movie review by
David Ng


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The curmudgeon-orphan bonding genre gets another reworking in Kikujiro, a new film by celebrated Japanese writer-director-editor Takeshi Kitano (Hana-Bi, Sonatine). His maverick style is on display once again, but this time in service of a formula story about a 9-year old school boy who decides to find his mother with the help of a reluctant neighbor. Director Kitano makes a heroic effort to avoid the movieís unavoidable clichťs; his storytelling veers deliberately from farce to melodrama. But in permitting himself so much freedom, he inadvertently jerks his audience around, disorienting them with his mish-mash style. Fuchsia dream sequences are followed by documentary-like episodes of introspection that are mixed with unfunny slapstick. By the end, we donít know what weíre watching. Kikujiro is a movie torn asunder by its need to be different.

The movieís sole point of dramatic credibility is the orphan. Masao is a 9-year old school boy living with his grandmother in Tokyo. His father is dead and his mother, whom heís never met, lives in a distant town. Played by the cherubic Yusuke Sekiguchi, Masao is a little bundle of energy. He dashes between home and school, his little bookbag bouncing cheerfully on his back. In fact, the first scene is just that: a long, unbroken take of Masao running. Thereís a wordless simplicity to the scene. It doesnít reach for anything but it says a lot.

When summer break arrives, Masao finds that his friends are going on vacation with their parents. With no one to play soccer with and granny away at work, he quickly grows lonely and decides to find his long-lost mother. Heís chaperoned by a neighbor, a clueless middle-aged man (known only as ĎMisterí) whose bossy wife volunteers him. Unfortunately for Masao, Mister turns out to be the worst parental figure since Homer Simpson. He drags poor Masao on a series of misadventures, starting at the race track where they lose most of their money, and then on to a four-star hotel, a truck pit stop, and eventually a corn field in the middle of God knows where.

As played with zero restraint by Kitano himself (the credits use his stage name, "Beat Takeshi"), Mister feels like a character whoís wandered off the set of a bad sitcom. Heís always making an ass of himself. When he tries to show Masao that he can swim, he dons an inflatable tube and tropical-print swimwear, and flails about uselessly, going absolutely nowhere. The scene could have been funny if Kitano had let it play out. But heís too eager to make us laugh, like a joke teller who bolts prematurely for the punch line.

As Mister and Masao journey deeper into rural Japan, Kikujiro gets increasingly tangled in its own quirkiness. They meet up with a pair of Japanese Hellís Angels and an effeminate writer-poet-activist who drives a pink VW van. This motley crew sets up camp deep in the woods and engages in a kind of moron Olympics that has to be seen to be believed. Kitanoís intent is clear: they are supposed to be regressing into innocence, childhood, etc. But his execution is all wrong. He goes for absurdist level comedy when he should have tried for something quieter. When they eventually go their separate ways, itís intended to be poignant moment. But Kitano hasnít given us any reason to work up empathy for these weirdoes. We watch them pass through the movie like characters from a traveling circus.

Eventually Masao meets his mother and for a brief moment, Kikujiro rings true. Itís a heartbreaking scene. Nothing is said; itís all looks and observations. Later, Mister encounters his own estranged mother in a nursing home. The movie doesnít make a big deal of the coincidence. It lets it play in the back of our minds. The final scene is also understated. Thereís no big emotional pay-off, just a simple goodbye.

These are a few moments of coherence in a sea of dramatic chop suey. The various elements of the movie (including a ridiculous photo-album motif that frames the entire story) never unite to form a greater whole. We want them to coalesce, to form a pattern somehow. But Kitano seems so afraid of telling a recognizable story that he ends up at the other extreme--a movie with no center of gravity. Itís too bad that Sekuguchiís quietly powerful performance as Masao must be overshadowed by all the hysteria. This talented actor deserves a whole movie to himself. Kikujiro is a desperate movie that flails passionately and ends up going nowhere.

[rating: 1½ of 4 stars]