HIS IMPASSIVE FACE makes Beat Takeshi a natural for both deadpan comedy and tough-guy drama, and it's the former that first made him a TV star in Japan. From the latter has come noted films like Fireworks, Sonatine, and Boiling Point. However, unlike the cops-and-gangster pictures that brought him acclaim in the West, Kikujiro hearkens back to his television work, using a slight, sentimental tale to link what's basically a picaresque adventure moving from sketch idea to sketch idea. It's not a bad film; it's often quite funny, but fans expecting Takeshi's Clint Eastwood persona may be surprised to meet Buster Keaton instead.
written and directed by "Beat" Takeshi Kitano
with Beat Takeshi and Yusuke Sekiguchi
opens June 9 at Guild 45th
Forlorn 9-year-old Masao (Yusuke Sekiguchi) is left friendless and bored during his summer vacation. He lives with his grandmother; his father is dead, and his mother seems to be permanently absent from his rather lonely, unhappy life. Enter his grandmother's vaguely suspect friend Mister (as Masao calls him for most of the film). Played by Beat Takeshi (director Takeshi Kitano's stage name), he's gruff, irresponsible, and thoroughly unpredictable, given to threats, insults, and bluster, but also henpecked and cowed by his wife.
Naturally, the kid ends up in his care. It's one of the oldest, most clich餠plots in motion picture history, recalling Chaplin's The Kid and half the movies Bruce Willis has made in the last decade. In such hackneyed tales, the unfit, unwilling adult inevitably learns to love and protect his cute young charge, transforming himself into an unlikely father figure through the power of a child's adoration. Thankfully, Kikujiro doesn't quite embrace this tired story, as the two embark on a mission to find the lad's mother. Unfortunately, it doesn't quite resist it, either. The result is a curious hybrid of road movie and male bonding flick with some comic flourishes that defy cultural translation.
THE KID'S CUTE, but not that cute, and Kitano doesn't shove the camera in his face for easy tears or pathos. "Brat," Mister constantly calls the tyke, "you little shit." So much for paternal feeling. Rather than parenting, he'd like to gamble, drink, and misbehave with the money his wife gave him for his assigned quest. "Mister is strange," the boy inscribes in his summer photo album, snapshots of which introduce each comic and not-so-comic vignette. Strange indeed. The initial laughter brought about by Mister's invective and shenanigans begins to curdle when his reactions go too far. He's a clown, but clowns cause pain. (Just think of circus performers whacking each other with big sticks.) That's part of the legacy of slapstick, of course, the rancor beneath the guffaws attending the Three Stooges or Abbott and Costello.
Indeed, Takeshi is always on the offensive, like Don Rickles. Insults are his preferred way of greeting people. In this way, he sorts out the stiffs from the oddballs of Japanese society. Anyone who fails the initial test goes away in a huff (or leaves him bleeding on the floor). Anyone who sticks to him regardless, like Masao, gets treated to a show—or gets included in the show.
Kikujiro's rather strident and foreign tone of whimsy may rub some the wrong way (like its lachrymose George Winstonesque score), but the comic set pieces are pretty funny. Efforts to hitchhike, fish, swim, and otherwise amuse the boy require ever more elaborate measures, as Takeshi gathers a veritable troupe of performers to assist with the entertainment. With his shambling walk and frequent pratfalls, with his bullying and cowardice, he's like a figure out of vaudeville, one who crudely states what we're too polite to admit. That's why he gets a big laugh when he says, "Grownups have to make sacrifices for little kids," because we know he's lying through his teeth.