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Past Article

Blind Masseur Swordfighter Gambling Genius: a talk with Takeshi Kitano
By Sean Axmaker
July 23, 2004 - 9:27 AM PDT

"As long as it's fun."

Zatoichi, Takeshi Kitano's remake of the legendary series of films and TV shows starring Shintarô Katsu as the blind masseur, gambler and master swordsman, was one of the most anticipated debuts at the 2003 Venice Film Festival. It eventually won four awards at Venice, including the Audience Award for Best Film, and then repeated the feat at the Toronto Film Festival days later. A big budget, audience-pleasing samurai adventure, it's an anomoly in Takeshi's career: His first remake, a period adventure, a film full of CGI enhanced action and his most accessible film to date. It's also been long in gestation. While it's hardly his most personal film, it's one dear to his heart.

Leaning in to answer his first question at the September 2 morning press conference, Takeshi knocked his forehead against his microphone with a loud "Bop." It's hard to tell if it was an accident or merely the comic side of Takeshi's persona, the comedian "Beat" Takeshi that has long reigned as one of Japan's most famous TV personalities, starting off the high-toned press conference with a bit of slapstick.

Still sporting his bleach job from the film, he confessed, "My Japanese publicist ordered me to keep my hair until the Japanese release," which was scheduled for September 6. "As soon as the film is released, I will have to dye my hair black because I have a couple of TV features I will be acting in. I'm not too sure how they will react to see me as I am because people are now starting to get used to my blonde image."

The twitch that he developed in the aftermath of his motorcycle accident years ago was all that broke the otherwise placid calm of his gently smiling face as he answered questions during the 30-minute conference and in the junket-style round-table interviews he conducted all through the afternoon. I had the good fortune to find a seat in one of these interviews, though it gave me little opportunity to steer the interview, which jumped from topic to topic as interviewers verbally elbowed one another for attention. My fellow interviewers may have been Takeshi fans (he has been, after all, a Venice favorite for years and won the Golden Lion for Hana-Bi in 1997), but they had apparently never seen a Zatoichi film. This interview is edited together from the press conference and the round-table talk. Takeshi answered in Japanese and his comments were translated into English.

Q: Where do you think your film falls in the samurai film tradition?

TK: I would say it's not technically a samurai film because the main character is not a samurai. He's a masseur. If the executive producer had not come up with this offer I would have opted to do a real samurai movie. But it just so happened that I accepted the offer to make a Zatoichi movie and it's a given that when you make a Zatoichi movie, the main character has to be a blind masseur who is good at swordfighting and a gambling genius. I was told that I could do everything the way I wanted to, but to be faithful to those basic elements of the character.

Q: Then what is the difference between Zatoichi and a samurai?

TK: His profession is a masseur and in the feudal period in Japan. There is a very strict hierarchical system where people are divided into four different groups: Warriors, farmers, craftsmen, and merchants, in that order. Masseur doesn't belong to any of those four groups, so he's kind of an outsider. The masseurs are considered a kind of outsider in the feudal era of Japan. So he's not really a samurai; he just happens to use a sword.

Q: Why a blue-eyed blonde Japanese hero?

TK: There could have been someone with blonde hair and blue eyes in those times because in the 15th century the Portuguese and Dutch seamen came to Japan and started small scale trade between Japan and Portugal and the Dutch. So there is the possibility that a Portuguese sailor might go out with a Japanese farm girl and they have a baby with blonde hair and blue eyes, but blind. It could have happened in reality. So that's the subplot I conceived while writing the screenplay; I just explain in the film because that would be too long.

Q: What do we know about the back story of Zatoichi?

TK: It's based on the fictional short story by Shimozawa Kan.

Q: Does it explain how he became a swordfighter?

TK: The original short story is not well known at all. The original actor, Shintarô Katsu, decided to adapt this short story into a film and it became a massive hit in the early 1960s in Japan. In the very first episode of the feature film, it is not really explained how he became blind or how he ended up having this profession or how he trained in the sword techniques. He's just there as a blind masseur swordfighter gambling genius. From the very first movie.

Q: Did you have any idea of your own to explain it?

TK: I would say... dysfunctionally conceived mutation.

Q: All of your previous films were original. This is not merely a remake, but a remake of a well-loved series of movies and a character who is an icon. What kind of responsibility did you feel to the material and the character originally played by Shintarô Katsu?

