aka Kikujiro no natsu

Japanese language. Japan, 1999. Rated PG-13. 121 minutes.

Cast: Takeshi Kitano (as "Beat" Takeshi), Yusuke Sekiguchi, Kayoko Kishimoto, Kazuko Yoshiyuki, Beat Kiyoshi, Great Gidayu, Rakkyo Ide, Nezumi Mamura, Fumie Hosokawa, Yűko Daike, Akaji Maro
Writer: Takeshi Kitano
Music: Jô Hisaishi
Cinematographer: Katsumi Yanagishima
Producers: Masayuki Mori, Takio Yoshida
Director: Takeshi Kitano


Grade: B- Review by Carlo Cavagna

K ikujiro is a comedy. Know that going in, because otherwise you might not realize it until the film is half over. Being a Takeshi Kitano movie, Kikujiro is as subdued as a comedy can get. But if you pay close attention, you may find Kikujiro to be hilarious.

Kikujiro concerns a lonely young boy on his summer vacation. Nine-year old Masao has no one to play with. He lives alone with his grandmother (Kazuko Yoshiyuki), who is often away at work, and all his friends are out of town. One day Masao chances upon his absent mother's address and decides to set out looking for her, despite his lack of money and her living in a distant city. It's a bad idea to begin with, but it gets worse. Shortly after starting his journey, Masao runs into one of his grandmother's friends (Kayoko Kishimoto), who insists that her indolent husband, Kikujiro (Kitano), accompany the boy. (Kishimoto also co-starred as Kitano's wife in his previous film, the superb Hana Bi.)

Kikujiro (whom Masao knows only as "Mister") is, basically, a jerk. He is abusive, loud-mouthed, and irresponsible. A former Yakuza put out to pasture, he's not above petty thievery. He is also an avid gambler. The first thing Kikujiro does is take Masao to the racetrack, where Masao accidentally picks winning numbers. In one of the film's funniest scenes, a long series of losing bets is cut into a progressively more ludicrous conversation in which Kikujiro berates Masao into picking more numbers. By the end, Kikujiro has blown all the travel money given him by his wife, and Masao's allowance to boot.Kikujiro and Masao

Although Kikujiro is unpredictable, even haphazard, it doesn't take a genius to guess that the man and the boy will eventually effect positive changes in one another. But Kikujiro is no Jerry Maguire or–god forbid–Big Daddy. There is no Pivotal Moment at which Kikujiro has an epiphany about his feelings. There is no Heartfelt Speech. (In fact, there isn't even a Big Climax. The closest thing comes with a half hour of movie still to go.) Kikujiro and Masao remain their essential selves throughout the movie. Masao gradually comes out of his shell, and the changes in Kikujiro are expressed mainly by the fact that he starts browbeating people in order to achieve Masao's goals rather than his own.

Comedy is usually funniest when you can recognize real people at the heart of it. In Kikujiro the farcical elements work because Kitano allows the humor to flow organically from the characters he has painstakingly created, using juxtaposition to highlight their idiosyncracies and contradictions. Through their personalities, the characters create the situations, rather than the other way around, as in the average American sitcom or romantic comedy, which usually use farcical routines to introduce new characters, who, by being associated with a specific kind of nutty behavior are then defined by it.

Unlike other Kitano movies, traditionally set amid bloody crime wars, Kikujiro seems unusual for Kitano, and it is... initially. Though Kitano is a famous television funnyman in Japan, he hasn't fully shown his comedic side to international audiences. To play Kikujiro, Kitano, the ultimate minimalist actor, is much more animated than in previous film works. Of course, that's still pretty low key. No one will ever accuse him of overacting.
The Big Picture

Despite farce and flights of fancy, Kikujiro fits neatly into Kitano's filmography. By the end of the two hours, fans of Sonatine and Hana Bi (a.k.a. Fireworks)–Kitano's best-known works in the United States–will recognize his favorite themes and motifs. All these films advocate learning to let go of your cares and responsibilities in order to celebrate the simple joys in life.

Though Kitano's visual style in Kikujiro is far more whimsical than in other films (watch for the digitally inserted Octopus Man fig leaf!), he maintains his meticulous eye. Each composition is a thing of beauty and possesses a slightly alien quality that we Americans might be tempted to call "Asian," but is probably unique to Kitano's films. Kikujiro contains more panning and zooming than Hana Bi, whose compositions possess the stillness of rock gardens, but Kikujiro's style is similarly detached–which often has the effect of making farcical situations seem funnier.

Kitano overreaches, however, in his effort to add symbolic weight to the light story, which makes it seem overlong. The narrative framework, a series of illustrated journal entries entitled "What I Did on My Summer Vacation," is also unnecessary.

Kikujiro is not so much a story as a series of vignettes, each tied loosely to Masao's search for his mother. Whether Masao finds her is beside the point. The film is really about Masao's loneliness–and Kikujiro's loneliness, too. Like Sonatine and Hana Bi, Kikujiro eventually takes a weird, playful detour, during which the greedy, opportunistic Kikujiro, like the Yakuza in Sonatine, learns that if you spend all your life grasping for something more, you wind up holding nothing at all.

Review © July 2000 by AboutFilm.Com and the author.
Images © 1999/2000 Sony Pictures Entertainment. All Rights Reserved.

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