It may at first glance seem that Takeshi Kitano has taken the critical success of this year's Dolls to his head – he's directed his next movie, Zatoichi, with his eyes closed. Not so bigheaded, you realise, since he also plays the titular hero, a Japanese legend in the Zorro mould, only Zatoichi is blind, and a masseur by vocation. In the film, Zatoichi angers local gangsters with his uncanny gambling skills – thanks, of course, to his sensitive hearing. But there are some problems that enhanced aural capabilities can't cater for.
'At the very first costume fitting session that I did with crew members I was dressed as Zatoichi and had blond hair, blue kimono, green obi belt, a red cane sword and I wanted to check myself, how I looked with my Zatoichi costume. So I walked up in front of the mirror holding the red cane sword and basically closed my eyes and found out that there's no way I can check with my eyes how I look as Zatoichi.'
Kitano sits back on the leather sofa, every bit as cool as his screen persona, detached, intensely alone. You find yourself watching eagle-eyed for a chink in the armour, and when it comes in the form of eye contact or a throaty chuckle, it's all the more rewarding for its rarity, although that's not to say the anecdotes are few and far between.
'With your eyes closed you cannot judge the distance with yourself and the actors that are coming to get you,' he continues. 'I was supposed to hunch with this angle but instead I hunched further, and because of that the opponent's sword swung this close to my eye. I nearly became a real-life Zatoichi myself during the rehearsal. But after all we managed to really consolidate the movements because the opponent actors are all specialised samurai action bad guy actors, and they're really good at being slain with swords, so by the time we got to shooting it was okay.'
Acting blind was just one of several challenges Kitano faced – or imposed on himself – for Zatoichi. It is the first time he has attempted a period piece, and also the first time since Violent Cop (1989) that he's directed from an idea conceived by someone else. Kitano was approached with the project by Chieko Saito, his former mentor and close friend of the late Shintaro Katsu – who played Zatoichi in films and on television for nearly thirty years. Kitano was hesitant, especially when asked to take the lead role as well, and when he finally agreed it was on his own terms - to a certain extent.
'In order to disrupt or add something to existing film or art or whatever, you have to have extensive knowledge of the original.' This, Kitano did not have – nor did he have the desire to learn. 'My condition upon my concession to do this movie and to direct and star in the movie was that, "okay, I'm going to keep the name of the movie and the name of the character, he will be Zatoichi and he will be a blind masseur, and a sword masterman. That's as much as I would be faithful to the original and everything else would be entirely my own creation, and would that be okay?" and she said, "yes, whatever you say, Takeshi."'
Once Madame Saito had her Zatoichi, though, she still had a bit more to say. Kitano came up with a first draft of the script in which the key characters were Zatoichi, the evil gang who hold the villagers under a reign of terror and Hattori the masterless ronin. 'And then Madame Saito came up to me and said she also owns a sort of vaudeville theatre troupe. She recommended this young actor who cross-dresses on stage, and she handed me his profile photo and said, "Takeshi, would you use him in the movie, he's a good kid and he's really good." I didn't know what to do with him, a teenage actor who is good at cross-dressing, what am I going to do with him?' And so the transvestite geisha and his sister were born – a pair of vengeful sirens who hook up with Zatoichi and his motley crew to try and rid the village of its violent oppressors.
'Then I completed the second draft and Madame Saito came up to me again: "Takeshi, sorry to bother you so many times but a younger kid here is also good, and he's also in the same troupe, and would you use him in the movie?" Well, a younger boy, what am I going to do? Okay... flashback! So every time I finished a draft she would come up to me and recommend somebody which forces me to change the whole story... even during the writing process and the shooting process the script kept evolving or changing.'
Whilst many of the Kitano trademarks are present - long takes, wide vistas and of course scenes by the sea ('when you want to shoot a movie in a very smooth way not distracted by autograph-mongers or photograph-mongers, it's just simply, the convenient location to go is the ocean') – the characters and period setting are just the start of Kitano's newly diverse approach. CGI blood effects, tap-dancing and synchronised harvesting all had their part to play. He pumped a lot of fake blood around the set whilst shooting, but found afterwards that it looked too 'realistic and painful'.
'So, I decided to exaggerate the blood splattering to give it a more video-game look. I had a lot of discussions with CGI artists and one of the most frequent requests that I gave him was: I want the blood to look like a flower blossoming.' If it seems odd that Kitano, renowned for his violent Yakuza movies, would shy away from realism, again it's part of his whole approach to this film. In classic Kitano - Hana-Bi (1997), Sonatine (1993) - the gunplay is random, blunt and unchoreographed; it holds a brutal, moral realism. But Zatoichi is an attempt at something more playful and eclectic – hence the tap-dancing, the transvestite geisha and the kid who roars around the village with a wooden pole, convinced he is a Samurai warrior. These disparate elements are all grounded in Japan's cultural heritage.
