Kikujiro (Kikujiro no natsu) (Japan, 1999) ***
Directed, written, edited by Takeshi Kitano. Photography, Katsumi Yanagishima. Art editor, Norihiro Isoda. Music, Joe Hisaishi. Cast: Beat Takeshi (Kikujiro), Yusuke Sekiguchi (Masao), et al. In Japanese, with subtitles. A Sony release. 116 minutes. PG-13.
Takeshi Kitano (b. 1947) is now probably the best-known media person in Japan. He started out in a comedy-club stand-up duo "The Two Beats" which went on to television. "Beat Takeshi," became one of the names Kitano uses as an actor. He then became a TV superstar ( to this day he appears in 8 programs a week), a movie actor and a director-writer-editor as well as a literary person and a cartoonist and painter, Some of his art work can be seen in "Kikujiro." The Kitano cult in Japan roughly approximates the American enthusiasm for Quentin Tarantino, with whom Kitano superficially shares violence and cool. But Kitano consciously changes styles. He prefaces the notes on "Kikujiro" with this statement::
"After 'Hana-Bi' ['Fireworks'] I couldn't help feeling that my films were being stereotyped: 'gangster, violence, life and death.' It becomes difficult for me to identify with them. So I decided to try and make a film no one would expect from me. To tell the truth, the story of this film belongs to a genre which is outside my specialty. But I decided to make this film because it would be a challenge for me to cope with this ordinary story and try to make it my very own through my direction, and I tried lots of experiments with imagery. I think it ended up being a very strange film with my trademark all over it. I hope to continue upsetting people's expectations in a positive way."
The genre Kitano refers to is the old one about a kid bonding with an adult. The many reviewers of "Kikujiro" have mentioned a plethora of titles. although no one seems to remember one of the best, the French "The Two of Us." The reviews have been overall middling to negative, which is unfair.
Summer holidays finds Tokyo schoolboy Masao at loose ends, bereft of pals and things to do. He is also bereft of a mother. She's stepped out of his life long ago, left him with his grandma, a working woman, yet regularly sends money for the kid. Masao is nine, a bit fat by Japanese standards, a bit short by American standards, a bit moody and pretty quiet by any standards. He decides to go and visit his mother.
From this point on the spectator must forget about realism, verissimilitude and logic. Grandma has a friend whose middle-aged husband Kikujiro is a fellow who strikes rough poses, is gruff, insulting and aggressive, but probably has a heart of deeply hidden gold. The wife orders him to accompany the kid's peregrinations, so that we get a sort of road movie with semi-picaresque sides.
The film is, depending on your reactions, slow, leisurely, with an oriental tempo (whatever that is), sweet, full of chutzpah (amply provided by Kikujiro), improbable, absurd but nice, absurd and irritating, charming but predictable, charming and full of surprises, unreal, surreal, silly, dull, quietly exciting and inventive, and so on...
I will not get into details, descriptions or even an outline. My own reaction to the movie is most positive. I like its quiet surprises, a great deal of subtly humorous inventions, a few cliches and many anti-cliches, the rough but not objectionable edges, sparse dialogue, and its originality disguised as deja vu. The main annoyance is not the story but a simple, very nice jazz-like music score (piano and strings) by the director's pal and collaborator. This gets repeated so incredibly often that with all due respect to the most talented Kitano, you wonder about his musical ear. Otherwise, this movie is one that I enjoyed at the 1999 Cannes Festival and which I just saw again with undiminished pleasure.