Takeshi 'Beat' Kitano
Sliding between cop and crook, Takeshi 'Beat' Kitano is probably the world's greatest hardboiled screen presence. Too few American have caught on to this explosive Japanese multi-talent responsible for directing the most sublime neo-"noir" of the last few years: the 1997 Hana-Bi/Fireworks, in which he starred as a weary, homicidal detective. But what is he doing making Kikujiro, where he plays an over-the-hill yakuza who becomes guardian angel to an odd little boy?
"Patch" Kitano? With this sweet, sentimental story, the Asian Charles Bronson isn't quite being Begnini, but there's cause to inquire what's up.
"I got fed up with making violent gangster movies," Kitano explained at the Cannes Film Festival, through a translator. "You get fed up with the same food every time. But let me assure you that the next film will be a violent one! After that, maybe another peaceful one. An alternation." Still, there was a far more personal reason for doing Kikujiro. The titular character - sometimes kind, sometimes snappy and hostile - exists so that Kitano can contemplate the troubled relationship with his own father.
"As a small boy, I hardly talked to him," Kitano said. "He was drunk, violent, and I'd hide under my bed. The film started out as being about someone who could be my father with this child, though I know nothing from my life about the real relationship of a father and a child. I gave the character a theatrical name, not a normal Japanese name, to keep a distance.
"When I make films, I don't have much in the way of a screenplay. I filmed the script as it happened. At first, it was about the holidays of a little boy. But as we shot, I realized it's about the summer holiday of an adult. Kikujiro, this tough character, becomes tender in those few days."
I asked Kitano about the casting of the boy, Masao, played by Yusuke Sekiguchi. "We had 200 child actors, and most looked cuter and more modern. His face is not that of a trendy-looking boy. His face and compusure were old-fashioned. I thought the key to success was if I could make this plain boy look cuter as the film goes on. If he's really cute at the end, the film is a success.
"But what I did learn is that it's impossible to direct child actors. I treated this boy like a little animal, without me ever telling him what to do, and he acted like an animal. It's like putting a good-looking bone in front of a dog, until its tail shakes. You try an angle liked that. It worked - and it kept me perhaps from getting angry at him."
Is Kikujiro an homage to Chaplin's The Kid? Are some of the straightfaced sight gags inspired by Keaton?
"In my practice of comedy I don't have any references," Kitano said. "My films are profoundly Japanese. What I do that's Japanese is preserve a certain distance between my characters, and I'm comfortable with this reserve. It's not a Western style, where the characters get close to each other and show their emotions.
"And I have to say I was not a cinephile as a child. My family was not rich enough to take me to films... Even now, I try to watch as few films as possible. When I watch a new one and find it very good, I feel I shouldn't make films any more."
sWhat about the Japanese masters, Ozu and Mizoguchi? "It's embarrassing to admit it, but I learned their names when European journalists asked me about them. When I got back to Japan, I rented several videos." He wasn't impressed. He disapproved of the Ozu video he watched, and complained, "Oh, are the rest of his films like that?" However, Akira Kurosawa is a different tale, and Kitano professed a deep admiration for Kurosawa's The Seven Samurai, Dersu Uzala, and certain sequences of Akira Kurosawa's Dreams.
Kitano said, "I should have dedicated this film as a tribute to Kurosawa. I try not to be influenced, but I would have liked to watch him direct his actors and technicians. Not it's too late for me to learn from him how to work. I'm still a beginner."