KikujirĂ´ no natsu (1999)


(director/writer/editor: Beat Takeshi Kitano; cinematographer: Katsumi Yanagishima; editor: Yoshinori Ota; cast: Beat Takeshi (Kikujiro), Yusuke Sekiguchi (Masao), Kayoko Kishimoto (Kikujiro’s wife), Yuko Daike (Masao’s mother), Kazuko Yoshiyuiki (Masao’s grandmother), Great Gidayu (Fatso), Rakkyo Ide (Baldy), Nezumi Mamura (Traveling Man), Akaji Maro (The pervert); Runtime: 122; Sony Pictures Classics; 1999-Japan)

“It doesn’t seem like the type of film Kitano should be making.”

Reviewed by Dennis Schwartz

Japanese auteur Beat Takeshi Kitano (Sonatine/Hana-Bi), one of the more provocative living directors, continues to make unusual films that are difficult to categorize. This one veers away from his usual violent ones and is a more conventional bittersweet road comedy film, but it is also a very strange film, with many odd slapstick touches to it and many experimental shots of weird images and uncalled for dream sequences. Kitano said in an interview it was inspired by “The Wizard of Oz,” but he wanted to make this mainstreet type of film into his personal signature film. He plays the lead character Kikujiro, a seedy, low-level ex-yakuza who is gruff, sentimental, bumbling, and profane. The movie seems to be about outsiders confronting the middle-class. It divides its sections like a child’s photo album, as each episode is about how he spent his summer. It has chapter titles such as: “The Octopus Man.”

Lounging around the Tokyo streets with his outspoken wife (Kishimoto), Kikujiro spots a gloomy, round-faced 9-year-old, Masao (Sekiguchi), coming home from the last day of school before the summer vacation. His wife knows the grandmother (Yoshiyuiki) he lives with, and tells him his mother doesn’t live with him and there’s no father. The next day they spot the kid again, who is bored because all his friends went to the beach for their summer vacation and there’s no one around the city to play with. There’s also no more school activities like soccer practice. The kid has a little money, his mother’s address in the country village of Toyohashi and a photo of the mother he never met, and has decided to visit her by himself. Kikujiro’s wife, probably to get rid of her loafer husband for awhile, decides to send him along with the boy as an adult protector, for which she gives him some money.

Kikujiro calls the kid a brat and starts the trek with a gambling trip to the cycle races instead of to the beach as promised, where the undependable loudmouth blows the money and blames the kid for giving him the wrong numbers. While getting drunk in a bar, the kid waits outside in the street but is lured to the park across the street by a pedophile (Maro). Kikujiro rescues the kid in time, takes the pervert’s money and warns the kid not to go off with strangers, which has to be laughable advice since he’s a stranger to the kid. The kid doesn’t even know his name or anything about him, as he calls him Mister.

When they take a taxi, the driver irritates Mister because he stops to take a leak with the meter running, this gives him the excuse to steal the cab. They get it only so far when Mister must have hit the wrong gears on the stick shift, because there’s smoke coming out of the hood. They abandon the taxi and end up in a hotel that is far too ritzy for them, but has a pool. There is a madcap comedy scene of Mister not knowing how to swim and nearly drowning.

Mister decides to hitchhike and in his impatience to get a quick ride tries sundry tricks which don’t work, such as putting tacks on the road and acting like a blind man. The film takes on the flavor of a cornball road movie as he runs into two decent bikers he names Baldy (Ide) and Fatso (Gidayu), a traveler with no destination who thinks of himself as a poet (Mamura), and while all this is taking place Mister starts warming up to the kid as he gets everyone to play familiar child games with Masao. All the adults perform for the kid and try to cheer him up. The film feels very sentimental, but scenes change moods with the drop of hat and it’s not that easy to predict what comes next even though it looks in many ways like one of those familiar road pics about a mismatched innocent kid and an adult who’s rough on the exterior but really cares inside.

In the end I don’t know exactly what this deliberately paced film, which seems too long at two hours, is trying to say or what it accomplishes. The kid’s mother is seen by Mister and the kid with another man and a boy about his age. They never approach her (Mister reacts the same way when he sees his mother in a nursing home). The kid only develops a dubious relationship with Mister, who is so stuck on himself he lets no one else in; and, the two main characters don’t really know too much more about the other after their journey. They part at the end of the journey in the same Tokyo neighborhood where they met and it is doubtful if they will ever meet again. The only thing that made sense to me in a positive way, was that they were both outsiders and the filmmaker is saying it will be tough for someone to make it in Japanese society unless they are disciplined and pursue from an early age what they want. The kid at this early age will have to reconcile that granny will raise him, and that her advice is to study hard in school never sounded more conventional but nevertheless seemed to be sound advice. What the kid learned from Mister, is that there’s a wrong way and right way to do things. The kid had one of those unforgettable summer vacations that put a little fun into his sad life.

I wasn’t completely won over. It doesn’t seem like the type of film Kitano should be making, but it has a strange quality that somehow appeals to me because there’s an edginess around its carefully manicured sentimentality. It also seemed to have its heart in the right place, as Kitano has said his own father was an inspiration for the way he played the title character. His father was a housepainter and a heavy gambler, and died when he was a youngster. There was a grimness to this film that its physical humor couldn’t hide.