Kitano first attracted international attention when his first two films -- the crime movies Violent Cop (1989), which he directed and starred in, and Boiling Point (1990), which he directed, wrote, edited and starred in -- were hits at film festivals around the world. The two films eventually received minor releases in the U.S. before going to video; meanwhile, three other Kitano crime films -- Gonin (1995; actor only), Sonatine (1993) and Fireworks (Hana-bi) (1997) -- were all released in the States within a few months of each other in 1998. In short, to the extent that audiences here have seen his work, Kitano is firmly established as a tough-guy actor who only plays cops and crooks in hard-boiled films.
But there is another side to his work that is rarely seen outside Japan, and Kikujiro -- a dryly emotional story with a mostly comic tone -- is its apotheosis. Kitano plays the title character, a middle-aged slacker whose tough-guy act is almost comically ineffectual. If it weren't for his competent, domineering wife (Kayoko Kishimoto), he'd probably be sleeping in a gutter somewhere. When Masao (Yusuke Sekiguchi), a sad-eyed little neighbor boy, decides to run away from his grandmother's house to visit the mother he's never met, Kikujiro's wife -- we never learn her name -- insists that Kikujiro accompany the child and look after him, because it's not as if he's got anything else to occupy his time.
Kikujiro, who is a bully, a fool, a hustler and a grouch, is not crazy about the assignment until his wife unwisely gives him a little money for the trip. She should know better: Rather than leave town, he immediately drags Masao to the track and, superstitiously deciding that the boy has a magical knack, bullies him into picking whom to bet on.
Broke, they hit the road, with Kikujiro enlisting Masao in a series of tacky little schemes to get them rides. Eventually, Masao, more responsible at age 9 than Kikujiro is ever likely to be, ends up taking care of his supposed protector.
We are only a little more than halfway through the film when they reach their goal, only to be disappointed. Kikujiro, whose attitude has thawed as he has begun to see himself in the kid, decides to cheer him up with a vacation at the beach. Still a bully, he press-gangs an itinerant hipster and the world's two wimpiest bikers into joining him in entertaining Masao.
Unlike Kitano's other movies, Kikujiro has no truly violent events, no suicides or killings. Even its occasional highly dramatic moments are presented with minimal emphasis. But the style of both the acting and the directing will feel familiar to fans of his gangster films. As an actor, Kitano is all restraint; his repertoire of facial expressions is limited, and his characters tend to be laconic. He relies almost entirely on his eyes and his body language.
The same is true of his visual style, which is flat and often refuses to guide the audience's attention in a conventional manner. Emotional moments rarely include close-ups; when characters are sorting through feelings, he'll often let the camera linger on them for long stretches in a medium shot; other crucial scenes are shot at an even greater distance. The camera rarely moves other than to follow the action. Sometimes it doesn't even do that; like Woody Allen, Kitano locks down the camera while characters move out of the frame, where crucial events often occur.
It is this spare style that saves Kikujiro from becoming intolerably sentimental. The basic plot setup is reminiscent of Silas Marner, Little Miss Marker, Chaplin's The Kid and dozens of others: Lovable child attaches himself to reluctant, often emotionally distant, adult who eventually learns how to love. But Kitano would never give us Kikujiro breaking down in tears and running to embrace a crying Masao; at most he'll show us Kikujiro putting his arm around the kid, whose tears will be discreetly hidden from us.
In short, the film is emotional, perhaps even sentimental, but it strenuously avoids the sort of blatant manipulation that marks cheap sentimentality. The one lapse is the music: The score, by Kitano regular Jà Hisaishi, is often effective, but at times it starts to resemble the loathsome easy-listening junk of Michael Gore, most specifically the pabulum Gore wrote for Terms of Endearment (which deserved it).
This isn't Kitano's first effort in this direction; back in 1992, he made the similarly low-key A Scene at the Sea, which has shown once in Los Angeles and never in most places. Both that earlier film and Kikujiro are no less worthy than his more obviously "serious" movies, and they're likely to please those of his fans who aren't attracted merely by his more sensational subject matter.
Opens July 14 at the Plaza Frontenac.