Uncouth criminal helps abandon kid search for his mom in Kitano's forced softer-side pic 'Kikujiro'
Trying to prove he's more than just a purveyor of handsome, message-heavy violence, Japanese writer-director-actor "Beat" Takeshi Kitano ("Fireworks," "Sonatine") has opted to make a sentimental road movie about a surly ne'er-do-well who finds a little heart while helping a 9-year-old look for his absentee mother.
The film is "Kikujiro." The kid is Masao (Yusuke Sekiguchi), a timid boy who was abandoned as a baby and has lived his whole life with his grandmother. The plot gets its start when Masao, bored with his summer break from school, decides to strike out on his own looking for the mother he's never met, and a neighbor's irresponsible oaf of a husband is reluctantly sent along as his guardian.
Kikujiro (Kitano) is a lousy choice for the job since he's uncouth, uninterested, self-centered, a habitual gambler and a cheat who soon sees them broke and sleeping in bus stops because he's blown their traveling money at the races. He makes young Masao pick the winners, then berates the kid when they lose. Somehow the scene plays funny, but it doesn't change the fact that Kikujiro is a jerk.
In one scene he leaves the kid outside a restaurant while he eats and the boy almost gets molested. They don't have money for transportation so he steals a taxi, but he doesn't know how to drive. Once in a while Masao, getting by on his cuteness, will find them a ride. But the antagonistic Kikujiro always manages to get them booted out on a remote roadside.
But through his abrupt, ill-mannered, fickle exterior, Kitano manages to endear Kikujiro with a hint of a soul as he grows to like the boy. But it's only a hint. This is no Hollywood movie where the bad man is forever changed by his friendship with the sullen but angelic child.
While it's a relief Kitano doesn't fall victim to the kind of sappy cliché traps that might seem inevitable in a story like this, the problem is he can't prevent the audience from wanting the reticent (and rather uninteresting) Masao to assert himself, run away from this schmuck and find his way home.
It's impossible to not wonder why in this over-long adventure there's no mention of the grandmother -- who must be worried sick when the kid and this creep don't report in for what must be two weeks. For that matter, why aren't the cops out looking for them? And why don't they report in? It's not like the movie takes place in feudal Japan -- there's phones everywhere.
As a writer and director, Kitano blinds himself these inescapable problems with his plot and opts instead for frosting "Kikujiro" with an odd and precarious layer of sweetness and cheerfulness, portrayed mostly through a child-like, piano recital soundtrack and Masao's surreal fantasies and dreams. It's as if he's trying to get the audience to let go its questions about realism and responsibility.
Further attempts include showing his character's off-kilter soft side -- like when he gets rough with a couple bikers to make them play with the kid. Why the bikers are scared of him isn't at all clear. The guy is rude, but he's hardly tough.
If distracting the audience from the movie's ingrained blunders is what he's trying to accomplish, it doesn't work. It's impossible not to wonder how he can expect us to sit still for Kikujiro's behavior, even if we do grow to like him a little.
"Kikujiro" may serve Kitano's intention of getting him out of his blood-and-guts gangster flick pigeon hole. But as entertainment, it's of little use.