Combustible Celluloid
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With: 'Beat' Takeshi, Yusuke Sekiguchi, Kayoko Kishimoto, Yuko Daike, Kazuko Yoshiyuiki, Great Gidayu, Rakkyo Ide, Nezumi Mamura
Written by: Takeshi Kitano
Directed by: Takeshi Kitano
MPAA Rating: PG-13 for a threatening incident
Language: Japanese with English subtitles
Running Time: 122
Date: 05/20/1999

Kikujiro (2000)

3 1/2 Stars (out of 4)

Japanese Vacation

By Jeffrey M. Anderson

Sometimes an "auteur" likes to make a radical departure from his normal routine and what we've grown accustomed to. On the one hand, change is good. We need to be shaken up a little from time to time. But on the other hand, when we go to see a serious drama by Charlie Chaplin (1923's A Woman of Paris) or a detective movie by Akira Kurosawa (1963's High and Low) or a costume drama by Martin Scorsese (1993's The Age of Innocence), we tend to resist. So when the brilliant Japanese writer/director/actor Takeshi Kitano makes a new movie, Kikujiro, and it's not a violent gangster epic, we may not know what to do.

The fact is that Takeshi Kitano has already made a few non-violent movies. It's just that those titles, A Scene at the Sea (1991) and Kids' Return (1996) have not been released here in the U.S. yet. So his new Kikujiro is not really that much of a departure. It will just seem so to Americans.

In Kikujiro, Takeshi, who acts under his nickname "Beat" Takeshi, plays an irresponsible and cranky husband who is charged with bringing a lonely boy (Yusuke Sekiguchi) back to his mother during summer break. So it's a road trip movie with a cute kid and a guy who doesn't know how to act around cute kids. In Hollywood, this might have become a horrible schlock-fest with Dustin Hoffman, Haley Joel Osment (or some lesser cutie), and lots of violin music. But filtered through Kitano's distant and deadpan touch, the material works, and it works well.

Once on the road, Takeshi's sharp tongue and short temper quickly earn him a lot of enemies. None of this is meant for violent effect as in Sonatine (1993) or Fireworks (1998), but instead for comic effect. Viewers might remember the small comic moments in those gangster movies, like Takeshi continually bouncing a baseball off a colleague's head in Sonatine. If you magnify them up to feature length, you might be able to imagine Kikujiro. Long sequences take place at a hotel, a bus stop, and a campground, and Takeshi milks them for all the laughs they're worth before moving on.

As in most Takeshi Kitano movies, nobody really seems to be in a hurry. In the gangster movies it made sense -- someone was hiding out, waiting for the heat to die down. Here it seems that Takeshi's character and the boy simply need some time away from reality. The director adds three more oddball characters to the mix; a traveling poet/writer who gives our heroes a ride, and two Harley bikers known as "Fatso" and "Baldy". At the tail end of the trip, the five decide to camp out for a few days and run around playing games straight from a Beach Blanket Bingo movie.

Takeshi divides the story into "chapters" for a "What I Did Last Summer"-type composition, showing us a snapshot of something that is to come. And it's usually something shocking or nonsensical, such as a picture of Baldy wearing makeup with octopus legs around his neck, and standing neck-deep in water. It captures our attention and makes us wonder what's going to happen. And at the 3/4 mark, when the boy's mission to reach his mother ends in failure, the film feels like it's going to wind down and end. But then Takeshi suddenly shows us another chapter -- himself laying bloody and broken on the ground -- with the caption, "Fell Down the Stairs". It abruptly stops that winding-down feeling and continues the action seamlessly.

The movie also uses a lot of cartoon-like effects to bend reality. For example, we can't bother ourselves with the fact that the boy's grandmother thinks that he's gone to the beach for a day, but is gone for what seems like a couple of weeks. We also can't think about where Takeshi gets such props as makeup, signboards, a cane, and other things used for comedy effect. He's almost like Wile E. Coyote, ordering props from ACME.

At 122 minutes, Kikujiro runs a little long for a comedy, and it does stick its toe into sappy territory a couple of times. During those times I found myself missing the gangster stuff just a little bit. So Kikujiro is just a hair less successful than some of Takeshi's other films. But it's as funny as any summer multiplex American comedy, and that makes it both a good place to start for Kitano first-timers, and a must-see for fans.

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