Kikujiro

Before talking about Takeshi Kitano’s latest local release, Kikujiro (1999), I should admit that I’ve always been less enthusiastic about his popular breakthrough film, Hana-Bi (1997), than I felt I should be. While it was good to see Takeshi getting some well-deserved recognition in the Western cinema circuit, Hana-Bi seemed to be a step down from the apogee of his filmmaking trajectory reached in Sonatine (1993) and A Scene at the Sea (1991). The purity of form and content (combined with his spontaneously inventive style) that made these earlier films such outstandingly powerful experiences became more elaborate and deliberately self-reflexive in Hana-Bi. Like Joe Hisaishi’s music, the style of the film became less minimalist, more strategically sentimental, where the concept of purity itself was turned into a reflexive impulse. An effect of style rather than something attained through a deliberately prolonged narrative strategy.

It is for this reason therefore that I approached Kikujiro with a certain degree of apprehension. The crossover of genres – from violent cop-gangster epic to cutesy road movie – is not necessarily a problem for me (although it has made the film more difficult to sell internationally). However, I was most concerned that this ‘impure’ stylistic bent would continue. And indeed, within the first few seconds of the film’s 120-min running time, Takeshi announced loudly and clearly that it would. The image was again one of Takeshi’s paintings (of an angel, an important motif for the rest of the film), accompanied by Hisaishi’s saturated harmonies – and could well have been a shot from Hana-Bi. One gets from this image a similar ‘patchwork’ promise of extended sadness, of mixed dreams realized in fragments with an earthy vigorous humor. All good things, no doubt, and certainly making great cinema. But perhaps not quite what I was hoping for.

In Kikujiro, Takeshi has deliberately tackled the formula of those ‘cutesy’ kids films that Japan churns out – little kid goes on journey and bumps into assorted “colorful characters” before coming to a “heartwarming” finale. And he has turned it into something idiosyncratic: his own. To begin with, the cute elements are downplayed. Yet he hasn’t shyed away from them either – the first image of the boy, Masao, is of him joyfully running with angel wings attached. But Takeshi mixes this up with a harshness of space, of the indifferent and thuggish culture around Masao: whether it is the local gang exhorting lunch money, the indifference of the many adult characters, or the dark and creepy corners of society that a child alone will find. As a result, Masao doesn’t have time to be cute. Hardly a precocious word is spoken by him, and if anything he has ‘cuteness’ foisted upon him, such as when Takeshi buys him a colorful bike racing suit that verges on the grotesque (and contributing to some disturbing consequences later). Essentially, for much of the film’s deliberately meandering narrative Masao is subjected to a series of travails and humiliations with only the briefest moments of relief.

In stark contrast to Masao’s silence, then, his quite denigration into a form of despair, is the character Kikujiro played by Takeshi himself – the loudmouth troublemaking irresponsible lout who, in a perverse turn of logic, is entrusted to escort Masao to his unseen Mother. As usual, Takeshi has fashioned himself as the iconoclast, somebody who regularly steps outside the rules and gets away with it (most of the time) through a combination of guile, threatening behavior, or simple moxie. Except that here he is not nearly as complex and sympathetic a character as in Sonatine or Hana-Bi. In fact, of all of Takeshi’s previous incarnations, Kikujiro is most reminiscent of the ousted gangster from Boiling Point (1990), Uehara, where the willfulness and unpredictability (past moral considerations) make us fear what he might be capable of at any time. Thus, his treatment of Masao, while not nearly as malevolent, is in its indifference bordering on the despicable; and is only redeemed through small gestures, oblique moments, which are often only ‘glimpsed at’ with certain other malevolent clouds overhanging.

The irony remains that Kikujiro, despite all this, is still the primary source of humor in a film that is very funny. If there are precocious lines to be had, he’ll often get them. The jokes come thick and fast, and with Takeshi’s usual inventive slapstick style. More often than not they are reliant on people being hurt or embarrassed. This includes Takeshi himself, such as when he nearly drowns in a hotel swimming pool, and in successive sequences appears ridiculous trying to practice a breaststroke style. Takeshi’s playful control of the medium comes to the fore here. In scenes that are deliberately reminiscent of Sonatine‘s beach sequence, we find a bunch of guys getting together and just ‘playing’ while Kikujiro (sometimes thuggishly) orchestrates the whole thing in what is essentially a production within a production. Jokes and games begin obscurely, and then successively escalate in scale, while personalities are injected into the mix, mostly as stereotypes (part of the humor), but with little flashes of humanity to be glimpsed in the askance. If the two bikers, Fatso and Baldy, are successively and relentlessly stripped of their dignity through Kikujiro’s pugilistic orchestrations, then by the time of their departure they have earned our respect in new and deeper ways. In some unfathomable fashion, Takeshi has moved them beyond their ‘stereotypes’, giving them a genuine sense of humanity, while essentially utilizing their services as ‘charactures’.

I must admit that by this time my initial resistance to Takeshi’s new ‘patchwork’ style had begun to wear down quite a bit. The film really began to open up to me. There is a game that Masao and Kikujiro’s gang play towards the end of the film, in which people are only allowed to move while an other is counting down with their back turned before turning around again. Like that game, this film tells its story in isolated and idiosyncratic ‘still frames’ that don’t always make so much sense on their own, but eventually contribute to something interesting, full and extraordinary. So, even though you might know what is coming, it still has the capacity to sneak up on you, to sweep you up (or, if it’s funnier, to allow you to catch it off its feet). Of course, all of Takeshi’s films are told like this (as all film is in some way or another), but with Hana-Bi and now Kikujiro he has moved the use of these related still frames (along with the deceptive inferred movement between them) beyond the self-contained narrative. At a deserted bus stop, Takeshi briefly revives a slapstick routine with his old comedy duo partner (“I don’t think this bus stop’s been used for twenty years.”). When Kikujiro attempts to swindle Masao out of his lunch money, his wife admonishes him for acting like a gangster. Finally, Takeshi has, in interviews, affirmed basing the character of Kikujiro on his father: an interesting fact considering the eerie similarities to the outsider, wayward gangster in Boiling Point. Although not nearly as psychopathic, he is certainly dealt with in a similarly ambiguous way: not a complex character (such as in Sonatine and Hana-Bi), but somebody unpredictable and havoc-wreaking (although perhaps, through the reflexive humor, ultimately redeemable). Thus, the ‘patchwork’ of stylistic habits is, in Kikujiro, transformed into something like a tapestry: the self-reflexive use of themes, styles, locations, actors and so on, begin to interweave into a greater whole. It’s Takeshi’s greater whole, of course. His life and his art are interwoven through a series of signs, symbols, references and stylistic conventions (playful habits): a life glimpsed through the inferred movement between still images.

In the light of this, I think it is interesting to note that the film’s most redemptive and touching moments only come after Masao has reached a definitive point of despair. It is only after he has lost his innocence, his tenacious grip over the notion of a perfect ending, that his angels really do show up. And what these angels bring to him, instead of a storybook ending, simply turns out to be an appreciation of life’s drift. The oppressive and humiliating form of existence that Masao endured in his travels with the irresponsible Kikujiro then magically transforms into a real adventure, a true summer holiday. The colors of life open up, and he learns how to see humor in the world, and its folly. Thus, with a loss of innocence, a greater and perhaps more enduring level of appreciation for life is achieved. There is a deep sadness to this, no doubt, but also, perhaps, great beauty.

About The Author

Andrew Saunders is a cinema graduate, who has been putting off writing a thesis about the relationship between the formal elements of film, cognition, and temporal experience. Instead, he spends most of his time playing and writing about 3D Shooter computer games.