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Kitano's Curious Course

By Desson Howe
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, June 23, 2000


    'Kikujiro' Beat Takeshi and Yusuke Sekiguchi in "Kikujiro." (Sony Pictures Classics)
It stands to reason Takeshi Kitano would hate being typecast.

When he's not writing and directing movies, or acting in them, he's writing novels, short stories or poetry. Or he's doodling cartoons. Or painting. Or writing essays. Or coaching a baseball team. So, when he made his international name with such yakuza gangster films as "Violent Cop," "Boiling Point" and "Sonatine," he decided it was time to break out from the crime drama.

The result is "Kikujiro," a movie – I can say this with rock-hard authority – that's like no other. Although, technically, it's a story about a small boy's desire to visit the mother he's never known, it's also a catchall of things Kitano.

At times, you get the feeling Kitano, who wrote, directed, edited and starred in the movie (credited under his actor's pseudonym, Beat Takeshi), just made this up as he went along.

It's summer and 9-year-old Masao (Yusuke Sekiguchi) is lonely. He has never met his mother, who lives and works in a far-away town. And his grandmother is too busy working herself to give the boy much attention.

When he finds his mother's photo and address for the first time, he decides to try to visit her. But he has no money or transportation. A friendly neighbor takes pity on him and persuades her indolent husband, Kikujiro, to take the boy. She gives Kikujiro money and leaves the boy in his hands.

At first Kikujiro uses the money – and the kid's lucky guesses – to gamble at a bicycle racing rink. But eventually, he takes the child on the road.

This is the beginning of a truly strange adventure for Masao, a sort of quirky, shaggy dog tale. "Kikujiro," which was an official selection at last year's Cannes Film Festival, veers wildly and unpredictably from one pole to the other.

Sometimes it's comic in a childishly goofy way. Then suddenly, it's ruthlessly serious. And just when your mind settles in for a sentimental curmudgeon-and-the-kid heartwarmer, Kitano confounds expectations again.

The episodes are too convoluted to get into, but the two companions run into a sweet-natured woman who teaches Kikujiro to juggle with oranges, a poet who rides around in a colorful bus, and two of the friendliest bikers you could ever hope to meet.

In the movie's weirdest, almost hallucinatory sequence, these bikers agree to dress up (and even strip down) in the strangest getups – just to please the boy.

Here's where it's very clear that no one answers to filmmaker Kitano, except himself. The movie becomes a strange slide show, as Kikujiro and the bikers essentially display themselves for the viewer, as well as Masao. At this point, the movie enters its own arcane vortex, excluding us from its unfathomable design. And yet, Kitano's compositions are often fantastic. He's an assured colorist and set designer. And he has a great sense of visual humor.

At one point, Kikujiro walks up to a child sitting in a chair. Mistaking the child for Masao, the rough-natured man whacks him on the head and tells him to get up. The child turns. It's not Masao. His parents suddenly appear from around the corner, shocked and outraged. Kikujiro turns around efficiently and walks away, as always, keeping ahead of the trouble that he caused in the first place. And we move on to the next scene, with absolutely no idea what lies around the narrative corner.

KIKUJIRO (PG-13, 116 minutes) – Contains violence, child molestation situations and some strong language. In Japanese with English subtitles.


© Copyright 2000 The Washington Post Company

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