critics here as "irrationally violent."
"They used to criticize my movies in Japan, saying that a Takeshi movie cannot pull in viewers," Kitano said in his slow, husky voice. "Now, for the first time, the viewers came to watch my movie. But now [the critics in Japan] are saying the quality is no good. . . . I try to no longer put any importance on what the critics here say about me. Now, I tend to disregard them entirely."
For Kitano, life started in one of the poorest, toughest neighborhoods of Tokyo with an abusive, alcoholic father and a mother who relentlessly pressed her children to study hard. In his early years, the tattooed thugs of the Japanese mafia were a ubiquitous presence in his life. The homegrown yakuza thugs "seemed like superman to small kids like me," Kitano said. "They don't do bad things in their own neighborhoods; in fact, they care a lot about their neighbors. When there's a feud or a problem, they're the ones who handle it."
Kitano ditched college, where he studied engineering, after three years and went to work in a Tokyo burlesque house, the France-za, doing shtick and tap-dance routines. It wasn't long before local TV scouts spotted him, and Kitano started doing a televised comedy act.
In 1983, Kitano was cast in his first serious acting role, winning instant international praise as the sadistic sergeant alongside David Bowie in the prison camp drama "Merry Christmas, Mr. Lawrence." Kitano made his directorial debut with 1989's brutal "Violent Cop," which he earned by default after legendary yakuza-film maker Kinji Fukasaku bowed out. Kitano rewrote the script, filling it with raw menace from the opening scene -- when a group of teenage boys descends into a frenzy of violence, coldly attacking an elderly homeless man.
He turns to his own dark side -- and memories of his childhood -- when conjuring up disturbingly realistic scenes. Unlike in Hollywood or Hong Kong martial-arts films, the "guys don't get up after getting shot or stabbed," Kitano said. "If you're in a fight and you're hit, in real life, you stay down."
As with traditional Japanese theater, which Kitano holds dear, the plot in some of his films requires some guessing. Japanese cinema expert Donald Richie observed that Kitano films unfold in sequences similar to the boxes of Japanese comics, called manga, where readers are left to fill in plot gaps using their own imagination.
"Zatoichi" broke with Kitano's theme of modern thugs, drawing instead on the brutal gangsters of Tokugawa-era Japan, from whom his character saves a town of oppressed peasants. Yet the film is filled with comedic flourishes. Critics have especially delighted in its last 20 minutes -- a musical climax fusing Japanese festival beats and American tap-dancing. "What I cared about most [in "Zatoichi"] was tap-dancing, rhythm and having fun," Kitano said. "I learned tap-dancing at the strip theater, France-za."
Kitano, the actor, followed up "Zatoichi" with the lead role in Yoichi Sai's "Blood & Bones," an epic story of a hard-boiled, pre-World War II Korean immigrant to Japan, set for domestic release next month. With "Blood & Bones," Japan's godfather is going back to exploring the many facets of human cruelty. Previews show Kitano as a miserly factory owner who beats his wife and lovers and burns a complaining employee with hot charcoal. Kitano, however, rebuts his sharpest critics who say the trademark violence in his films, whether he is directing, acting or both, is simply excessive.
"Too violent is the wrong expression," he insisted. "It's not too violent, but rather, realistically painful. If children see it as painful, they won't imitate it. Instead, they imitate violent actions that don't involve pain. You can see that by looking at the game arcades. You can't sense the pain in those games. But my movies show that humans actually do feel pain."