Masao (Yusuke Sekiguchi) lives with his grandmother in the city but one day happens upon a photograph of the mother (Yuko Daike) he has never met. Masao decides to find his mother but on the way bumps into a concerned neighbour (Kayoko Kishimoto) who cajoles her husband (Takeshi Kitano) into safeguarding the boy along his journey. Being a brash, loudmouthed, bragging, bully-boy small-time criminal, he is as unlikely a babysitter as one could imagine. Yet over the course of a journey full of mishaps, the roguish Kikujiro discovers he shares a thing or two in common with the poor, lovelorn little boy.
As was the case with the equally comic Kids Return (1996) Japanese audiences found it easier to embrace Kikujiro than the earlier hard-hitting gangster thrillers that earned Takeshi Kitano such acclaim in Europe and America. Hipsters who misperceived 'Beat' Takeshi as a grimacing tough guy did not want to see him palling around with a kid indulging in wacky antics. They abandoned the cult of Kitano for more extreme Asian auteurs like Takashi Miike until he started making kids' movies too. Yet the lovable, if disreputable rascal Kitano plays here was far closer to the television persona many Japanese knew and loved, hence Kikujiro proved one of his most well-received films at home. Part inspired by The Wizard of Oz (1939), Kikujiro is a serio-comic road movie wherein the title character guides Masao on an eye-opening odyssey down the rural Japanese equivalent of the Yellow Brick Road before the eventual revelation that there is no place like home.
Opening with a montage of Kitano's own artwork the film is laden with angel imagery and chapter headings that take the form of animated drawings from a child's diary. Kitano juxtaposes naturalism with surrealism, punctuating perfectly composed wide shots of a painterly scope with offbeat shots from a dragonfly's point-of-view or that of a spinning hubcap. Peppered with hilarious sight gags reminiscent of manga the film has a childlike exuberance about it. Yet Kitano cuts through the treacle with earthy, even abrasive characterizations for the gruff but goodhearted grownups. Kikujiro himself comes across like an overgrown kid: sulky, petulant and frankly, kind of a bully but at the same time earnest, playful and openhearted. It is an episodic film but that is sort of the point. We follow the mismatched duo as they bumble through a string of lively escapades wherein Kikujiro bullies, hustles, brags and growls before gradually revealing a gentler, more sensitive side on discovering the reality behind Masao's plight.
Among the funniest incidents are the mishap at the swimming pool, a delightful encounter with a young couple who impress Masao with their juggling and robot-dancing and the scene at the race track where Masao's inability to pick a winner results in an ever-escalating display of exasperation from Kitano that is just priceless. Yet in typical Kitano fashion the mood can turn on a dime as with the unsettling moment when Masao is abducted by a pedophile although even this has a darkly hilarious punchline. On top of that the film exhibits Kitano's fascination with tap dancing which reached full flower with his reboot of Zatoichi (2003) and features a rare screen appearance from his one-time comedy partner Beat Kiyoshi. When Masao and Kikujiro eventually find his mother the tone shifts into aching melancholy yet retains an essential tenderness as the gruff gangster does his best to comfort the boy who in turn performs a touching act of kindness when the older man's big mouth gets him into trouble. Come the end both Masao and the viewer come to realize angels come in many different forms, some quite unlikely. All in all, Kikujiro ranks among Beat Takeshi's most endearing, humanistic and accomplished films and is more representative of his work than devotees of his crime films might have you believe.
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.