TK: The character of Zatoichi is already set. There are three characteristics I couldn't do without: He has to be a masseur, he's got to be blind, and he's got to be good at wielding a sword. There have been many Zatoichi films and TV shows and I couldn't change the story. What I wrote is very typical of the stories that people would expect, but I've also tried to change it somewhat. I had been concerned about how they would react to my version of the very famous character, but judging from the test screenings in Japan and the public screenings we've done so far, they've been reacting very favorably, so that pleases me a lot. But come to think of it, the last feature film episode of Zatoichi was made seventeen years ago, so very many of the younger generation does not know or have never watched the original series. They know the name of Zatoichi and know that there was a film series starring Shintarô Katsu, but not very many young people have seen the original, although the older generation would have seen at least a couple of episodes. He's like a John Wayne. Everybody knows John Wayne, but many in the younger generation haven't seen the films; they've only heard of him.

Q: The characters you play are very terse. They speak very little and let their actions speak for them. You also play Zatoichi this way. Is there a reason?

TK: I hate to admit this, but one of the main reasons I barely speak in my own films as a director is that I'm not very good at memorizing my dialogue. And to make matters worse, I had to close my eyes during the picture, which means that I cannot see the cards with my lines [cue cards] that I usually ask the assistant director to hold. In my previous movies, I would sneak the pages like this (holds paper under his nose) so I could read them to say my lines. But I couldn't do it with the Zatoichi character. The original Zatoichi that Shintarô Katsu created was much more talkative. But that's not really my style to play the talkative, sympathetic type of person. So I decided to completely change the characterization of Zatoichi in my version. I couldn't go on killing people all through the film so I put in these comic interludes.

Q: All of your previous films have been contemporary projects. What kind of issues did you face making your first period piece?

TK: I thought that, before we commenced shooting, it would be more restricted form of shooting. To shoot a period piece would be much more restricting than shooting a modern piece. But it turned out to be quite the opposite. For instance, in modern drama you take the actor and change the hairstyle and build up the fictional character. But with a period piece, you make them wear a hairpiece, which would change the shape of the head, so to put the costume and the make-up and the hair on the actor to do a period drama is a very fictional environment in itself. So in terms of fictionality you can go a lot farther in a period piece because you don't have to really think about whether it this actor or this actress would look authentic in the picture or not because he's wearing a wig. You can't look authentic wearing a wig. Some of the people would say, "It's not faithful to the reality of ancient Japan." But it's not really a big issue as long as it's fun. I had a couple of screenplays that I've been working on for years and years, biographical stories about the legendary, powerful shoguns like Nobunaga (Oda) or Hideyoshi (Toyotomi) but if I were able to do those projects, I would want to do them as full-scale, big budget movies. I would need to have 100,000 extras wearing costumes and joining the battle. So I'm still working on it and I'm still waiting for my producer to give me a green light.

Q: There's been a sudden international interest in traditional Japanese swordplay in the movies. Was your project influenced by any of that?

TK: I think that I made Zatoichi at almost the same time as Tarantino's Kill Bill or The Last Samurai or Hero. It's just totally coincidental. This project has been years in the making. There were initial discussions years ago. At that time, I didn't know Tarantino would do a swordfighting movie, I didn't know Tom Cruise would be in a samurai movie. So it's just coincidence.

Q: Do you think it's good for your film that there is so much sword fighting in the movies now?

TK: I wouldn't like to judge by looking at the cover of a book, but I'm not sure if they did manage to depict the swordfighting scenes in an authentic and correct manner. There is a modernism to the Japanese way of sword fighting technique and, over the years, fewer and fewer people are aware of and acknowledge the true and faithful manner of the swordfighting. Even the younger generation of swordfighting choreographers in Japan does not really have a full knowledge of the authentic style. It's okay, anything goes in these days, so it's okay for an American director to make a samurai movie. But I have my reservations about those movies.

Q: Would you say that your film presents a more accurate style of samurai swordsmanship?

TK: The real way of using samurai swords in fighting is different from samurai cinema. Swords are not used to cut but to beat. I wanted to introduce something new to samurai cinema. The traditional ways are not always the right ones.

Q: The swordfighting scenes are very bloody and very violent. Is this a reaction to the nonsense fake violence that is popularized in most American movies?

TK: Yes, I put a lot of blood in the film, but all of the films I've made have a lot of blood. For this particular movie, it doesn't have anything to do with my reaction to the Hollywood way of depicting violence or anything like that. What I wanted to achieve with those swordfighting scenes was to give it an almost cartoonish look, or shall I say, a video game look, because the way the blood splatters during those scenes is far more exaggerated than in real life. If you attacked with a sword in the right artery, there would be a splatter, but the blood wouldn't spray. The blood would simply fall from the wound. In this particular movie, I thought that if I depicted it too realistically, it would be painful for a general audience to bear. So I opted to go for an over-the-top, exaggerated way of gory details. To make it look more like a video game, to make it look more like a cartoon, I used digital technology in some scenes.

Q: How did you prepare for the swordplay in the film as an performer?

