directed by Takeshi Kitano
(Sony, 2000)

Takeshi Kitano is known for violent films with an underlying sweetness -- an odd combination, and one that's turned on its head in Kikujiro, a tribute to the joys, fears and lessons of journeys.

It's a tough thing to remember, sometimes, when you're so focused on your destination: Destinations aren't always what they're cracked up to be.

Lonely Masao (Yusuke Sekiguchi) is forlorn at a time when most children are overjoyed. It's the beginning of summer vacation, a time to go to the beach with your family and play with your friends. But Masao lives with his grandmother, they aren't going to the beach, and none of his friends are at home to play soccer with him. Stumbling across a photo album, Masao finds pictures of a woman (his mother?) holding an infant (him?). He has no memory of her; his grandmother says she is "far away earning money to support you." His father, he's told, died in an accident.

Little Masao decides to take matters into his own hands. He will travel to the city where his mother lives and meet her. Surely, she cannot help but come home. When he confides these plans to a neighbor, she volunteers her husband, Mister, to chaperone the boy. Mister is less than thrilled with the prospect, until he realizes Masao will be carrying money for the trip -- or for gambling on bike races, whichever comes first. The bike races come first, the money goes, and Mister is smart enough to know he can't take Masao home, or face his wife, without completing the journey.

And the promise of that journey, by turns terrifying, wondrous, bedeviled and mischievous, is what carries Kikujiro through a very slow, very methodical first half. It's life lived at Masao's timetable, and it can take some getting used to. But then, as the trip unfolds, as surprising encounters follow mishaps, a change begins and Kikujiro works a gentle magic.

There's some violence -- off camera -- and the sweetness sometimes walks a thin line. Yet it's saved by Sekiguchi's performance as the little boy, sometimes sullen, sometimes shy, occasionally a breakthrough of giddy happiness. It's saved by the evolving of Kitano's Mister, a petty crook at the beginning who chafes under the burden of his task and then warms to the boy despite himself. And it's saved by the slapstick of strangers they meet along the way -- two bikers, Fatso and Baldy, a traveling poet, a juggling girl. All band together "for the boy's sake," they say, but it's as much for their own.

Masao's wish isn't quite resolved the way he thinks it will be; there's no ruining the movie by telling you that. Why would there be a movie if you knew who he'd find, and how? But Kitano, who also wrote and directed Kikujiro, has created a slowly paced journey of discovery that's no less important to the life of a lonely little boy.

And what or who is Kikujiro? Now that's an answer I can't reveal: Once answered, that makes everything else fall into place.

Sometimes, a score is so integral to a film that it's tough to imagine the movie without it. Joe Hisaishi's deceptively simple theme for Kikujiro is the thread that ties it all together.

[ by Jen Kopf ]
Rambles: 27 October 2001

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