REVIEW: Kitano Strives to be Different with "Kikujiro"
G. Allen Johnson
(indieWIRE/5.25.00) — It would be understandable if anything Takeshi Kitano
came up with was disappointing to his American fans, as his only two films
to receive U.S. distribution, “Fireworks” (1997) and “Sonatine” (1994),
which were released just months apart in the United States in early 1998,
happen to be his masterpieces.
Those two films, which elevated his already strong body of work to make him
one of the world’s most important directors to emerge in the 1990s, were
less single explosions than movies that stop and start, with stretches of
heartbreaking beauty intermixed with sequences of startling, ugly violence.
They reinvented the yakuza film, yet as free and exhilarating as his style
is– unconcerned by normal cinematic conventions — there is a formal polish
worthy of the classic Japanese masters, particularly Yasujiro Ozu and Kenji
Mizoguchi. Kitano’s work wants us to feel, in as exact a manner as possible,
the fragility of life and the finality of death.
And so we come to “Kikujiro,” which in Kitano’s own words is an attempt to
“try and make a film no one would expect from me.” In one sense this is
true; this comedy about a retired yakuza who travels cross-country with a
young boy to find the boy’s mother has the feel of an improvised holiday, a
way of blowing off steam. It’s as if Kitano took great pains to avoid the
intense, demanding cinema he customarily produces.
Kitano, of course, plays the yakuza. The boy, Masao (Yusuke Sekiguchi),
lives with his grandmother and doesn’t have many friends. One day, after his
classmates disperse for the summer, he finds a picture of his mother, whom
he has never met. The boy becomes obsessed with finding his mother, and a
friend of his grandmother’s (Kayoko Kishimoto, who turned in a touching
performance as Kitano’s dying wife in “Fireworks,” here getting a change of
pace as a gum-smacking make-up-smeared dame) suggests her husband, the
The gangster has to reconcile his tough-guy image to become more fatherly
(easier said than done; he begins by gambling away what little money the boy
has at the racetrack) while the child must come to terms with the fact
that, ultimately, he is alone in the world.
Kitano’s visual gags, even in his “serious films, have always smacked of
silent comedy, with their elegant blocking and precision timing. So a
correlation between “Kikujiro” and Charles Chaplin‘s “The Kid” – also about
a man of the streets taking a child under his wing — is particularly apt.
But Kitano overloads his narrative with these pranks — such as a woman who
juggles fruit, two tough-looking bikers who dress up as fish or aliens to
amuse the child – and leaves story development by the roadside.
Admittedly, some of the predictable sequences, including taking the kid to a
hostess bar and working con games on roadside travelers, are irresistible.
Better still are some unexpected scenes in which the yakuza downright
ignores the kid, leaving the child to be puzzled, upset and maturing
quickly. But there is a tedious predictability to the proceedings and,
astonishingly, the first outright boring stretches in a Kitano film.
Kitano, who was widely known as a comic performer for years before he become
a director, and even now is said to star in no less than seven television
sitcoms and talk shows (“I do completely foolish things, like run around the
studio half-naked,” he once said) has made comedies before – the absurdist
“Getting Any Lately?” (1995) and “Kid’s Return” (1996). So despite his
reputation as a maker of character-driven yakuza films that are at once
amusingly detached and thrillingly intense, it appears he will always drift
back to comedy.
“Kikujiro,” then, isn’t really a departure. Nevertheless, with a few quiet,
moving scenes and a lovely ending, the film betrays an artist’s touch, no
matter how hard Kitano tries to make it look easy. Perhaps this was exactly
what he needed emotionally, so here’s hoping his next project, shooting in
Los Angeles and co-starring Omar Epps, will display the disciplined master’s
viewpoint so lacking in this one.
[G. Allen Johnson is the film critic for San Francisco Examiner. He has
also written for the Bloomington Herald Times, Pasadena Star-News, Los
Angeles Daily News and Indianapolis Star.]