The Last Samurai: A Conversation with Takeshi Kitano

The revered director describes his latest film, "Kubi": a samurai film by turns gruesome and ravishing set in 16th-century Japan.
Leonardo Goi

MUBI’s retrospective Takeshi Kitano: Destroy All Yakuza—featuring Violent Cop, Boiling Point, and Outrage Coda—is now showing in the United States, Canada, and select countries.

Kubi (Takeshi Kitano, 2023).

The presidential suite of the Grand Hotel Yerevan sits at the end of an amber-lit, carpeted corridor. The door comes fitted with its own CCTV camera, the concierge proudly gloats as an elevator slingshots us several floors above the ground, “so guests can feel safer.” Not that the current occupant has much to worry about. Guarding the suite on this exceptionally hot July afternoon is a small platoon of suit-clad Japanese men, looking equally stern and jet-lagged. The lucky few who get to pad in and out of the room do so in reverential silence, and even those outside speak in hushed voices, lest he should be disturbed. 

"He" is somewhere in the suite right now, and his name is Takeshi Kitano. The director traveled to Armenia to pick up the honorary award at Yerevan’s Golden Apricot International Film Festival, and to screen his latest, Kubi, thus far only released in Japan last November after its world premiere in Cannes—where Kitano, to the best of my knowledge, gave no private interviews. I’m still surprised this worked out, and as a man informs me I will have to remove my shoes upon entering, and another recommends no handshakes, and another spots a waitress ferrying a tray of water bottles and massages each to find the one whose temperature Kitano will find most amenable, the whole experience has already turned into a movie of its own.

It is difficult to account for the director’s popularity without resorting to hyperboles. Now 76, Kitano rose to fame in the 1980s as Beat Takeshi, one half of the stand-up manzai duo “The Two Beats,” and later cemented his comedic credentials with the iconic Takeshi’s Castle, a game show where guests were challenged to all kinds of borderline sadistic feats. Takeshi’s Castle became a planetary sensation, as did its host. So indelible was Kitano’s bawdy TV persona that to see him star in anything other than his prime-time shows must have felt like a glitch. Understandably so: by the time he replaced director Kinji Fukasaku to helm his first-ever feature, Violent Cop (1989), Kitano was a 42-year-old megastar averaging seven TV appearances a week. Audiences couldn’t quite square the “Beat” they knew with a director-actor suddenly engaged in serious projects, yet Kitano’s cinema is rife with such antinomies: between “Beat” Takeshi and Takeshi the auteur; between Kitano the cineaste and Kitano the actor; between bloodshed, comedy, and tragedy. Far from getting mired in these frictions, his films thrive off of them. 

Kitano’s a 21st-century polymath: cinema aside, he’s written novels and exhibited paintings. He’s also something of a genre nomad. All his features orbit more or less explicitly around crime and violence, but their handling of those themes has varied considerably. In a career spanning over thirty years, Kitano has toggled between contemplative works (A Scene at The Sea, 1991; Kids Return, 1996), melancholy crime films (Boiling Point, 1990; Sonatine, 1993; Fireworks, 1997), yakuza capers (the Outrage trilogy, 2010-2017; Brother, 2000) and even some commentary on his irreconcilable public personas (Takeshis’, 2005; Glory to the Filmmaker!, 2007). Where his earliest projects handled violence parsimoniously—trading in elisions that often left the most gruesome and graphic details offscreen—that ascetic style gradually gave way to more explicit, full-frontal displays. 

So it is for Kubi, a period piece that may well go down as Kitano’s grisliest. Based on a novel the director wrote in 2019 and adapted for the screen with co-scribe Takehiko Minato, the film chronicles a few tumultuous years in 16th-century Japan. It centers on the 1582 Honno-ji Incident, when, after a long and bloody internecine struggle, famed warlord Nobunaga Oda (Ryo Kase) was murdered by one of his generals, Mitsuhide Akechi (Hidetoshi Nishijima, last seen in the backseat of a Saab in Ryusuke Hamaguchi’s Drive My Car). It’s a story of greed, made almost impossibly intricate by a plot packed with a dizzying number of characters (among them Kitano’s own, Hideyoshi “The Monkey” Hashiba, a peasant-turned-warlord looking to replace Nobunaga), conspiracies, and betrayals. Hard as it becomes to keep track of all of the film’s doomed heroes—to say nothing of their constantly shifting allegiances—Kitano’s sleek filmmaking keeps matters exhilarating throughout. For all the bloodletting and record-breaking number of decapitations, there’s also room for moments of same-sex intimacy and gallows humor, a refreshing departure from the country’s mainstream costume dramas.

A few hours before a flight will ship him back to Japan, I remove my shoes and find Kitano sitting in his suite’s living room. He’s in a good mood, one of his producers tells me, and he’ll keep smiling all through the chat, which lasts much longer than we’d planned, as questions about Kubi soon swell into a much broader discussion around his craft, influences, and collaborators. Many thanks to the GAIFF festival team for arranging the interview, and to film programmer, producer, and interpreter Aiko Masubuchi for her invaluable help in translating the conversation. 

