Known for violent films like Outrage, Takeshi Kitano is a comedian at home
Takeshi Kitano's latest film follows his 2010 yakuza story. But there 's more than violence to this complex filmmaker, writes James Mottram
YOU HAVE TO ADMIRE the honesty of Japanese actor-auteur Takeshi Kitano. Outrage Beyond, the first sequel of the 16 films he has directed, follows his grisly 2010 gangster effort Outrage.
It was not, he says, born out of a need to continue the story of his yakuza character Otomo, last seen being knifed in prison. "The first Outrage became a hit in Japan, which was rare for me," he says. "So I thought to myself, 'I could make more money if I make a sequel.'"
In the current global economic decline, nobody could blame him. But the real outrage, you might say, is that one of Japan's most famous faces rarely hits it big at the domestic box office. In Japan, the 66-year-old is viewed primarily as a television personality, talk-show host and comedian (his nickname, "Beat" Takeshi, came from his 1970s double act).
But outside his home country, he's a highly regarded filmmaker, who won Venice's Golden Lion for his 1997 film Hana-bi ( Fireworks) and was made a Commander of the Order of the Arts and Letters, France's highest cultural honour.
"Although I've been coming over to Europe for many years, [the Japanese public] don't really get the idea that I have a following in Europe," Kitano says when we meet in Venice. "It doesn't really ring true to them. So I'm still an alternative filmmaker after all these years, rather than a mainstream one."
In part, he blames his television success in Japan. "Maybe I get my hands on too many things. They don't want one person to be successful in different areas."
Still, it seems surprising that Outrage struck a nerve with Japanese audiences. Compared to his earlier poetic works - the meditative Sonatine (1993), for example, in which Kitano played a yakuza tiring of life - it feels more straightforward.
Dressed in a navy suit and white shirt, his hair straw blond, the filmmaker concurs. "With Outrage, what you see is what you get; these are bad guys and they are depicted as bad guys. They're cogs in a big wheel rather than individuals who are anguished by dilemmas, which I portrayed in my earlier movies."
Following on from its predecessor, Outrage Beyond is the tale of a power play between rival yakuza clans, as Kitano's Otomo character is released from prison and attempts to reassert control.
If anything distinguished Outrage, it was a series of sadistic torture scenes - chopsticks in the ear, dentist's drill in the mouth, knife across the face - which presented a problem this time around. "My producer noted how with Outrage, all the critics talked about the violence, so he asked, 'Do you want that to happen again?' And I go, 'OK, let me think. Maybe I can scale down a bit.'"
With the bloodshed largely kept off-screen in Outrage Beyond (although there's still enough to shock), it's an interesting about-turn - Kitano's 1989 debut Violent Cop, for example, read like a statement of intent, with its almost casual evocation of murder and mayhem.
Then again, it's too easy to label Kitano this way. He has also directed Dolls, a beautiful triptych of doomed love stories, costumed by fashion legend Yohji Yamamoto; and the absurdist comedy of both Getting Any? - a 1994 film he still dreams of making a sequel to - and self-referential fun of Takeshis' (2005).
More so than its predecessor, Outrage Beyond laces its violence with deadpan humour, as when one luckless victim is tied to a chair as a machine fires baseballs at his face. Kitano smiles and says the scene takes him back to his youth, growing up in Tokyo, when he was the pitcher for the Shimane Eagles, a local club.
"We used to sneak inside those batting cages, where you have the pitching machine, and used to play. And I'd do some trick with my buddies, where we'd take one kid to stand as a batter - without a bat. So those stupid games I played as a teenager were the inspiration for that scene."
The youngest of four, he grew up in a working class household. His father found work as a housepainter, but spent his evenings fuelling up on alcohol. "He was a very rough guy," admits the director.
"Every night he came home, he was drunk. We would hear the click of the door, and our mother would order us to our rooms, to pretend to be asleep. My father would scream, and walk around, and kick the table. My mother would cry, and my father would try and grab every single one of my brothers. This went on every night."
Later his father left the family and when he passed away, Kitano says, "I didn't really feel anything. [But] now I can understand that he was lonely and too shy to express love for us."
Yet this discord is what drew him towards local yakuza early on. They were unlikely role models, regularly asking him if he was being a good boy (and inspiring his most autobiographical film, 1996's Kids Return). You sense that, even while he steered clear of crime, their anti-authoritarian ways left a mark on the young Kitano.
His reputation in the Japanese underworld remains intact. "I know I have many fans among the yakuza, not because of my films, but because of my way of living in the show business world. I'm an outsider, always fighting against the hierarchy. They like me, and they like my way of living."
He then tells a story of being kidnapped by the goons of one particularly notorious Japanese crime family. "I thought I would be killed. And they took me to a resort in the mountain, but it was the daughter of this boss who wanted to see me. She was a fan."
He is no stranger to life-and-death experiences, either. He was involved in a motor-scooter accident in August 1994, which left him with an open skull fracture, brain contusions and a fractured cheekbone that left the right side of his face paralysed.
While he later admitted feeling suicidal impulses before the accident, even today, his use of drops to keep his eye lubricated remind you of what he's been through.
Now a married father of two, Kitano is no longer assuaged by the angst that afflicted some of his earlier characters. He seems to enjoy swinging between these two very radical media personas - from doing "the most stupid things possible on TV" to indulging his more artistic side, filmmaking and painting.
Many of his artworks have appeared in his films, notably in Achilles and the Tortoise, and like the artist he played in that film, he's not afraid to experiment. "I follow my instinct to see what comes next," he shrugs.
Only once has he tried English-language filmmaking - and the result was the rather underwhelming gangster tale Brother (2000). Even now, with an increasing reliance on visual effects, Hollywood films don't appeal to him.
"Cinema is more like an amusement park - like The Avengers, Men in Black," he says. "You don't really have to think when you watch these movies. You just go on a ride, and lick the candy." Maybe Europe is where he truly belongs.
Outrage Beyond opens on July 18