By Yun-hua Chen.
Made by Takeshi Kitano in 1999 and having entered the Cannes Film Festival in the same year, Kikujiro was subsequently remade into a Tamil-Indian film Nandala (2010) by Myshkin. After more than one and a half decades, it still seems timeless both in terms of aesthetics and subject matter. Third window films‘ Blu-ray release of Kikujiro, side by side with Hana-bi (1997) and Dolls (2002), is a delightful appearance indeed.
Young Masao (Yusuke Sekiguchi) finds himself all alone during summer vacation while all his classmates leave town for the holidays with their parents. The grandmother, being his only family, is busy at work. Stumbling upon a piece of wrinkled paper with a scribbled-down address, Masao sets out to see his errant mother on his own. After the local bar owner kindly sends her no-account husband Kikujiro (played by Takeshi Kitano) to come along as an escort, this unusual duo embarks upon a road trip and gradually forms an ambivalent father-son, uncle-nephew, or friendly relationship. Immediately after departure, Kikujiro (named after Kitano’s gambler father) loses all the initial funds in a bicycle race, so they resort to hitchhiking, walking, and waiting for a bus that never shows up.
At first sight Kikujiro might seem to be diverging from Kitano’s trademarked gruesome violence, but it does continue with his playful cross-genre practices and the archetypical Kitano persona in many ways. Kikujiro is to a certain extent Kitano’s projection of his absent father, amalgamated with Kitano’s oddball but amiable antihero persona – macho but empathetic, flawed yet humane. Violence has been downplayed to keep in tune with the film’s general heart-warming tone, although it still lurks at every corner of the society under the forms of paedophiles, bullies and yakuza, contrasting with the benignity of other marginalised characters like punks, jugglers, street performers and tattoo masters. Reaching beyond the genre of crime drama, Kikujiro is deliberately discordant and disconnected in its interweaving of a series of episodes punctuated by Masao’s drawings for his summer vacation diary due at school on opening day. The snippets vary between family drama, manga, fantasy, crime drama, comedy, social commentary, cheap gags, and surrealism; at times the tattoo figure on Kikujiro’s back is transformed into a devouring and sexually threatening demon, whereas in some other snippets of physical comedy, the punk falls into the mud and Kikujiro is hit by a car which refuses to stop for hitchhikers.
The lack of uniformity enables experiments, lightheartedness, and absurdity. Kitano indulges himself, even more than in his other films, in playing with time and space. The duo’s prolonged stay in bicycle racing is stretched into several sequences of betting and racing from differentiated camera angles; at the deserted bus stop, they go through different moments of role-play, disguising, and delinquency, even to the extent of a slapstick. The camera playfully whirls around with the movement of a car wheel, or zooms out to reveal dramatic irony or surprise, whereas editing joins together repetitive and slightly divergent scenes to build up suspense. The ending sequence on the beach unites all the oddball characters who have been marginalised and abandoned by mainstream society. The vegetable vender shared a blue tent. The chubby punk takes Kikujiro by bike to his alienated mother’s old people’s home. They are dressed up as sea creatures or fantasy characters, with fish scales drawn on the trunk, watermelon patterns on the face, or pointed ears on the head. In this extended episode games are no longer used a means to reach a goal during the road trip, but an end in itself. These subcultured people are immersed in games of dice cup, stop light, swinging Tarzan, and a watermelon-head version of piñata. They might be considered the unfit and the absurd in regulated society, but on the beach they are all given a voice and the right to reject all responsibilities of the adult world.
And blue is the warmest colour. It is the colour of the tent, of Masao’s backpack with angel wings, of the sky and the sea. The new Blu-ray version renders colour contrast sharper and sunlight brighter, highlighting azure water, red Hawaii shirts, and green trees in the Japanese countryside. Though at times over-sentimental, Kikujiro is a film through which we are given the impression that we can peek into the inner world of Kitano.
Yun-hua Chen is an independent film scholar who contributes regularly to Film International, Exberliner, the website of Goethe Institut, as well as other academic journals. Her monograph on mosaic space and mosaic auteurs is funded by Geschwister Boehringer Ingelheim Stiftung für Geisteswissenschaften to be published by Neofelis Verlag by early 2016.