TK: It's not that difficult because if I look in the mirror and I'm blind, I don't see anything. I just followed by my senses, my instincts, and I think I succeeded. But I didn't have any special training. Of course there is always the danger of getting hurt, especially since I had to close my eyes in all of my scenes. Rather than hold the sword in the traditional way, I tried to hold it in a different way to keep from hurting anyone. I built up my shoulders, but I strained my back during some of the scenes.

Q: What do you think about the attempts to remake Zatoichi in western cinema?

TK: I'm not sure it would be feasible to import the characters of Zatoichi to a foreign country. If I remember correctly, I once saw a western where the protagonist is a blind man and he has a sidekick beside him at all times. He's a master gunman but he needs advice from his sidekick, like "Three inches to the right." It's like the rally car competition, with a driver and an assistant who will navigate you. I also have the recollection that the blind gunman movie flopped at the box office.

Q: The tap dancing ending was delightful, but why did you choose to end the movie on a musical number?

TK: I'm really happy that people liked the tap dancing scene. I was warmed. But this pacing and the use of dance is traditional in Japanese films. Most Japanese period drama has a happy ending where townspeople will gather in a festival and dance and sing and live happily ever after, after all the bad guys have gone. I dared to challenge that clichéd format and make it my own because, in the preparation period of the film, I thought it would be boring to make the characters do the traditional folk dance. That wouldn't be very exciting visually or sonically. I had been interested in tap dancing since I was a young aspiring comic 30 years ago and there's a tradition in the Japanese art forms like Kabuki where the actors would stomp their feet wearing wooden clogs, which is very much like American or Irish or western tap dancing. So I thought, Why not try to incorporate those two seemingly different elements: Western style tap dance and Japanese traditional folk dancing. There are a lot of restrictions, so I wanted to go against and exceed those restrictions as far as I could.

Q: You've had a long collaboration with composer Jô Hisaishi. Why didn't you work with him on this film?

TK: To be very frank, Jô Hisaishi became too popular for me to hire because he's now famous for Miyazaki's films and my films. So now he's too expensive a composer. I'd rather work with a less well-known musician or artist if I have to spend the same amount of money, let alone more, to get Hisaishi.

Q: What's more important to you: The moral or the cinematic?

TK: I don't really care about moral perspective. I don't want to bring moral perspective into my movies because, at the end of the day, the general audience pays to see the movie. It's not like TV where you can watch it for free. They are paying hard-earned money to see the movie and they don't want to be given a lecture on morality. All they want is to have the film take them to someplace else and then back two hours later to the real world. They just want the movies to take them somewhere else. That's all I can ask for in watching movies. I don't want to persuade or give a lecture to an audience.

Q: Does the blind swordsman represent justice?

TK: It's not that this film represents justice and winning the day. If Zatoichi really existed, he might not be such a good thing. He brings complications. If you look at the story of my Zatoichi from a different perspective, you can say that there are the townspeople, the farmers, the merchants, all living in a one horse town which is ruled, more or less, by the bad guys. They have their own lives, sufficient lives, and with the sudden appearance of this blind masseur, their lives are turned upside down as he slays the bad guys. You can say that without Zatoichi they would have led sufficient lives, so the ultimate bad guy in this movie is Zatoichi himself. It sounds politically incorrect, but it reminds me of the Iraqi situation right now. The Iraqis are living, not happily but sufficiently, under... I don't know who the hell is controlling the country before the Allied forces started ruling Iraq, but it's kind of similar.

Q: You've become internationally famous since Hana-Bi. What kind of effect has that had on you?

TK: Even before Hana-Bi, I was a very popular comedian in Japan, to the extent that I literally could not walk down the streets of Tokyo by myself, whether I wanted to go to the bookstore or watch a movie at the cinema. I cannot go by myself because of the security. I would be mobbed by fans in Japan and I used to hate it so much. But especially after Hana-Bi, it become a little more difficult to walk along the streets of Venice or Paris. Sometimes passers-by would recognize me, that I'm Takeshi Kitano, and the same thing that I'm sick and tired of in Japan started happening in Europe. I used to hate it so much in Japan, and if that's going to be the case in Europe, I'd rather not be famous. Because I like to walk along the streets, at least in Europe, by myself and have a nice relaxing walk. But seriously speaking, when I started making movies I didn't really have specific audiences in mind, whether it be domestic or international. What's most important is to be faithful to your desire as an artist, to make what you want.

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"As long as it's fun."

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Sean Axmaker
A film critic for the Seattle Post-Intelligencer and a DVD columnist for the Internet Movie Database, Sean Axmaker is also a frequent contributor to MSN Entertainment, Amazing Stories, Asian Cult Cinema, Greencine and His reviews and essays are featured in the recently released Scarecrow Movie Guide.

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