Page 1

TOUGH 72 / C 0 2 .


CLOWN THE WEST COULDN’T CREATE A CELEBRITY THIS BIG WORDS AND PHOTOGRAPHY READE TILLEY C 0 2 . / 73


t’s a small club in Yokohama, holding maybe a hundred or so

waiting, whether on set or for an elevator, he’s constantly tap-dancing,

people. Still, the noise is impressive. Loud conversation, painted

shuffling and moving his feet. While talking, he occasionally pulls at

girls laughing and guys in dark suits sternly calling for watered-

the right side of his face, toning muscles paralyzed by a near-fatal

I

down whiskeys to be replaced. The evening’s entertainment — a comic — comes on stage and the club chatter dissolves into

motorcycle crash in 1994. “The strange thing about the structure of human beings is that,

expectant applause. He takes the microphone and warms up with

biologically speaking, humans have the sense to feel pain,” he says.

a few one-liners about the Yakuza (the Japanese mafia) and its

“That is probably the thing that kept human beings running to live. If

members’ traditional punishment of cutting off part of the small finger:

you take that sense to feel pain away from humans, then we can

“You know, the applause isn’t so loud tonight. I’m guessing we have a

easily die. I’m not that scared of dying, because one of the few things

few Yakuza in the house — probably they don’t have enough fingers to

I’m looking forward to is that, probably, when I die, I’ll be able to see

clap right. Yeah, you know, for you Yakuza, I’m sure you’ve all spent

if God exists or wherever the hell it is that religion came from. Spiritual

some nice summers poolside, and I can assume you look like you’re

and religious questions will be much clearer when I die. Probably.”

dancing or drowning when you’re trying to swim, paddling with fingers

Takeshi used to love riding and collecting Harley Davidsons, but

missing and all. Yeah, and when you teach your kids math, you can

he no longer rides. Nor does he drive cars or ride bicycles, and he

only count to eight. That must be tough for you guys…”

avoids planes when possible. He prefers to travel by train.

In a flash, there’s a man charging the stage with a drawn

The audience is Yakuza. The comic is Beat Takeshi. And the story is

“Tell ’em what you’re about without saying a word.” — from a Harley Davidson catalog Takeshi used to run the elevator in a strip club. He was 24 and in

nothing special — not really, not if you know anything about Takeshi.

college. “I was in the engineering department, studying laser beams

Takeshi Kitano, aka Beat Takeshi, is a national institution in

and stuff like that,” he remembers. “I was doing my thesis on laser

sword yelling, “I’m going to kill you.” Five others point guns at the comic’s head. It’s a tough crowd; they don’t like jokes about Yakuza.

Japan. Ridiculously popular, the 55-year-old actor represents a mix of violence, comedy and tenderness difficult to find in a single Western

beams but, before I completed it, I got kicked out.” His mother sent him money for tuition, but he spent the money on

personality. A combination of Robert DeNiro, Frank Capra, Steve

himself, hence the expulsion. So, he pursued comedy. His first public

Martin and Jean Reno — and then some — he’s appeared in at least

performance was at the strip club, which also featured a variety show.

20 films and directed nine of his own. In addition, he’s written piles of

One of the actors got sick and Takeshi replaced him in a comedy sketch.

newspaper and magazine columns, books of satire and fiction and

He eventually left the strip club, but comedy stuck. For eight years he

reams of poetry. He appears in as many as eight prime-time shows a

struggled, performing “manzai” comedy on stages and in clubs around

week on Japanese television, including programs on science, art,

Japan. Manzai, like Abbott and Costello/Three Stooges–style gags, pits a

strange Japanese habits, talk shows, game shows and comedy bits.

straightforward guy against a buffoon. The buffoon feeds the lines, the

And he paints. Like any good artist, he’s also reflective.

straight guy knocks him over the head and says “Shaddup.” Takeshi

“In the early ’80s, I could sense I was at the peak of my comic

was not the buffoon. He was wildly successful. “By the tenth year, I was

endeavors,” he says, speaking of his initial glory years when his

hugely popular and suddenly got rich. In a two-year span, I went from

comedy duo, The Two Beats, earned him the frenzied popularity

making $1,600 a month to making $150,000 a month. It happened

he still enjoys. “I felt like I was somehow inhabited by some other

almost overnight. Now, I can’t go to the restaurant where I used to go,

entity… like somehow I was possessed by an unknown comedy force.

and I have to reserve a private room every time I want to dine out.”