Violent Cop (Takeshi Kitano, 1989).

NOTEBOOK: Could we start from the film’s genesis? I know it’s based on a novel you wrote a few years back, and I’d love to hear how you went about adapting your own prose. 

KITANO: It all started thirty years ago, actually; I wrote a script and when the right opportunity came I shot it just the way I’d initially written it. Novel and film, in the end, shaped up pretty differently. The novel has so many more details and episodes but with a film, there’s always budgetary limitations. I wish we could have spent more money on building sets like Hideyoshi’s castle, for instance, but we didn’t have that kind of budget. Generally speaking, most films made today run just shy of two hours, so when you factor in those temporal constraints you’re going to have to take out a lot of things that were in the source text and simplify the story quite a bit, which is just what happened with Kubi

NOTEBOOK: One of the things I find most fascinating about your cinema is the interplay between Kitano the director and Kitano the actor, how the former employs the latter. What kind of relationship do you see between the two roles? 

KITANO: This may not be so true anymore, but the most difficult thing for me used to be my own background: people never forgot I started out as a stand-up comedian. So even when I played a serious role in my own films, people would laugh just by seeing me on the big screen. It took me decades for audiences to appreciate my scarier and more serious films. These days it’s not so rare for a filmmaker to be both a director and an actor. It was a lot more difficult in the past. I’ve made comedies—I’ve made all sorts of films—but I remember there was a time when I made a gangster film and when they saw me on the screen everybody laughed. That was tough. No matter which role I’d play, in a film or on a stage. I started out as a comedian, and I felt like I couldn’t get away from that image. It made it very difficult for me, for a long time. I tried to change people’s perceptions of me. Which took me decades.

NOTEBOOK: For all the blood and gore, Kubi is also frequently humorous. I was hoping we could talk about the role of humor in your cinema, and how you go about weaving lighthearted interludes into a story as horrific as this. 

KITANO: Laughter has a rather devilish side to it, I think. Whenever people are nervous there is always a devil walking about. That’s why weddings and funerals trigger moments that make you laugh right when you’re not supposed to. During Japan’s Sengoku period [The Warring States Period, 15th and 16th centuries AD], things were obviously all live-or-die situations, but once you look at those events from a safe, objective place, chances are the devil of comedy will creep in. Naturally if you were on the battlefield yourself you may not be in the best position to realize this, but when looked at from afar, there are things that make you laugh out loud about those days. With Kubi, I wanted to maintain an objective perspective, but even though I approached the film “seriously” there were many details and moments that came across as ridiculous. And I just went along with them.

NOTEBOOK: You could say the same about the film’s beauty; there’s no denying how violent and horrific Kubi so often is, but even the bloodiest segments are always undercut by your eye-popping colors and stylized choreographies. It’s as though all the horrors were constantly prettified. 

KITANO: Well, a film is the product of one’s imagination, so the depictions are never entirely real. If verisimilitude was what I was after, then the images would probably be a lot messier. But our team, especially our lighting unit in Team Kitano [the director’s filmmaking crew] always manages to come up with ways to create non-realistic things and still present them to the audience as real-like and beautiful. They are very meticulous in their efforts to make the images look stunning, and I think they become so as a result of their hard work. 

NOTEBOOK: And how did that process unfold in Kubi, specifically? I’m asking because the film is full of stunning colors, like the contrast between the emerald grass and the blood spilled over it, or the visually ravishing locations. 

KITANO: There was a time when people would speak of my “Kitano blue,” a period when I would often unify my films with bluish colors. Stylistically speaking, this hasn’t changed much. I still generally use bluer hues, but in Kubi I wanted stronger accents to jump out, like the red of the blood. Fundamentally, I think that my images are impressionistic. I’m not super conscious of it, but my cameraperson and lighting designer really like to achieve that quality. So, without me asking, they will go ahead and set up for that. We’ve worked on several films together already so by now it’s all an organic process. 

NOTEBOOK: If I think of the way you’ve depicted violence in previous films, Kubi is a very far cry from your earliest features—Violent Cop, say, or Boiling Point. While those projects were cut in a way that elided the most graphic details, Kubi relishes in their full-frontal display. How do you account for these different approaches?

KITANO: With films like Boiling Point and other bold, older projects, I wanted to challenge people to picture violence in their own heads as opposed to seeing it onscreen. Which is why I often cut away like that, and left the most gruesome bits for you to imagine. But Kubi is a period film; even the average Japanese person might not be familiar with the events we talk about. It’s a famous chapter in Japanese history, sure, but there are different interpretations even among historians. And there are many opinions about it. That’s why I decided to be more meticulous. I figured that the audience needed to first understand things about the period that it’s set in, so I tried to be very precise about how the plot developed. In my early films, you would instantly know who the bad guys were, and the kind of violence they inflicted on others was such that their reasons didn’t really matter for the story. 

