(Takeshi Kitano, 1999)
In Takeshi Kitano’s films, the director often plays the world-weary yakuza character central to the action. Or, he might play a cop so violent that even hardened yakuza cringe. He bills himself twice. As an actor he takes his credit as Beat Takeshi, the name he used and still uses in his television comedy program. His film personae combine monosyllabic toughness with short, extremely cruel acts of violence.
For his eighth film as a director, Kitano is once again the yakuza, here named Kikujiro, the title of the film. You know he has a yakuza past when he shows us the elaborate tattoo covering his back. But he is also a rather ineffectual oaf, clearly past his prime, reduced to being at the beck and call of his wife and thus now having a little trouble asserting his authority. He meekly obeys when he is told by this blowsy female partner to take a small child on a visit to his mother in a distant town. She doles out the expenses he will need for the trip and arguing gets him no more. What’s left of his rebellion is reduced to blowing his expenses in a series of ill judged bets at a cycling track, accompanied by some comic anti-social behaviour. Kikujiro is eventually forced to try and make the journey by any free means he can.
The yakuza’s temptation is to try threats and bluster, combined with some ham-fisted pretence. Most of the journey is accomplished when the child himself manages to cadge lifts. The temptation for Kitano would no doubt have been to revert to his former violent self. But in Kikujiro we are presented with the sight of male decline and a change from violent reaction into the unexpected comedy of the road. It’s filled with some splendidly hilarious set pieces and has more than a few star turns by the Kitano ensemble. His model he said was The Wizard Of Oz and clearly there is a fairytale element to the narrative. There is an angel bell, heard tinkling in the opening, and odd characters ranging from straight-laced hotel clerks to a couple of strangely polite bikies, the only characters seemingly prepared to carry out whatever command Kikujiro barks at them.
It would be divulging too much to give any details of the family reunions that do and don’t take place in the film. Its most affecting moment comes not when the boy sees his mother but when Kikujiro himself searches out his own mother – the gentle parallel of mutual loss is touching. But don’t get the idea that this is a film of any maudlin sentiment. Quite the opposite: Kitano and his cameraman Yangijima Katsumi frame their scenes in quite static and composed shot sequences, many of which leave out the key piece of action thus creating even funnier jokes out of any number of bits and pieces of Kitano comic shtick. (If you have been lucky enough to see Kitano’s only out and out comedy, the very dirty Getting Any? , you will be unsurprised by the occasional ribaldry and bad manners on display here.)
There is finally no great denouement to the story. Apart from the early scene when the child Masao is enticed away by a paedophile, there is no danger and no thrills. The narrative rambles along through a series of chapters, all laid out in advance with the key words featuring in a picture postcard opening. We wait for the moment to see just what is to occur that has produced the sometimes bizarre, sometimes banal images that eventually form a series of childhood memories. Clearly Kitano was enjoying the film sequence by sequence, inventing and improvising out on the road just as the characters Kikujiro and Masao must, without worrying too much about big finishes. If anything Kikujiro has a big middle and a gentle descent back to the normalcy of a school day. No search parties are sent out for the errant travellers. The rest of the world may as well not exist.
Until now only Hana-Bi (1997) has had a commercial release in Australia. Kikujiro joins it, as part of the Silk Screen series. Its release in Australia coincides with the first screenings of his latest film, Brother (2000), which is set in America and clearly intended to find an even greater audience for the director outside Japan. Meanwhile Kikujiro should expand Kitano’s audience in Australia. The often bewildering even swaggering thuggery of his early films, especially the thrillers Boiling Point (1990) and Violent Cop (1989), which he mixed in with more enigmatic work like A Scene at the Sea (1992), has apparently gone. He seems to have drawn a further, quietly comic veil over that part of his work and career. The veil was started with the quiet melancholy of Hana-Bi. It is continued with more joy and plenty of self-deprecation in Kikujiro. See it and see the work of the one Japanese director working today whose films are managing to cross continental divides.