“Dub Me Tender,” the T-shirted chest says, visible under a flowing white smock. “_______,” the beautiful face says, bedecked in youthful whiskers. Japanese superstar Tadanobu Asano looks nothing like the muted, murmuring ronin who gives Takeshi Kitano’s Stomp-ing samurai flick The Blind Swordsman: Zatoichi one of its rare emotional flash points. ” ‘Beat’ Takeshi is such a great comedian,” says Asano, “and to want comedy for my character would be, I don’t know, too greedy?”
Asano and Kitano (also barely on-screen together in Nagisa Oshima’s incredible Taboo) have defibrillated Japan’s beloved Blind Swordsman franchise, landing a massive hit at home and hoping for similar results on stateside screens still warm and dripping from Kill Bill. Kitano has elsewhere playfully insisted that one of his goals with Zatoichi (opening July 23) was to show the “real thing” when it comes to terse, ultraviolent swordplay: swipe, swipe—and perhaps one more—swipe. Does Asano see the movie as a corrective?
“I do,” he says. “There is something entirely unnatural about [Uma Thurman] with that samurai sword. I have seen both volumes and noticed both times and said to her, in my head, ‘Uma, that sword is going in the total wrong direction. The tip should be down, not up! Your head has to be lower!’
“Shintaro Katsu did over 20 movies as that character,” Asano says, explaining why Zatoichi was such a hit in Japan. “People turned out because of both that franchise, plus to see what Kitano would do with the material. Also, a lot of the younger crowd was drawn in by the very new, modern, hip elements.” Like that weird tap-dancing finale? “I’m sure that surprised a lot of people.”
Asano’s roles have veered wildly from outrageous wackodom (Ichi the Killer‘s yearning, tongue-halving masochist) to ghostly delicacy (his would-be suicide in next month’s Thailand-set Last Life in the Universe). He seems at peace with the extremes, and reports he has enough of an outlet with his graphic art and his two hardcore noise-punk bands, Peace Pill and Safari.
If there were a tap-dance battle between Asano and Kitano, who would win? “I couldn’t. You see, on the set, Mr. Kitano was always tapping away. No, no way.” What about a rock ‘n’ roll face-off? “In terms of intensity,” he says, “I would kick his ass.”