You brought some remarkable changes to the character of Zatoichi, not in the least by playing him with blond hair. Was this an attempt at parody, a way to break with the tradition of the character?
I respect traditions, but it's my feelings that we can add new things to them. For tradition to continue being relevant to our times, it needs a certain amount of rejuvenation. If my portrayal of the character of Zatoichi comes across as being parodic, it's actually just an attempt to update him for our times.
In the beginning Zatoichi was a secondary character from a novel, and it was Shintaro Katsu who developed him into the character we know today. There are several characteristics that I couldn't touch for my film: he's a masseur, he's blind, he has a sword hidden in a cane and he's a master swordsman. Also, it had to be set in the Edo period. Aside from those conditions, I was free to make the movie I wanted. I chose to make Zatoichi's hair blond to make it easier to distinguish him in swordfights. Same for the choice to make his cane red.
You never felt a hesitation to take on such a clearly defined character and the legacy of an actor with such a strong presence as Shintaro Katsu?
This project was offered to me by other people, so I feel I wasn't in the position of an artist, but more of an artisan. I was asked to create something, so I made it with the intention of pleasing those people. It wasn't my original project, but despite those constraints I tried to enjoy myself as much as possible and give my own twist to the character. I watched one or two of the old films on video to see what they were like, but I certainly haven't seen all. I felt that above all they were too slow. If I was going to update it, I needed to add a more dynamic rhythm.
The character comes from nowhere, doesn't appear to have a family and his motivations remains mysterious. Why did you choose to make him such an enigmatic character?
It's true that I didn't give any explanation about the character's motivations and background. When I started this project I didn't think the film would get shown abroad and since the character is so well known in Japan I didn't think I needed to add any background information. In film you only have two hours to tell a story, so you have to make choices about what to include and what not to. Maybe if there will be a Zatoichi 2 or 3, we can go into where he comes from and add more details on the character.
When you were a comedian you used to make fun of samurai movies. Did you draw from that inspiration when making Zatoichi?
I feel like I assembled several things from my past in this film. We used to act out scenes from chanbara movies on stage, but in order to make fun of them. I also used to tap dance, and that element is in the film too. Cinema to me is the art form that combines all other art forms. In addition to making films, I'm a TV presenter, I write books and I paint. Cinema is a way for me to combine all these activities.
I get questions about influence from other films, but I really don't watch enough films to be influenced by them. I've been asked whether the tap dance scene was influenced by Bollywood movies, but I've never seen any Bollywood films in my life. The way that scene is executed is much closer to kabuki, in which they dance using the geta, wooden tap dance shoes. Those dances are a lot slower on stage than the dance in the film, but the rhythm is the same. For the fight scenes I went to back to the basics of kendo. There are movements in the swordfights that are rarely seen in films.
Why weren't you in the final tap scene? Almost every other character was in there.
It's only the good guys that are in the dance scene. In my view, Zatoichi is a villain.
You talk about the very traditional arts that you referred to in this film. In Dolls you already adapted bunraku. Do you consider yourself an ambassador for Japanese culture?
An ambassador? No, I'm more like a spy (laughs).
This is your first period film. Would you like to do more of them in the future?
I have some ideas for other period films. I'd love to do a film about the shogun, for instance, a big film about the history of Japan. But it would be huge project with thousands of extras and I think that financially it wouldn't be possible at this time. I have the screenplay ready, so if one day I have the opportunity, I'd really like to try it.
Perhaps Zatoichi is not such a big step away from your old yakuza films, though. Weren't these wandering characters and gamblers the historic precursors to the yakuza?
Yes, that's right. The word 'yakuza' is derived from '8,9,3', the worst hand in a traditional card game that's a little bit like blackjack. The yakuza were people involved in gambling, so the characters in this film are like very early yakuza.
As opposed to some of your previous films, there's only one gun in Zatoichi, and its user is a very dishonourable character. Do you feel that the sword is a more honourable weapon than the gun?
In feudal Japan firearms weren't very highly regarded, it was considered cowardly to use one in fights. In the film I used the gun to express the cowardice of that character. Also, in cinematic terms there is a fundamental difference between a gunfight and a swordfight. When you use guns, the opponent can be standing at a great distance, but in a swordfight you need to be close to each other, and it becomes a kind of choreography, a dance. It's more difficult to show actual action when you use guns.
Could you tell us about your reasons for using digital effects in the action scenes?
