Release Date: June 05th, 1999 (Japan)
UK Release Date: February 22nd, 2016
UK Distributor: Third Window Films
Running Time: 121 mins.
Director: Takeshi Kitano
Writer: Takeshi Kitano (Screenplay),
Starring: Takeshi Kitano, Yusuke Sekiguchi, Kayoko Kishimoto, Yuko Daike, The Great Gidayu, Rakkyo Ide, Fumie Hosokawa, Beat Kiyoshi,
Kikujiro is Takeshi Kitano’s most innocent film. The titular character was inspired by his own father (also named Kikujiro) who was a bit of a chancer, it’s a story of a little boy and his unlikely adult guardian on a summer trip full of friendship and misadventures that make up for some heartbreak.
Kikujiro takes place during the summer school holidays. The main protagonist is a quiet nine-year-old boy named Masao (Yusuke Sekiguchi).
He has no one to play with since his schoolmates are going on family vacations. Masao won’t get the opportunity to do anything as fun since he lives alone with his grandmother who has to work, his father long dead and his mother “away working hard.” His loneliness and curiosity about the parents he has never met spur him to head off in search of his mother. With little more than a few thousand yen, his mother’s address from a package, and an old photo, Masao sets off on a journey from Tokyo to Toyohashi. The little boy soon gets into difficulties but a friend (Kayoko Kishimoto) of his grandmother volunteers her husband Kikujiro (Takeshi Kitano) to accompany him on his journey.
Now here’s where things go awry…
Kikujiro is an ex-yakuza, either a brash loud-mouth or layabout loser he has no problem shaking down people for money, even kids. Kikujiro is also immature and acts before he thinks a lot of the time and yet despite his childishness he doesn’t even appear to like children all that much. Regardless of everything Kikujiro and Masao start their journey from Tokyo to the seaside town where Masao’s mother lives. With Kikujiro leading the way the two don’t take a sensible route to Toyohashi like, say a bus or train, they end up blowing their money and gambling and cheating their way on the road in what turns out to be a memorable adventure filled with happiness and sadness for the two as they meet with many surprising situations and weird characters…
Kikujiro is Takeshi Kitano’s road-trip movie only not filled with as much violence or yakuza like Sonatine (1993), Boiling Point (1990), and Hana-bi (1997). This is a good-natured, even heart-warming tale filled with whimsy and sentimentality as Kitano revels in taking two characters on an old-fashioned holiday full of fun and games sure to evoke nostalgia for childhood summers. Fortunately things don’t get to saccharine sweet due to the clashing personalities of the characters!
Like many of Kitano’s other films the structure takes the form of a series of vignettes. Each takes place in a chapter which gets its own intertitle complete with an amusing still photograph and on-screen text previewing the next misadventure that quiet little Masao and outrageous Kikujiro get into. It’s a technique presented in a segmented, even childish manner as if mimicking an entry in Masao’s “What I Did Last Summer” project book. Instead of these sequences feeling loose they are held together by the growing emotional bond between the two main protagonists.
It doesn’t start off promisingly. Kikujiro doesn’t want to escort the child anywhere and it is only because his wife makes him that he does so. He struggles to get the two out of Tokyo when his lousy adult skills sees him blow their trip money gambling and he puts Masao in danger multiple times. Even when they get out of the city and into the country (by stealing a taxi) Kikujiro meets and antagonises all sorts of people, from a young couple on a date, truck drivers, and bikers. I use the word antagonise but it makes Kikujiro sound more threatening than he actually is.
Kikujiro is too lackadaisical and even good-natured at times to be a truly horrible character for audiences to dislike even though he gets into fights. There’s no sadism behind even his most thuggish actions, just impetuousness. We see his actions from Masao’s perspective and at worst he’s a petty crook, belligerent but honourable and as the story continues he becomes Masao’s guardian angel of sorts after he comes to understand that he and the boy may be more alike than he first thought. The audience will see another dimension to the man who they might write off as a loser which justifies the Japanese title for the film Kikujiro’s Summer.
Kikujiro begins to open up as a character and a more tender side emerges from behind the gruff exterior which shows he is capable of finer feelings. He holds Masao’s hand, ruffles his hair and offers words of encouragement instead of admonitions. He also goes to extreme lengths to make Masao’s summer vacation a happy one, utilising his yakuza skills to press gang others into helping with the fun and games. His immaturity works wonders here as he organises traditional Japanese summer holiday activities but with an anarchic Kikujiro-twist so we see poolside fun, fishing, eating watermelons, rope swinging, “Daruma-san ga koronda” and going to festivals but all twisted into near painful and unique experiences that are sure to make an audience laugh. More importantly it’s all to ensure the lonely boy has some happy memories to take back to school. There’s even the promise of friendship between the two, something unthinkable from the start.
The bad influence of Kikujiro doesn’t rub off on Masao who remains the innocent good-natured cutie (as many characters refer to him) that people in the film fall for and work hard to make happy. Indeed, he goes from frowning to grinning whenever he’s on screen and it’s gratifying to see. Their impact on each other is also neatly shown in the way that they dress similarly and form a neat manzai double act of sorts (Kitano going back to his comedy roots) with Masao being the straight-man and Kikujiro being the goofball.
Even the intertitles chart the growing closeness between Masao and Kikujiro, the respectful Oji-san in the on-screen text turning into the more familiar and cuter Oji-chan as the two bond. It’s a natural development that never feels forced.
By the end of the trip, Masao will not be so lonely and he will have collected a lot of fun tales to regale his school class with when asked about what he did during the summer. Even better, these are the sorts of unique experiences that will help him grow up with happier memories and with a more upbeat view of life. As for Kikujiro, he will have grown up as well and thanks to the heart-warming encounters the two experienced during their journey you can bet he will stop being a complete lay-about loser.
Kikujiro is release today on Blu-ray for the first time in the UK and the image quality
is fantastic. I am going to have to replace another DVD like I did following on from the excellent release of the Hana-bi Blu-ray.
Jam Session – 90 minute documentary on Kikujiro directed by the award-winning Japanese director Makoto Shinozaki (director of Sharing which was at the Vancouver and the Rotterdam International Film Festivals.
Cardboard slipcase with new illustrated design (limited to 1000 copies)