Sunday, August 24, 2008

Review – Kikujiro

August 22, 2008

Kikujiro – Japan, 1999

In an early scene in Takeshi Kitano’s Kikujiro, a young boy named Masao (Yuseke Sekiguchi) appears to be your average, ordinary elementary school child. While walking home with his friend Yuji, he smiles and laughs, as if he hadn’t a care in the world. And if it were any other day, maybe that would be true. However, this is the last day of school, and whereas other kids are about to embark on family vacations, he is returning to a house that lacks the loving set of parents that his friends are lucky to have. Later scenes demonstrate just how alone Masao is. At home, he takes care of himself, eats food that his grandmother sets out for him in the morning before she leaves for work, and tries his best to keep himself busy by studying, drawing, and attempting to play soccer. Everything changes when he stumbles upon his mother’s picture and address in a drawer in his grandmother’s room. Excited by this finding, he packs a few things into his backpack and rushes off to pay her a visit. If successful, this action will bring about the first face-to-face encounter with the woman who gave birth to him since she abandoned him.

With him on this journey is a former Yakuza member (Beat Takeshi) who according to his wife loves children. If this is truly what she thinks, it’s hard to know how she got this impression, for her husband is emotionally and personally lost. Removed from a lifestyle that afforded him power and a status that likely enabled him to strike fear into those he encountered, he is a man prone to eccentric and unpredictable behavior. Given $50,000 yen to accompany Masao and guarantee his safety, he blows that money watching adult films and betting on bicycle races. Broke and frustrated, he resorts to belittling and chasing away other gamblers. What he later contemplates doing for money is surprising to say the least, but at the same time, it is – in a peculiar and unsettling way - in keeping with his personality.

Kikujiro probably wouldn’t work if Takeshi’s character remained as odd as he is in the beginning of the film. Fortunately, as the film progresses, the character reveals a more human side, which allows the audience to have a bit of sympathy for him. A scene in a home for seniors is particularly effective in eliciting sympathy for this character. However, for each of his kind-hearted actions, there are the equally harsh and oftentimes dishonest actions that he took to make his more noble actions possible. For example, in one scene he gives Masao a blue angel ornament with a bell attached to it. He tells him that his mother left it for him before she moved. While Masao is cheered up by this, we on the other hand know what underhanded measures Takeshi’s character took to get the ornament in the first place. It creates a dilemma for the viewer. We admire the final product, yet disapprove of the process.

Like Takeshi’s previous films Kids Return and A Scene at the Sea, Kikujiro is about discovery. Characters discover common life experiences that, in spite of the many years that separate them, enable them to bond with each other. At other times, what characters learn about themselves is not so reassuring. Lying unconscious, the result of his own lack of verbal self-control, the former Yakuza is forced to confront what he has become, a desperate, self-centered coward who is his own worst enemy. Bleeding from the mouth, his shirt stained with blood, he is perhaps not surprised when Masao runs away from him. He is genuinely surprised though when he returns with medical supplies.

Kikujiro unfolds at a leisurely, unpredictable pace. Characters do not do what we expect them to do, and the film’s final act is extremely touching, as diverse characters come together for probably the only time in their lives to turn a day of heartbreak into a memory that will elicit laughter and positive feelings later on. And yet as Masao runs home to his grandmother at the end, I was struck by the fact that his smiles were brought about partly through the use of a kind of shell game. Hide the pain, and move it around so that it can’t be found easily. However, like the ball used in the game, the pain caused by abandonment is never truly gone. Eventually it will resurface, and then Masao will have to be told the truth. When that day does indeed come, I believe it will be this former Yakuza that breaks it to him gently. I wouldn’t have been able to say that at the beginning of the movie. (on DVD)

3 and a half stars

*Kikujiro is in Japanese with English subtitles.

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