I tried to use as little CGI as possible. I used it especially for moments when there was bloodshed, with the aim of cushioning the impact of the violence and the pain. I wanted an effect that was reminiscent of a video game. To achieve the same effect I also could have used a different kind of exaggeration, making Zatoichi jump and flip, exaggerating his movements, but I didn't want to turn it into a Hong Kong martial arts movie.
Every time I'm interviewed, especially abroad, I always get asked about violence. I think my way of showing violence is different from that of other filmmakers. When I show it, it hurts. I don't want people to think it's just a game, because violence is painful. I'm often asked whether I like violence, but I don't think that's the case at all. If you compare my films to something like Die Hard, the death toll in my films is pretty low. But in a swordplay film violence and deaths are unavoidable. It comes with the territory, so I decided to go in the other direction in portraying the violence this time.
After your long collaboration with composer Joe Hisaishi, you chose to work with Keiichi Suzuki for Zatoichi. Why the change?
I chose to work with somebody else, because I had already shot the tap dancing scene and the scenes of the farmers working on the land. Those are all scenes that required percussion-based music, so the score needed to have that element to it. Mister Hisaishi as a composer is not very flexible, so I decided to use someone else.
Do you plan to work with Hisaishi again in the future?
He's been very successful with his work recently, so I fear he's become too expensive for me.
In this film the role of women is more central than in your earlier films. You've always made very masculine films in which women have always been relegated to the sidelines.
I love women and maybe that's the reason why there isn't a lot of space in my films for them. I'm a very shy person. I think that directors who make films about women, who give them very central roles, are men who don't like women. The day my desire for women becomes less strong is maybe the day I will make a film about women.
Many people are saying Zatoichi is your return to the form, as well as to the success, of Hana-bi. Do you feel that the last three films you made, Kikujiro, Brother and Dolls, were transitional films?
Hana-bi wasn't that big a success in Japan, commercially speaking. Brother did better, but none of them did really that well, commercially. But it's true that Zatoichi did very well in Japan. About two million people went to see it in the theatres.
But this film seems a more conscious attempt at offering entertainment. You've said in the past that your films are for 'very smart people and very stupid people', never for the big masses in between. So is Zatoichi an attempt to reach those masses?
It's really the result of the fact that it's a Zatoichi film. The character and his tradition dictate that this has to be an entertainment film. There was a challenge for me to not stay entirely within those confines, but in the end I didn't stray very far because the entertainment aspect was inherent to the project.
Were you surprised by the success Zatoichi had, critically and commercially, especially in view of the fact that this wasn't your own project? Thanks to the distribution deal with Miramax and the prize in Venice, this will probably become the most widely seen of all your films.
It's a bit like a gourmet chef with a very classy restaurant but no customers, who is asked to cook cheaper, more popular food and suddenly sees people lining up to eat. I prefer to make more personal films, but these jobs for hire are a nice thing to fall back on. They're like unemployment insurance in case my own films don't do very well, and maybe one day I will need to make a Zatoichi 2.
But to be perfectly honest, I'm not that happy about the success, because success can be very bothering. In Japan I can't walk down the streets without people wanting to talk to me and asking for autographs. That's why I enjoy coming to Europe and the US, because nobody knows me there. I'm sure the producers of this film are very happy with the success, because it brings in a lot of money, but it doesn't help me lead a quiet life.
Is this also a reason why you rarely shoot your films in the city?
Yes, I prefer to shoot my films with small crews in quiet, secluded locations. On the one hand the stories demand those locations, but it's true that if I shoot in Tokyo I can't concentrate on my work because people constantly ask me for my autograph and take pictures.
Why did you choose Tadanobu Asano for the role of the bodyguard?
Asano is a very popular actor, but I don't like most of the films he has appeared in. I thought he should try to do some different types of parts, so I asked him to audition for this film. I was really happy with what he delivered. Even when he doesn't speak, Asano brings something extra to his performance that other actors don't have. You can do wordless close-ups of him that are twice as long as with other actors.
You've talked about the Kurosawa influence on some of the scenes of Zatoichi, particularly the swordfight in the rain. Kurosawa's daughter Kazuko made the costumes for the film, so how did she feel about that?
While we were filming the rain scene I asked her "Don't you think it looks like one of your father's films?" and she replied: "Not at all." Then later with the scene of the retarded boy who wants to be a samurai, I asked "Don't you think this is just like Dodes'kaden?" and again she said "Not at all" (laughs). Those moments aren't really homages, they're more like winks, funny little references.