Production Company: Bandai Visual, TOKYO FM, Office Kitano
Release: 5 June 1999
Length: 121 min.
Format: 35 mm; 1:1.85
Director: Kitano Takeshi
Producers: Mori Masayuki, Yoshida Takio
Screenplay: Kitano Takeshi
Photography: Yagishima Katsumi
Music: Hisaishi Jo
Art Director: Isoda Norihiro
Editor: Kitano Takeshi, Ota Yoshinori
Kikujiro: Beat Takeshi
Masao: Sekiguchi Yusuke
Kikujiro’s wife: Kishimoto Kayoko
Masao’s grandmother: Yoshiyuki Kazuko
Nice lady: Hosokawa Fumie
Scary man: Maro Akaji
Unexpected Takeshi - as Expected
Changing one’s style from film to film may not necessarily be the sign of a cinematic master, but it certainly suggests an adventuresome soul.
When Kitano Takeshi (also known as Beat Takeshi) won the 1997 Venice Film Festival with Hana-Bi, itself a movie both continuing and abandoning themes he had developed in his earlier work, one certainly did not expect the dean of contemporary Japanese directors just to sit on his laurels and make a sequel. But at least he would likely confine his alterations to mere “adjustments” in the Kitano world.
His Kikujiro, however, turns Takeshi on his head. Known as a comedian for his poisonous wit and as a director for his deadpan depictions of violence, Kitano would seem the last person to embrace a Tora-san mix of comedy and sentimentality that he has continuously ridiculed. But the non-violent Kikujiro seems to do just that.
Many self-proclaimed Kitano fans will be disappointed, an effect the always mischievous Takeshi probably intended. Pulling the rug out from under those who want to categorize you is fun, but when breaking expectations becomes expected, one wonders what the changes are all about.
Kitano is too talented a director to turn into Yamada Yoji. The tale of a young boy going on a journey to visit the mother he has not met in living memory has been done a thousand times, but Kikujiro puts more than a few twists into the story.
First, the boy in question, Masao (Sekiguchi Yusuke), is more the dumpy, forgettable kid picked last for playground teams than the cute, dewy eyed bambino most films use to squeeze out our tears. Second, the fellow taking him to see his mother during summer vacation is not some lovable tramp, but a sophomoric, good-for-nothing gangster who’s ordered to do so by his real boss, his moll (Kishimoto Kayoko).
Ultimately, the center of this road movie is not even Masao, but, as the title suggests, the gangster Kikujiro (played by Takeshi himself) who also tries to visit his own mother. When he takes over the movie, the mother quest goes out the window (both he and Masao “fail” to meet their moms), and the film sidetracks into a long episode of juvenile hijinks between the now united Masao and Kikujiro, an itinerant writer and two bumbling bikers.
Kitano’s predilection for static long shots, elliptical narration, and poker-faced acting, putting us at a distance from the characters, may also keep the tear-jerking to the minimum, but all in all Kikujiro, with the help of Hisaishi Jo’s music, is undoubtedly Takeshi’s most sentimental film to date.
Given his thematic shift, after his near-fatal motorcycle accident, from a cinema concerned with death to one exploring life, one can’t begrudge Kitano the opportunity to explore emotions he has ignored in his early films, but there is a sense he’s not always good at it.
Kikujiro is essentially told in a flashback, using “pictures” from Masao’s summer vacation diary to divide the film into chapters. Masao’s point-of-view is thus largely the film’s own, rendering its perspective child-like if not fairy-taleish.
The boy’s dreams and hallucinations are in fact interspersed throughout the film, but not all of them come off well. His vision of break-dancing mythical beasts one night at a shrine seems clumsy, and the angel amulet, given by Kikujiro to cheer Masao up, reeks of corniness when it comes to life at one point. This and lines like “I was once like this boy,” uttered by Kikujiro at a sleeping Masao, prove that Takeshi has not escaped the stale and conventional for all his undermining of expectations.
At its best, the sentimental story is an excuse for Takeshi and his characters to engage in the play that has always been a part of his movies. Gags dominate the film, many at the expense of Kikujiro who despite his bravado fails in his schemes to make money and catch rides. But it is in the few days of innocent fun at the end, during which the gangster, as a “director” of TV-like entertainment for Masao, finally lowers his sights and gains some control, when Kitano seems most relaxed and in his element.
Kikujiro itself can be seen as an expression of the fun time Kitano and his crew had in filming the movie, especially given how Takeshi tends to spontaneously change the story as production proceeds. We can certainly share in the fun, but it’s more like watching a home movie of your romp at the beach than a tight piece of cinema. Fooling with our expectations, Kitano can play with us if he wants, but not all of us will want to play along.
Reviewed by Aaron Gerow
Originally appeared in The Daily Yomiuri, 3 June 1999, p. 9
Copyright 1999: The Daily Yomiuri and Aaron Gerow