Production Company: Office Kitano, Bandai Visual
Release: 27 July 1996
Length: 108 min.
Format: 35 mm; 1:1.85
Director: Kitano Takeshi
Producers: Mori Masayuki, Tsuge Yasushi, Yoshida Takio
Screenplay: Kitano Takeshi
Photography: Yanagijima Katsumi
Music: Hisaishi Jo
Art Director: Isoda Norihiro
Editor: Kitano Takeshi
Masaru: Kaneko Ken
Shinji: Ando Masanobu
Teacher: Morimoto Reo
Chairman of boxing gym: Yamaya Hatsuo
Trainer: Shigehisa Goichi
Hiroshi: Kashiwaya Kyosuke
Sachiko: Daike Yuko
Gangster boss: Ishibashi Ryo
Sachiko’s mother: Oka Mitsuko
Beat’s Bold ‘Return’
When Beat Takeshi’s motor scooter skidded into a telephone pole in 1995, leaving the popular comedian near death, the wideshows may have been concerned about the fate of the myriad of TV shows he hosted. But we in the film business wondered if this one hope of the Japanese film industry would ever return.
As the director of such masterpieces as Boiling Point (“3-4 x jugatsu,” 1989), A Scene at the Sea (“Ano natsu, ichiban shizukana umi,” 1991) and Sonatine (“Sonachine,” 1993), Kitano Takeshi (the real name he uses when behind the megaphone) had garnered international acclaim (and support from the likes of U.S. director Quentin Tarantino) to prove that Japanese cinema is far from dead.
Luckily for us, this kid has returned. However, with Kids Return, his first directorial effort after the accident, we are faced with a more realistic, bleaker world than the one portrayed in any of his previous films.
The story of Kids Return, like those of Takeshi’s previous movies, can be summarized on a postcard. Masaru (Kaneko Ken) and Shinji (Ando Masanobu) are two high school juvenile delinquents who spend more of their time shaking down classmates for their spare change than studying. When the leader of the pair, Masaru, gets floored by a more skilled thug one day, he drags Shinji to a boxing gym to learn the trade together. Only the quiet Shinji, however, shows talent and Masaru quits to join a local yakuza gang. Yet neither can succeed in their new “professions” and the film concludes with the two together, perhaps friends again, but with little changed in their lives.
What makes a Takeshi film is less this kind of plot than the style. His characters are always laconic and poker-faced; their actions–trimmed to a minimum by the editing and shown in long take long shots–are repetitious and mundane, often stripped of the most dramatic moments.
Yet in this rhythmic banality, there are eruptions of brutal and unexpected violence, savagery which is surprising to us but utterly commonplace to the expressionless characters keeps us on the edge of our seats.
In a film like Sonatine, this tension between stillness and violence eventually explodes in a bloody, almost liberating finale. Yet this never happens in Kids Return. Its world is as tense and unpredictable as the rest, but the frustrations only continually build without any conclusive solution.
In this sense, Takeshi’s first film after confronting his own mortality is probably his most realistic. Sonatine’s cathartic end is equally a utopian erasure of self at the cost of death, but Kids Return leaves us with the intense weight of a world without escape or relief, the world all of us has to face.
It can be argued that this film is Takeshi’s paean to the simple pleasures of life like friendship and freedom, epitomized by the occasional gags typical of Beat Takeshi that are scattered through the movie. In addition, Shinji’s failure as a boxer is equally his decision to reject the rigid control of training that interferes with his relationship with Masaru.
But his is not the only washout. Takeshi’s camera also focuses on peripheral characters who are drowning in the pressures and expectations of their jobs and everyday life.
Such individuals are seemingly condemned to world of repeated actions (the film’s temporality remains ambiguous throughout). Shinji and Masaru may have rediscovered their friendship at the end, but that last scene exactly repeats the one at the beginning.
If this is freedom, it is one trapped in an almost cruel circularity. In Kids Return, Kitano Takeshi has come back from the dead to brilliantly show us the ironies of living.
Reviewed by Aaron Gerow
Originally appeared in The Daily Yomiuri, 25 July 1996, p. 11
Copyright 1996: The Daily Yomiuri and Aaron Gerow