CANNES '99 REVIEW: Jarmusch's Accessible and Funny "Ghost Dog"
by Stephen Garrett
"Quit playing gangster," scolds Kyoto Kishimoto, the woman playing Takeshi Kitano's wife, and the actor listens: his latest film "Kikujiro" is a whimsical about-face compared with the hip Yakuza/cop dramas for which the Japanese auteur is better known internationally as writer, director, actor, and editor, including the award-winning "Hana-Bi (Fireworks)," which nabbed the top prize at the 1997 Venice Film Festival. In this follow-up, Kitano once again reaffirms his quadruple-hyphenate filmmaker status by bringing forth an entirely unexpected children's movie, about Masao (Yusuke Sekiguchi), a 9-year-old boy living with his grandma who decides to spend the summer finding his mother. Accompanying him on the journey is Kikujiro (Kitano), enlisted by Masao's grandmother to look out for the boy; and together they learn the value of friendship.
The slight plot description is no exaggeration: there's not much substance to a cinematic souffls like this, and critical response was a generally warm but very muted enthusiasm. Kitano's debut in the main competition selection of Cannes, after having played the festival twice before in the sidebar series Un Certain Regard with 1993's "Getting Any?" and Director's Fortnight in 1996 with "Kid's Return," will garner serious attention from the jury; but the film's general frivolity, despite poignant moments, may keep it from winning any major awards.
The sweet, shy Masao makes a delightful antidote to the more brash Kikujiro, whose sassy retorts to the strangers on their trek and impulsive reactions to Masao's behavior are endearingly unpredictable. One highlight is a scene at a bicycle racetrack, in which Kikujiro asks Masao to give him cycle numbers on which to bet, invariably losing most of their money as a result. Another cute routine follows the two hitchhiking leads as Kikujiro flags down cars and tries everything to con a ride -- even pretending to be blind -- until Masao points out that simple courtesy is all they ever needed to get picked up. The film's easy-going tone admirably darkens at certain places, though, when an older pervert kidnaps Masao in a park and is about to molest him just before Kikujiro makes a last-minute rescue; and also when the pair reach the home of Masao's mother, only to spy from a distance, discovering that she has remarried and had another child.
But even with an undercurrent of sadness and neglect in his own life, Masao remains buoyed by Kikujiro's relentlessly playful imagination. Various encounters with strangers become opportunities to frolic and make new friends, to the extent that two tough bikers are transformed into sweet-hearted playmates, willing to don a helmet carved out of a watermelon shell or wear a necklace of fake tentacles and become an "octopus man" in the nearby sea. Everyone plays schoolyard games together, and suddenly dresses up in different costumes and lathers on bright, happy face paint for the simple joy of it.
As with "Hana-Bi," the filmmaker's own folksy paintings appear in the film; and for the fifth time Kitano uses Joe Hisaishi's music, adding a simple, upbeat melody throughout the meandering story that eventually teeters between being jubilant and just plain grating. Kitano's eye for framing shots and delight in contrasting images through editing remains fertile, with his own mise-en-scene developing as he experiments heavily with prolonged superimpositions and optical effects that pleasantly reinforce the whimsy of his tale. With "Kikujiro" (slated for stateside release from Sony Pictures Classics), American audiences only used to Kitanto's more serious, stone-faced demeanor will have a chance to see his lighter side -- Kitano, of course, is reknowned in Japan for his comedy (he appears eight times a week on Japanese television) -- Kitano fans, take note: the filmmaker's former comedy partner, Beat Kiyoshi, plays a brief cameo.