Masao is a lonely boy. It’s the start of summer vacation and all his friends are heading off with their families to the beach and country cottages. Masao, though, is stuck at home with only his grandmother for company while his mother is working in a small town to purportedly make money for the family. Not wanting to be the odd kid out and longing to meet the mother he’s been separated from since he was a baby Masao decides to set out on a quest to find her; but a young boy can’t go on a trip like this alone. The neighbour woman who runs a small night club sends her husband, the titular Kikujiro, a small time hood and gambler (played by guess who…) to take Masao straight to his long lost mother and then straight back home. Of course with Takeshi "Beat" Kitano as the adult in charge things don’t go quite as planned and what follows is a bittersweet summertime road movie, what Kitano has described as being inspired "by the Wizard of Oz". It's an apt comparison with "Kikujiro" being full of colourful detours, fantasy sequences and eccentric characters as seen through the eyes of a child. Unfortunately many fans of films such as Violent Cop", "Boiling Point" and "Sonatine" were a bit taken aback at this shift in gears.
"Kikujiro" (1999) was the first film that Kitano made after winning the 1997 Golden Lion at the Venice International Film Festival for "Hana-Bi" and it continues the Yasujiro Ozu crossed with Buster Keaton feel that predominated that film’s last act: lots of static shots, gentle humour and sight gags as well as another lyrical score provided by composer Jo Hisaishi, although this time he truly outdoes himself by delivering some of the most memorable movie music in the past 20 years. Also like its predecessor "Kikujiro" features Kitano’s own bright and naively executed paintings scrolling through the opening credits, and many fans would be forgiven if suddenly they thought that Nishi and Miyuki, the doomed couple from "Hana-Bi" had returned when we see the stoic Kitano once again standing next to his onscreen spouse Kayoko Kishimoto. We quickly discover, though, that this time out Kitano isn't the alpha male and that Kishimoto has a lot more to say (or more accurately bark) this time around.
While stylistically there are similarities between "Hana-Bi and "Kikujiro" the guts of the two films are very different, and I do use the word "guts" intentionally. Kitano utilizes all the lessons he'd learned through making his hard hitting yakuza films, but instead of pouring more bloodshed on us he applies his visual inventiveness to a film that shifts in mood between the two dark horses in his filmography up to that point: the going for laughs "Getting Any" and his meditative "A Scene at the Sea". The scene where Kikujiro loses all their money betting on bike races and later on when they are joined by a pair of good-hearted bikers (played by The Great Gidayu and Rakkyo Ide, two members of Takeshis' Gundam or "army" of pranksters) takes care of the comedy while the revelation about Kikujiro’s relationship with his own onscreen mother as well as Kitano's use of his real-life abusive father's name for his title character provides the necessary pathos. This is hardly a sunshine and lollipops kid's movie though. Kitano still works in some disturbing content by not only having Masao suffer through constant berating by Kikujiro, but also having him nearly fall prey to a sniveling pedophile played by butoh dancer and actor Akaji Maro.
Some critics have said that "Kikujiro" comes off as a tad too bittersweet and that the choice of a cute kid film was Kitano’s blatant attempt at another award winning festival contender. I can't disagree that this was the start of Kitano's deliberate chase after trophies and acclaim, but I strongly disagree with those who say that this one of his weaker films. "Kikujiro" is one of my favorite Kitano films, a series of beautiful picture postcards about the most important summer of a young boy’s life, a film that marks the high point in Kitano’s career as a truly gifted director because, at least for me, his output has become erratic since. You’ll ultimately have to be the judge, but if you're a Kitano fan and you go into the experience with an open mind I'd be surprised if you get let down.
(A quick note: Look for a cameo by Beat Kiyoshi, the other half of The Two Beats as a man waiting with Kitano at a bus stop.)