Takeshi Kitano is a man of many careers. He started as a stand-up comedian in Tokyo strip clubs, where he went by the moniker Beat Takeshi. He eventually rose to fame on Japanese TV, hosting the hit show Takeshi’s Castle, a physical game show that inspired a whole genre of shows such as It’s a Knockout and Wipeout. Though popular, Japanese audiences still saw him as the funny man from TV, even after his international film debut as a tough POW camp sergeant in Nagisa Oshima’s Merry Christmas, Mr. Lawrence alongside David Bowie.
Determined to be taken seriously as a dramatic actor, Kitano began writing and directing crime thrillers and comedies such as Violent Cop (1989), Boiling Point (1990), and Sonatine (1993) where he starred in deadpan roles as a yakuza gangster or neo-noir cop. His efforts paid off with the release of Hana-bi (aka Fireworks) in 1997, which combined those tropes with a delicate romance. Kitano played a retired police officer caring for his dying wife while fighting off yakuza loan sharks. The film won the Golden Lion at the Venice Film Festival, establishing Kitano as one of Japan’s foremost modern filmmakers.
Since then, much of his output has been yakuza crime thrillers such as Brother and the Outrage trilogy, as well as art-house dramas like Kikujiro and Dolls. However, his biggest hit came in 2003 with Zatoichi, an adaptation of a long-running Japanese film and TV franchise about a blind samurai.
At the age of 76, Kitano shows no signs of slowing down. His most recent project is a reboot of Takeshi’s Castle for Amazon Prime in Japan, and he has completed his 20th film, Kubi, a 16th-century epic that traces the events surrounding the Honnō-ji Incident, in which a group of samurai tried to assassinate Japanese warlord Oda Nobunaga. The event, which would shape Japanese history, has long been a source of speculation and conspiracy theories as to the motives of the people involved.
Kitano spoke to The Hollywood Reporter at the 2023 Cannes Film Festival, where Kubi had a special, out-of-competition screening.
Reflecting on his career, Kitano said that he has had a diverse career because he was not able to succeed at one thing, so he moved on to the next thing, and then the next thing. Looking back, he said there is nothing that he is particularly proud of.
His first encounter with international audiences was through Takeshi’s Castle. However, the first film of his that won over audiences outside of Japan was Hana-Bi. Kitano recalled a severe motorbike accident he had before making the film, with some predicting that he would never recover. He won the Golden Lion at the Venice Film Festival with the film, which he said was breaking out of the past generation of Japanese cinema and trying to do new things. It also turned things around for Kitano, who was receiving negative press before the win. He remembers thinking: “This is a weird world.”
Kitano’s latest film, Kubi, is another samurai film, but it’s about a particular and pivotal point in Japanese history, which is the 16th-century uprising against the warlord Oda Nobunaga. Kitano researched the history of the era and even wrote a book about it. He said that the Warring States era (where the story takes place) is the most interesting period of Japanese history for him. However, the history surrounding these great, powerful figures has often been written by their entourage and has been misrepresented. Kitano researched the uprising, and although the academic interpretation may differ, he used his imagination and came up with a theory that he portrayed in the movie.
Takeshi Kitano is a versatile artist who has spent decades of his life in pursuit of artistic excellence. Whether it is as a comedian, game show host, actor, or director, he has continued to evolve and challenge himself throughout his career.