NOTEBOOK: There’s something very refreshing about your approach to these historical figures. I’m not sure if “mocking” is the right word here, but Kubi certainly does question its characters’ supposed heroism in ways other samurai films do not. 

KITANO: That’s the big difference between the films I’m interested in making and the kind you may watch on national Japanese broadcast channels, like NHK. Those studios keep churning out dramas about the main players of history—folks like Hideyoshi, Nomura, and Ieyasu—all of whom were successful, to some degree. I didn’t want to do that. Stories about famous feudal warlords aren’t interesting to me; I’m much more interested in showing how embarrassing and terrible these supposed heroes actually were. What I wanted in Kubi was to create a story that could yield an alternative reading of how those people obtained their fame. I don’t think many films have done this, and when I thought about making a period piece myself, I wanted to try a new style with it. I didn’t want to do something like TV. Akira Kurosawa too pursued an alternative approach to historical epics; I respect him deeply, but it’s not possible for me to shoot images like him.

Kubi (Takeshi Kitano, 2023).

NOTEBOOK: I know you paint, and also that you “hate being influenced,” as you’ve stated many times before. So I was curious to hear if you think there’s any overlap between the two art forms—if you think painting has shaped your filmmaking in any way.

KITANO: Directors often draw storyboards to show their film crew how they want to shoot. I’ve never done that. I did learn storyboarding, but I just couldn’t draw them, and whenever I had to, I’d sketch some based on the completed films. I do paint, it’s true, but I don’t really accept my paintings as being very good. Back when films were shot on celluloid, there was this technician who worked at the developing labs, and we would watch our films there. In other words, you didn’t know what you shot until you watched it. Today, with digital filmmaking, the images you end up with are generally the same you see on your monitor, so there isn’t as much joy. In our celluloid days, we would gush about the colors that we captured. We would talk about how beautiful it is to film at sundown. That’s how I became aware of how vivid colors could be, and other such details I wanted to show in my films. 

I had a bike accident [in 1994] and hit my head; I was hoping that would turn me into Picasso, that as a result of the accident my colors would suddenly glow. I tried painting, but there was no effect at all. To me, the image in a film is far more photographic; I don’t think I am very influenced by painting.

NOTEBOOK: Do you think the accident changed the kind of stories you wanted to tell?

KITANO: Not really. I was hoping it would have an impact on my soul, or rather my psyche. But nothing of the sort happened. Stupid will always be stupid, even after a near-death crash. 

NOTEBOOK: Since you brought up Akira Kurosawa—this is your fourth film working with his daughter, costume designer Kazuko Kurosawa. The garments she’s crafted are nothing short of ravishing. Could you speak more about your collaboration? 

KITANO: Kazuko Kurosawa has handled the costumes in several of my films, but she’s also stood behind me on set on many occasions, and I’ve been able to count on her advice whenever stuck. She’d say things like “My father used to do it like this,” and she’d tell me all kinds of anecdotes about Kurosawa. She’s helped me a lot that way. I remember this one time, on the set of Zatoichi, when we were filming passersby in a town. We were using contemporary actors, and they didn’t really know how to dress in a kimono: their hips were too high. [Translator’s note: there’s a common myth that Japanese people today have longer legs than in the past.] They just didn’t look good in period wear. That was when Kurosawa’s daughter came up to me and said, “Takeshi, in moments like this, my father would release a dog. That way, the audience will watch the dog and barely watch the passersby.” So I immediately asked for a dog, but we couldn’t find one, and the crew went after a stray they saw on the street. Everyone got bitten and had a terrible time. 

NOTEBOOK: The way you describe it your approach sounds really collaborative. Does this extend to the way you handle your actors? Do you usually leave room for improvisation or do you have a very rigorous, predetermined idea of what the film will look like?

KITANO: Sadly, in Japan, the country just doesn’t cooperate much with the film industry. You can’t shoot in a city that won’t really help you with traffic control. Which means we’ve often had to go to different locations, and change the actors’ lines entirely. There’s no way you can make a film in Japan without adaptability and flexibility. I want to shoot my films the way I imagine them, but given the way things are in the country, your projects have to keep on changing. 

NOTEBOOK: Do you see a connection between Kubi and the films of your Outrage saga? Samurais and yakuza seem to operate in the same war-against-all scenario; I was curious to hear how you square your latest within your larger filmography. 

KITANO: I think Kubi and the Outrage saga follow people trying to grab the crown, and bad people murdering others with no remorse. After all, the yakuza incorporated some of the hierarchical dynamics of the Sengoku period—this relationship between bosses and their underlings—and made them part of their organizations. They embraced this very romantic idea of dying for the people above you. Japan really improved in the postwar period, but a criminal lord’s ascent was still contingent on the sacrifice of those from lower ranks. Maybe thugs and samurais experienced similar things; I doubt they were particularly nice. 

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