When I listen back to the tapes of my radio shows and watch the

His stone face and tough-guy demeanor, which Americans

videos of my comic shows during that era, I can see that I was funny.

may know from films like Brother and Boiling Point, combined

In the last several years, I don’t necessarily find myself funny. I get

with a lifestyle that somehow keeps him running parallel to Japan’s

the feeling the audience is somehow mesmerized or that they have

underworld, have helped Takeshi build a severe personae that he

the preconception that ‘There’s this funny guy Beat Takeshi doing

maintains today, even if it’s not exactly accurate.

comic routines in front of me,’ so that can make them laugh rather

“I understand how people perceive me and my private life,” he

than the very thing I said. An accumulation of what I have done in

says. “So, in order to please the public, I act as if I’m showing my

the past is the advantage of my recent comic routines.”

privacy, but my privacy is nothing to do with the virtual privacy that I’ve shown to the public. That’s how I treat privacy vs. public demand.”

“What you don’t see is what you get.” — from a Harley Davidson catalog Today, Takeshi works out of Shibuya Studio in Tokyo, where one of

(For the record, he says he doesn’t really get the Yakuza’s affection for

his TV shows is filmed. His walk has been described as a “Popeye

they can tell that I’m like them.”)

him. “They say they can smell the same wavelength from me; I don’t understand what they mean, but when I meet Yakuza guys, they say

swagger,” which isn’t exactly wrong. But contrary to his tough-guy

for long, apparently unaware of or uncomfortable with the fact that

“It’s a story no one on earth could have made up.” — from a Harley Davidson catalog. Some of Takeshi’s public image is presented for specific people, and

everyone around him seems reverential — and they are. He works

presented subtly. During the interview, he’s wearing a particularly

with a group of utterly devoted comedy disciples who appear on his

ornamental, unwound watch. “I have to wear this watch for today’s

shows and in his films. An assistant calls them his “acolytes.”

show,” he says. “What happened was this: There are three big mob

screen presence, he comes across as a bit shy in person, looking around the room and at the floor, rarely making direct eye contact

In Takeshi’s dressing room, a simple enclosure holding little

families in Japan, and two years ago, one of the top bosses gave me

more than a tatami mat, he smokes and shows that he’s good at

this watch, and I was wearing it on my show to show that I liked it —

looking comfortable when he’s sitting down. When he’s standing and

otherwise the henchman of the boss would go, ‘Oh, Takeshi didn’t like

74 / C 0 2 .


A watch from a serious admirer. Below, filming one of his many television shows at Shibuya Studio in Tokyo. [Thank you to Fuji Television Netwo rk Inc.]

JUST A FEW OF TAKESHI’S FILMS: Brother (2001) Kikujiro (1999) Violent Cop (1998) Fireworks (1997) Johnny Mnemonic (1995) Sonatine (1993) Boiling Point (1990) Merry Christmas, Mr. Lawrence (1983)

the watch,’ and he’d call and be like, ‘Takeshi, I’m going to kill

“Years ago, I went to Osaka and I met this girl who worked

you’ — and then the other family’s big boss noticed the watch

for a parlor — she’s what you would call a call girl. I was

and thought ‘Oh, Takeshi is wearing that watch, it must have

hopelessly in love, and I spent six months with her. I brought

come from the other family; I have to give him a more

her back to Tokyo and we lived together.” He reflects for a

expensive watch.’ And so a competition started between the

moment, then pauses and smiles: “It took me a huge amount

two biggest Japanese crime organizations over who would

of money to make her go back.”

outdo the other with giving me nice watches. Eventually, I had

He dreams, and wants to make a movie about his dreams.

to call the bosses and beg them, ‘Please don’t bother with any

He says he wants to eat at Kentucky Fried Chicken but can’t,

more watches.’ I have a drawer full; yeah, that’s the truth.”

because he’d be mobbed by fans. He says he wants to fall in

Takeshi’s film work is as diverse as one could imagine: He

love again with his wife. He’s gone on stage immediately after

portrayed a brutal jailer in Merry Christmas, Mr. Lawrence;

hearing that his cousin died, and immediately after hearing

mixed edgy comedy with massive violence in movies like

that his kid had been badly burned and was in the hospital.

Boiling Point and Sonatine; played a deaf-mute garbage man

“The ideal second step is that I should have just canceled the

who learns to surf in Scene by the Sea; and took on a host of

show and gone straight to Osaka to be with my kid — and

other characters in a host of other movies, all of them a bit

that’s how the ideal father should be — but for me, it’s more

peculiar, brutal and uncomfortably funny. It might be said that

virtuous to finish what you started, to finish your business; only

Takeshi is the heart in the stories that line rough streets. Even

then can you turn to your private self. I probably would have

his experiences with love have all the angles — jagged edges,

been more saddened if I didn’t finish the performance, sadder

sincerity, tenderness and humor.

if I had to cancel the show. That’s my position as a comedian.” C 0 2 . / 75

Tough Clown  

Takeshi Kitano's Open Heart

Read more
Read more
Similar to
Popular now
Just for you