Worth A Look: 11.11%
Just Average: 22.22%
Pretty Crappy: 33.33%
4 reviews, 12 user ratings
by Mark Freeman
Kikujiro is an uneasy, uneven follow up to the powerful, awesome perfection of Kitanoís previous film, Hana-bi. Takeshi Kitano is one of the leading contemporary Japanese filmmakers, and his previous films have shown an impressive precision, a finely wrought, simply realised approach. Hana-bi walked the knifeís edge of silent, painful human drama and brutal violence
with such ease Ė small details carried such a weight of import that the emotional impact of that film was frequently
overwhelming. With Kikujiro, Kitano aims for a broader stroke, pitching to the sort of obvious tricks and sentimentality that are associated with the grown man/young child buddy movie that has proven popular since Chaplinís silent classic The Kid.And Kikujiro aims to replicate much of The Kidís pratfalls and silliness, its growing respect between the protagonists, the bond that forms throughout their journey. Unfortunately, much of Kitanoís efforts are strained, the forced humour proving more grim and desperate than engaging and heart warming. This film is essentially a road movie, as the flawed, infantile adult Kikujiro (Kitano) takes young charge Masao (Yusuke Sekiguchi) to visit the mother he has never seen, a woman who abandoned him in the care of his grandmother shortly after birth. Itís a pity that the road trip is so long, stalling along the way to feature a range of absurd characters that play out their eccentricities in front of the child, because the opening, closing and pivotal confrontation scene are all handled with such grace. But itís the bits that fall in between these posts where Kikujiro starts to fall apart, rendering it a largely unengaging, cumbersome film that seems to plod from episode to episode seeking light heartedness, and only uncovering leaden, stodgy sequences which weigh the film down and defeat the moments of temporary buoyancy that crop up intermittently throughout the film.
"Kitano Meets The Kid"
Beginning with the sequences centring on Masao, Kitano evokes the childís isolation and desire for freedom in several perfectly staged moments. Long crane shots isolate Masao on a basketball court, surrounded by the empty playground, his quiet, meticulous eating regimen delivered in silent formality. The free spirited image of Masao running joyfully through the streets, angel backpack secured to his tiny frame suggest to us the freedom to which he aspires. It is this desire for liberty, and to surmount the obstacle of his motherís neglect that encourages his attempts to run away and seek her out. Stopped through circumstance to adopt a guide, the careless, deceptive Kikujiro, the film then takes a slower, more ponderous, less successful turn. It is as if the fluidity and studied thoughtfulness of the opening moments suddenly shifts gear into forced comedy with this one development, and we find ourselves at a race track, where ĎMisterí insists Masao is somehow blessed, and can predict the winners of each race. It is, of course, a foolish notion, and Masao soon proves no better at the game than Kikujiro does, but the scene is played too long and too labouriously to sustain the promise of its opening. We get the joke in the first couple of minutes, but Tikano insists on following the sequence through to its relentless and obvious conclusion. And this is indicative of much of Kikujiroís narrative. Itís fairly inevitable where the story and the characters will lead us, but sequences that aim to make a point, or establish some nuance seem to suspect some idiocy in the audience, and the moment is stretched out for minutes too long, to reach a point that could have been made simply and effectively with a more economical approach.
In a film that never seems to develop any effective momentum, tighter editing, and less indulgence perhaps could have
provided Kikujiro with a more successful structure. But the film plods on further, gathering secondary characters as they go, with Mister proving more and more foolish with each passing episode. The pivotal scene where they finally arrive at Masaoís
motherís house, though, is handled beautifully, and itís a reminder of what Kitano is capable of when heís in form, and indeed, would have been a nice place in the narrative to tie things up. But we also get the trip home, which is really just more of the same, including an extended pause at the beach with two insipid bikers and a Ďnice maní in a combi. They play games here to keep Masao amused, and clearly itís Kikujiroís intention to help relieve the misery the child has just confronted. Itís touching, in a way, and the Ďfreezeí game they play nicely exemplifies the relationship between stasis and progress. But the buffoonery becomes too weak, the direction loses its subtlety, and the final farewells seem predictable and uninvolving. Despite a return to the images of a liberated Masao, there really is no concrete sense of this emancipation Ė itís like the journey was all about how to spend your school vacation rather than any progress of personal significance.
That said, off course, the film is seen very much through Masaoís eyes, and to him this, in many ways, simply how he spent
his vacation. From this restricted viewpoint, like the child, we donít learn ĎMisterísí name until the final moments, and the
narrative is specifically structured around a series of holiday snapshots. The structure in this sense works fairly well Ė we see
often the final result of the next episode, and wait to see how the narrative arrives at that conclusion. It emphasises the episodic nature of the film, and secures the perspective of the film for the child. But this cannot save the sluggishness of so many of the sequences, the heavy-handed attempts at comedy, and Kitanoís shameless mugging at the camera. Kitano maintains a formal, Ozu-inspired sense of framing and space, and there are some effective references to traditional Japanese theatre, particularly in the dream sequences. But his impassive, paralysed countenance seems to stumble during his attempts at comedy; his efforts to hitch a ride are a poor manís Chaplin, his slapstick generally uninspired and predictable. Itís not that Kitano is not funny, itís more that he is trying too earnestly to be funny, and although his antics keep Masao and his demons at bay, they do little more for the audience than become tiresome and irritating.As a director, Kitano is a formidable talent, and certainly his back catalogue is worth
investigating (including the excellent Sonatine). Kikujiro, though, tries too hard to be funny, too hard to be touching and is too
desperate in all its endeavours to replicate the style and class of his previous films. It has its moments, and when it works itís
truly brilliant, but the journey is a long one, and the payoff is minimal, and its uneven approach to the material renders Kikujiro
more irritating than sublime.
© Mark Freeman 2000
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originally posted: 12/16/00 08:47:27