'We have a tradition in Japanese traditional entertainment like Kabuki where after the female actors were banned from appearing on stage they used young boys to play the female characters in Kabuki plays. And also the folklore about those loons running around half-naked, just wanting to be a Samurai or whatnot... basically he's one of those idiot boys in the neighbourhood. With tap-dancing, again in Kabuki they have a similar form of tap-dancing where the Kabuki actors would wear the wooden clogs and just stomp on the wooden floor to make a sound. But what I did in Zatoichi was take out all the existing ideas or existing historical facts and to somehow rearrange them in a modern way... or my interpretation, to use it as a cinematic element.'
The tap-dancing troupe Kitano uses, The Stripes, appear in a couple of incidental scenes, firstly farming to the rhythm of the soundtrack, and later building a house, their hammers and saws again providing the beat. It adds to the dreamlike or scrapbook-style feel of the film, and only partially prepares a non-Japanese audience for the grand tap-dancing finale – Japanese period dramas frequently end on a song, but Kitano has said that he thought the basic premise of a blind masseur-cum-sword master was 'in itself preposterous enough for me to set out to make an all-out entertainment movie.'
Rhythm was a major concern for Kitano. 'From the writing stage I wanted to include the rhythmi performance scenes sporadically in the movie and to end the film with the festival dancing scene so I was very conscious about giving the right tempo and speed and rhythm to the movie. And that affects the way I edit the movie and also probably it affects the way I choreograph and shoot the sword fighting scenes.' The Stripes came up with some basic rhythms, which composer Keiichi Suzuki then elaborated upon for the soundtrack. 'For me personally Mr Katsu's original Zatoichi is a bit too long, I felt, a bit too boring because it's slow-paced. So for my movie I didn't want the audience to go, "wow, too boring, too long, too slow" so I was again very conscious about keeping a comfortable rhythm.'
This from the man who would characteristically show a car travel its entire journey from A-B nine times, just for the shock impact of it crashing mid-journey on the tenth. In fact, Kitano seems with Zatoichi to have lost a certain confidence in his ability to hold an audience. At times the various aspects of Zatoichi seem thrown in because of a lack of faith in the source material; Kitano's trademark blend of style and substance becomes a bit lopsided towards the former. As a result, Zatoichi can be seen as a fun, visceral slash-em-up for the uninitiated, or an interesting experiment to Kitano's loyal fans, but it hardly stands up next to the masterful, artistic achievement of Dolls or the focussed, philosophical joyrides of his mid-nineties gangster films.
But who would begrudge him the right to diversify? Kitano is in control – he describes himself, his true self, as being his own 'manager or producer or manipulator' controlling the various Takeshis (writer-director-editor, actor, comedian, columnist, he even has his own extreme gameshow, Takeshi's Castle) from above, like marionettes. However, behind the cool, authoritative front dwells the psyche of a man who has designed his own on-screen death over and over, as his alter-egos find themselves hurtling down existential cul-de-sacs. You sense there is still much to come – even his nightmares read like Tarkovsky.
"I had a terrible motorbike accident several years ago and I was bedridden and later, the doctors told me that I could have been dead with the accident. I still remember the first moment I woke up from that accident. Every now and then while I'm working in Japan, or here talking to the British journalists asking me about my films, while giving interviews I can't help shaking this fear of, "what if I'm still dreaming?" And after all these years... I've made several films after the bike accident, all of these are just a dream and I would wake up one day and find out about the condition I'm in, and what if everything that happened after the motorbike accident was a dream? For instance this morning I wake up, I can't instantly open my eyes. I gradually open my... "it's not a hospital is it? no? Okay I'm in London, I'm in London, I'm doing promotion!"'
Assuming we're not all a product of a comatose Kitano's subconscious, or in fact even if we are, the films keep coming, whether they are the arthouse roles and cameos he somehow finds time to play or his own creations.
'What I want to do someday in my movie is to come up with a script, shoot the whole thing, and during the editing I'd basically scrunch up the footage that I'd shot and just pick randomly the rushes,' he says, pondering his creative technique as we draw to a close. 'You put that in order of your arbitrary choice and make one film out of it, and to make the audience understand the whole film and the story, that would be the birth of Cubism in the movies.' There's a smile on his face again, but whilst this may be a cineaste's idea of a joke, you know that if Kitano does decide to turn his hand to it, it might just happen.