11:00 - 2nd April 2016, by NEO Staff


Kikujiro took audiences by surprise in 1999. Director Takeshi Kitano had won several awards for the slow-burning and violent Hana-Bi from 1997. Next, Kitano switched from an emotionally torn cop to a loud-mouthed yakuza. Film festivals and critics were used to this from Boiling Point and Sonatine, and Japanese audiences were coming round to Kitano, their favourite TV entertainer (aka Beat Takeshi), being a serious actor. However, the titular character in this film is far from terrifying and unhinged. He’s bumbling, impulsive, and somehow ends up as the guardian of Masao (Yusuke Sekiguchi).

Young Masao’s life is not a happy one. He has one friend at school, who leaves to go on summer holiday. Home alone one day while his grandmother works, Masao stumbles across an address for his estranged mother. A neighbour spots the young boy trying to catch a bus, but he does not have enough money. The lady instead tells her partner, Kikujiro (a very lowly yakuza, who shares Kitano’s father’s name), to take Masao to find his mother. After spending away the travel money on gambling and drinking, Kikujiro almost loses track of the boy, has a change of heart, and promises to get Masao where he wants to go.

Some viewers may find the film takes a strange turn at first, where Kikujiro has to beat up a molester before he takes Masao on his journey. This is an uncomfortable scene, but the tone of the rest of the film is much more upbeat, including the oddly charming dream sequences. Kikujiro becomes determined to keep Masao cheerful, as well as getting him to his destination and home again.

There is a tragic outcome for the trip, but many joyful moments too. The purpose of the road trip becomes inconsequential compared to the journey itself. The pair meet many colourful characters along the way, including Kitano’s old stand-up comedy partner, Beat Kiyoshi. Otherwise dramatic incidents like car accidents, petty theft and fist fights become comedic. Masao frequently looks unimpressed while Kikujiro causes one gaffe after another. The only gang he ends up leading are the cast of hitchhiking characters who agree to help Masao enjoy the summertime.

Kitano’s style is effective for his shocking action scenes. Villains end up on the floor after a sudden punch, and chopsticks end up in eyeballs. Viewers often only see the consequences and not the actions. Kitano proves here that his style is equally effective for comedy, from the scenes where the traveling duo try to entertain themselves at a hotel, to the fishing game with the fellow hitchhikers. Cuts to Masao’s face are timed perfectly, whether he is glum or smiling. Joe Hisaishi’s fantastic score is a great accompaniment to the various escapades.
Kikujiro is unlikely to be Kitano’s most famous film – Outrage, Zatoichi, Hana-Bi and Sonatine are the likely bets there. However, it has been given a wonderful HD transfer by Third Window, meaning there’s never been a better time to re-appraise and re-acquaint yourself with the unlikeliest of companions.

It may not be the director’s finest, but it’s still a gem. Kikujiro takes dark turns at certain points, but this is only to be expected from Kitano. Thankfully, viewers will be smiling by the end. His screen presence helps, but he would be nothing without Sekiguchi’s charm. It would be remiss not to join them on this journey.
SCORE: 4/5
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