On the May 12 edition of the TBS current affairs variety show “Newscaster” comedian “Beat” Takeshi Kitano made a joke about homosexual unions during a discussion of U.S. President Barack Obama’s recent comment in support of same-sex marriage. Kitano’s mission as the program’s resident chief commentator is to barbecue sacred cows and put an everyman spin on hard-news stories. He said that if you supported gay marriage “then eventually you would support marriage to an animal.”

The other regular commentators chuckled uncomfortably, not sure exactly how far Kitano was going to take the joke, but actress Eri Watanabe was sufficiently shocked to ask him what he meant, prompting a conversation involving purported legal incest in Egypt and the bullying of children raised by homosexual couples. If Kitano had intended his initial statement as a gag, he hadn’t bothered to work it into a routine. Then again, if it wasn’t a joke he also didn’t possess the rhetorical skills to develop his line of thinking into a coherent argument.

Which is to say, Kitano, whatever his real feelings about gay marriage, found himself with his foot lodged firmly in his mouth, and that is exactly the sort of situation he’s paid huge sums of money to avoid. He is supposed to be a master of ad libs and the cuttingly truthful remark, and here he was sounding like a narrow-minded ojisan (old man) who has never had any conscious interaction with homosexuals, which is difficult to believe given that he’s been a show biz fixture since the 1970s. Maybe it was an act, a calculated provocation, but Watanabe’s reflexive response forced him into a defensive posture that seemed to reveal his real feelings.

“Beat” Takeshi is the king of all media, but the local press didn’t cover his remarks, which were broadcast live. The foreign press did because, as Takeshi Kitano, he’s earned a substantial reputation among internationally-minded film geeks as a quality director, and the joke was characterized by overseas reporters as gay-bashing. Apparently, Kitano values his international rep enough to have drafted a statement for AFP, the wire service that first reported the faux pas. “I was only talking about people who love their pets so much that they may think of marrying them,” went the explanation. “There is no way I look at gay people the same as animals, let alone implying sexual relations with animals.”

The statement suggests not only that his words were misconstrued, but that they were misconstrued in a salacious way; which is a better joke than the one Kitano attempted at the expense of same-sex couples if you factor in his typically adolescent sexually suggestive humor. But it doesn’t sound as if it was intended as a joke. It sounds as if he’s accusing the foreign press of having a dirty mind.

The only reaction the remark received in Japan was from LGBT individuals and organizations who condemned Kitano’s small-mindedness and lack of compassion. Conversely, Watanabe became a hero. On her blog she wrote that she was overwhelmed by “encouragement” from readers who admired her for standing up to Kitano. “I just said what I felt at that moment,” she wrote, and went on to describe the influence that Plato’s “Symposium” had on her as a girl, specifically Aristophanes’ eulogy to love, which posits humans as originally being “double” beings whom the gods split in two. Consequently, all of us, homosexuals and heterosexuals alike, spend our lives looking for our other halves. Everyone seeks another to “complete” them. “I am heterosexual, but I didn’t decide to be heterosexual,” she says. “That’s determined by your nature.”

The essay occasioned even more effusively positive comments. “Thank you for talking back to the world-famous Kitano,” one said. “Powerful people often make off-the-cuff comments that reveal their true colors. I wasn’t surprised.”

Many probably weren’t. The 57-year-old Watanabe already has an image of being progressive on social issues, which is why her regular appearances on “Newscaster” are usually disappointing. Kitano is given free rein to expound on the week’s stories and the other commentators are expected to laugh, even when he’s not funny, but he never adds anything useful to the discussion. Because his film career gives him a cosmopolitan cachet, the media treats him as a towering cultural figure, but aside from movies he’s at best an amateur in his various artistic endeavors, and since the Japanese media is weak when it comes to arts criticism no one points this out.

What was revealing wasn’t Kitano’s crack about animals, but his more earnest observation that children of homosexuals will be bullied. Again, Watanabe refused to play along, countering that if children of gays were bullied it was a sad comment on society, not a problem of same-sex marriage. This was significant since Kitano’s humor is based on making fun of the weak. He may occasionally question accepted values and run roughshod on conventional thinking, but he never challenges the powers that be. For years he has hosted the TV Asahi political variety show “TV Tackle,” which regularly features lawmakers and bureaucrats, without actually taking part. His cohost, essayist Sawako Agawa, is much more apt to question the positions of the show’s guests.

But let’s give Kitano the benefit of the doubt and assume he was deriding not gays but the institution of marriage, which, like any institution, is always ripe for ridicule. If, as he says, there are people so in love with their pets they want to marry them, doesn’t that make marriage less meaningful? Perhaps, but he was tracing a line from same sex-marriage, thus implying that homosexual unions are less meaningful than heterosexual ones. No, that doesn’t work. Let’s face it, if Kitano wants to save face, he’ll just have to admit his joke sucked, which, for him, may be more difficult than admitting he’s homophobic.