Movie Review: Kikujiro

Posted: March 26, 2010 in Movie Review, Reviews
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Kikujirō no Natsu (1999 Office Kitano Dir. Takeshi Kitano)

An entirely realistic portrayal.

Okay, so for clarification, the title of the movie is Kikujirō no Natsu, which translates to Kikujiro’s Summer, but was sold internationally as simply Kikujiro. Also, properly speaking the director of this movie is named Kitano Takeshi, because in Japan the family name goes first, but in the west we regularly swap them to our standard. Got all that? Good. I just wanted to get that out of the way before we got into the movie. I don’t want you distracted from this movie since it has a strangely sublime beauty hidden within its slow moving story. That’s more a Kitano trait than it is anything about this one movie.

A view from the other side.

This is an odd little movie, but it’s odd by design. Everything in the movie is subservient to its feeling of oddity. In a way, that becomes a problem in trying to write an entertaining review. The movie has some shortcomings, sure, but they’re deliberate. You can’t really tease a movie for slow story or minimalist dialogue, when that was the whole point. Besides, how can you hate on a movie that has, for my money, Joe Hisashi’s finest work. In the last ten years I’ve watched quite a few movies with his work and even got a hold of a few of his non-movie CDs, and this is still my favorite. The point is that this is one of those near perfect movies that it’s very hard for a reviewer to write about without simply fawning all over it. This is even one of my Top 40 Movies (by odd and vague connections). HOWVER! I said I’d review the movie and after the last few things, I sort of promised myself that we’d move away from Cheap Cinema for a while.

This is inadiquete to my needs.

There is a cute frame device in the movie where in chapters keep being opened with pages of what is supposed to be a photo diary. Instead of still images though, it’s superimposed video of the character doing Kitano’s signature “people staring directly into the camera” thing that he loves to have. It makes the whole movie feel like the joyful reminiscences of the young protagonist, despite the fact that it starts out feeling like an overly realistic movie. Kitano is a bit like Kubrick in the sense that he just presents events without much explanation or manipulation. This means a lot of scenes full of silence and characters who refuse to tell you the audience how you’re supposed to feel about things. Works well in The Shining, and it works well here, but it leaves you feeling things are very odd for a while. You’ll begin to see what I mean in a minute, but suffice to say that until about the second half you are left wondering if there is going to be a narrative or if we’re just going to meander through the whole movie. I said it was good, I never said it was easy.

A three-hour tour. A three-hour tour!

We begin the movie with the last shot of the film. It’s an odd thing to do, since it’s a little confusing why he’s a completely different looking person when we see him a moment later, but it makes sense at the end. Our hero’s name is Masao, and is my candidate for the “Gloomiest Kid Ever in a Movie in the History of Like, Ever” award. I’ve heard people complain that a lot of kids in movies have no personality because they either just sit there, they’re just the stock “Horrors from the Womb” type monsters or because they’re trying out for the roll of Jesus. Masao is of the “quite and contemplative type” but he actually does have a personality. It’s just that his personality is that of a depressed child. See, his mother lives very far away and he lives with his Grandmother. We’re told the father died in an accident, and that his mother went to work in another city.

The relationship was doomed due to them being incapable of holding hands.

As the movie opens (I promise, I’ll start moving faster in a moment) summer vacation has just started. Everyone has gone away, except for our hero. He attempts to come to grips with his existential longing in the best way he can, until he comes across the wedding photo of his parents and decides to go looking for his mother. As his trip begins, he meets the woman who used to live next door and her husband. Now here is where the movie gets a little strange. The wife suggests that the husband (hereafter called “Mister” in Masao’s photo book) take the boy to go look for his mother. Mister objects, but takes the boy. Would this actually fly in Japan? I know it wouldn’t fly here, not even eleven years ago when the movie was made. Also, never mind a man he doesn’t know, would anyone really trust a child with this man? He ranks right up with the little guys from Time Bandits in my one day to be written list “The Top Ten people You Don’t Want to Leave with a Child” as the second worst in the bunch. The first thing he does is take the kid to the track and loose all the money his wife gave him. It turns fine because Masao picks some lucky numbers and they win big, but still! Actually, the ‘but still’ is that they loose most of it the next day. After almost loosing the kid though, Mister vows to take the kid to his mother, and then he steals a taxi and kills it by driving too far in first gear or something. Not a criminal mastermind by any means.

Try as he might, he couldn’t remember how joy felt.

