Masaru (Ken Kaneko) and Shinji (Masanobu Ando) are a couple of teen trouble-makers who would rather slack off, play pranks on stuffy teachers or bully weaker kids out of their pocket money than knuckle down and study hard. One prank goes too far and as a result Masaru is expelled. Further humiliation follows when Masaru is beaten up by a tough friend of a kid he was bullying. Out for revenge, Masaru joins a local gym determined to hone his boxing skills and drags Shinji along. But it is Shinji who displays a real talent for boxing while Masaru quits to join a yakuza gang. While Shinji hones his prowess in preparation for a shot at a championship title, Masaru slowly rises from dogsbody to right hand to the local boss (Ryo Ishibashi). However bad choices and their own willful nature derail their lives.
Japanese comedian, actor and quirky cult film auteur Takeshi Kitano is quoted as describing Kids Return as not only his most honest and personal film but also the thinly veiled story of his life. This is especially apparent from the significant sub-plot interwoven and contrasted with the main story of flawed but likeable losers Masaru and Shinji. The film keeps returning to two fellow students that happen to be aspiring comedians. While the directionless Masaru and Shinji bumble from one mishap or misstep after another on the long road to maturity, the budding comics diligently hone their stand-up act, even using their bullying at the former's hands as fodder for a new routine. By the finale it is no surprise that of all the various teenagers featured throughout their future looks brightest, in an allusion to Takeshi's own past as one half of manzai comedy duo The Two Beats. Incidentally, given 'Beat' Takeshi became such an omnipresent force in Japanese media one has to wonder what became of 'Beat' Kiyoshi?
Kids Return was Takeshi's first film following his near-fatal motorcycle crash and also the first of his films to really connect with the Japanese public. Although his early arty yakuza dramas earned acclaim in the West, Japanese viewers more accustomed to his avuncular comedic persona on the small screen found it hard to accept their beloved clown as a brutal, no-nonsense tough guy. While the humour in Takeshi's yakuza films was black as pitch in Kids Return the gags are far warmer, more accessible and just plain funny. Masaru and Shinji's retaliation against one snarky teacher's precious car and their inept attempts to sneak into a porno theatre wearing ludicrous 'grownup' disguises are comedy gold. Making this film around the time Japan was mired in its first major economic downturn, Takeshi exhibits a strong empathy for disenfranchised youth. The film was a huge success, won multiple awards and made a star out of Masanobu Ando who went on to appear as the punk-styled psycho-killer in Battle Royale (2000) along with the likes of flawed satirical horror Karaoke Terror (2003) and Takashi Miike's underrated spaghetti western pastiche Sukiyaki Western Django (2007).
Having grown up in poverty, Takeshi likely felt some kinship with his prankster punk anti-heroes but refreshingly refuses to sugar-coat their more disreputable behaviour. They are surly and disrespectful with bad attitudes and a streak of believable if unfortunate cruelty. Yet Shinji and Masaru certainly suffer their share of beatings and misfortune as boxing proves no more a salvation for the former than the yakuza life suits the latter. While things inevitably grow increasingly dangerous for Masaru, Shinji picks up bad habits from an older more cynical fighter (Moro Morooka) and ends up self-destructing. The dual messages that there are no short cuts to success and a lack of diligence can undo the most promising young dreams might seem conservative but the film is more complex than that. Takeshi places his protagonists in a world manipulated by embittered old men whose mixed messages and bad advice leave them uncertain about what is right and wrong. These are not triumphant stories but the film still ends on a frail yet persuasively hopeful note. Great J-pop score by Joe Hisaishi.
Japanese director/actor/writer/comedian and one of the best-known entertainers in Japan. Entered showbiz in the early 70s as a stand-up comic, and began acting in the early 80s, his most famous early role being in Merry Christmas Mr Lawrence. As a director, Kitano's debut was 1989's Violent Cop, a gritty police thriller. The success of this led Kitano to explore similar cop/gangster territory in films like Boiling Point, Sonatine and the award-winning Hana-bi, all of which combined graphic violence, intense drama and off-beat comedy, while Kitano's more light-hearted side was revealed in the likes of the sex comedy Getting Any?, the autobiographical Kids Return and the whimsical Kikujiro.
If 2000's US-set Brother was a disappointment and Dolls visually stunning but hard-going, 2003's Zatoichi was a fast-moving, blood-splattered samurai romp. After a run of personal, financially unsuccessful art films, he returned to familiar territory with the Outrage series. As an actor, Kitano (credited as 'Beat' Takeshi, his comedy-persona) has appeared in films including Battle Royale, Gonin, Johnny Mnemonic, Gohatto and Takashi Miike's Izô.