In many ways, this is when the movie feels like it leaves reality behind. After this, we almost never see anyone who isn’t connected to the story somehow. Practically the only humans we see after this point are people who interact with Masao and Mister. There are very few extras, almost no one is actually at any of the locations they visit, it’s like they’re traveling through a separate country that has been set aside for their adventure. This is also when Masao’s dreams begin to feature in the movie. The kid has dreams which I believe are based on Kabuki theater. The dreams are all nightmares, at least at first, they change as the film progresses. I’ll get to that later though.

And I saw as they opened the seventh… wait, that’s not how I pictured the angel that would herald the end of the world.

The second part of the movie has the pair (who refer to each other as Mister and Kid respectively) find rides with various people to get them closer to their goal, which is the town of Toyohashi. It’s from the first of these that we see Masao actually change as a character. A young couple they meet gives the boy a blue backpack with a pair of wings on the back. This triggers what looks like the first unrestrained bit of childish glee in Masao, who now uses the winged pack instead of any other. As the two travel together, looking for rides, they… don’t exactly bond. Masao shows Mister his photos, they talk about how Masao has no memory of either parent, and this leads Mister to realize that Masao is in the same situation he was at that age. That doesn’t make him act any more responsibly, but it does make him act more caringly toward the boy.

They can’t all be weird screen caps.

The third part of the movie begins when they actually get to Toyohashi and find Masao’s mother. The problem is that she has clearly remarried and had another child. The two heroes don’t even approach, working out what has happened at a distance. It’s more than a little heart breaking, watching the two of them watching her and not reacting until she’s out of sight. Masao walks away, only crying after he’s turned the corner and no one can see him. Mister tries his best to tell Masao that it wasn’t actually his mother, that it was someone else, but the boy doesn’t believe because he’s not stupid or anything. So Mister walks off to think for a while, and comes across my nomination for “The Least Threatening Bikers Ever Seen in a Movie in the History of Like, Ever.” He tells the bikers to give him a small glass bell they have hanging from their motor cycle. He then takes that bell and gives it to Masao, claiming it to be a gift from his mother. He tells him that whenever he rings the bell, his mother will send an angel to watch over him. As heartbreaking as the last scene was, this is strangely heartwarming. Even though we just saw him steal the bell from the bikers, it doesn’t matter because it’s such a sweet moment. He keeps telling the boy an angel will come if he rings the bell. Normally, this would be the end of a movie like this, but it’s not over yet. Masao isn’t convinced, the world hasn’t changed, democracy hasn’t been saved and the pillar of cheese in the shape of Jane Austen is still out there. Still, with evil firmly rooted in place, they decide to head home, heads hung in defeat.

All watermellons feel this way, only one can express it though.

Now some movies, I won’t mention any names, might things that this would be a good place to end. We’ve learned something about life, haven’t we children? We’ve learned that sometimes it’s hard and mean and you get kicked in the teeth, movie over, right? WRONG! Nothing is over until we say it’s over! We’re not going down like this. Unlikely as it may seem, this movie is just about to hit the best part. See, there one of the people the two met up with a little while ago was a hippie poet, and now the hippie poet returns to save the day. The trio go to a small lake to camp for a day or two, and while there the two unthreatening bikers return as well.

You know, sometimes the funny caption isn’t needed.

The five of them hang out and sort of retreat into childish games to amuse Masao, who I seem to recall rang that angel bell four different times and thus got four different angels. They do all the traditional summer things, swimming, fishing, hitting watermelons on the ground while blindfolded (I don’t get it, but I understand it’s traditional) as well as other games. As a result of all of this, Masao has the first dream that isn’t a nightmare. In the new dream, the kabuki elements remain, but now it’s the four men playing games with him in kabuki costumes. From here, the movie leads into the ending, where our two heroes are taken back to Tokyo by the poet. Before they part, having had their adventure, Masao asks Mister what his name is. Mister tells him his name is Kikujiro and we see a genuine smile on Masao’s face. He runs off to a bridge, heading back home and we see him running as we did in the first shot of the movie, which rounds the whole thing out nicely.

He was going to say something, but he’s forgotten what it is now.

I really like this movie. It manages to avoid saccharine sweetness, which still providing a somewhat heart-warming tale. Yes is veers into oddity, and it’s made with Kitano’s trademark minimalism, but those help this movie I think. I also like that there is no big hug moment, no “Gosh, we’ll all understand something more about ourselves now.” end statement that could bludgeon you with the point of the film. No, it remains what it is and wants to be. I like that you know things won’t be perfect now, that the everything won’t be just peachy from now on. Still, you do know things are better than they were, and there is something in that.

Official Score:
58 Degrees on the Graffiti Bridge Scale.

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