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Columbia TriStar Home Video

Starring Takeshi Kitano and Yusuke Sekiguchi

Written and directed by Takeshi Kitano

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Review by D. K. Holm                    

A true auteur creates a unique world on film, with a consistent visual style and recurring themes (and variations thereof). Be it Alfred Hitchcock, Martin Scorsese, David Lynch, or Neil LaBute, the movies of such directors are instantly identifiable as truly theirs. Even Penny Marshall, by this strict standard, is an auteur, if only in that her films all look the same and have similar themes (the problem is that they just aren't any good). But the films of a real, or at least a talented and driven, auteur come up and slap you in the face. So what is the world of Takeshi Kitano, who (by the year 2000) has created nine films altogether?

Kitano;s world is one of almost silent people, people who conceal both their loyalty and their pain under serene, impenetrable masks. It's also a violent world in which violence is presented elliptically, and the characteristic Kitano moment is one in which people confront each other standing utterly still and expressionless, right before a flat cut reveals the sudden aftermath of their unseen fight. Drawn to crime stories, possibly for commercial reasons, Kitano has also made episodic comedies (1994's Minna yatteruka), youth movies (the 1996 Kidzu ritan), sentimental romances (Ano natsu, ichiban shizukana umi from 1992), and others. A former stage comedian turned television star, and famous in Japan for his partnership with another comic with the same nickname Beat Kiyoshi, Kitano is also a prolific writer, painter, and television host. There's been a lot more variety to his films than Americans know, since the high-profile crime films are the ones that get released to the screens here, but the variety of subject matter actually runs contrary to his television-comedy image in his homeland. A similar disjunction in America would be if Jerry Seinfeld had a secondary career in Europe as an opera director.

Kitano's Kikujiro from 1999 is consistent with his world view and style. The story is simple, and almost eventless. Nine-year old Masao (Yusuke Sekiguchi), who lives glumly with his grandmother, stumbles upon the address and photo of his mother, whom he has never met. Impulsively — and with little money and no idea where he is going — the gloomy kid sets out to meet her. But just as he embarks, he is waylaid by the hoods who daily demand all of his money. Masao is rescued by a friend (Kayoko Kishimoto) of his grandmother's. She then volunteers her husband (Kitano) for the job of accompanying the boy on his journey. But the irresponsible minor yakuza immediately takes his young charge to the cycle races, where he gambles away the boy's travel money. Forced to hitchhike, the duo encounter a string of oddballs, including a young couple, two motorcycle riders, an aimless traveler, and Beat Kiyoshi in a cameo. Eventually, the boy does see his mother, but she has a new life of her own, with a husband and child. After a confrontation with a pederast, and a fight with other yakuza at a carnival, the duo meet up again with some of those other travelers and camp out near the water. There, the man decides to visit his own mother, who is in a nearby rest home. When he returns to the camp, he joins the others in conspiring to cheer up the depressed child. Finally returning home, the man and child part, possibly friends, with the man revealing one final piece of withheld information.

Kikujiro is the kind of offbeat film that grows in value to the sensitive viewer who has patience for Japanese humor, which can seem inexplicable to Western eyes. The episodic sequence at the campsite, for example, may tax the patience of non-fans. On the other hand, the film is all of a piece with Kitano's earlier work — languorously paced, elliptical, and deeply emotional under its implacable surface. The story is clear, funny, sensitive, and as usual Kitano's camera placement and editing rhythm is impeccable. Part of the charm of the film comes from Jo Hisaishi's original music score, a melodic and very Western-sounding track. However, Kitano has not quite caught on in North America among mainstream viewers, even with the periodic catch-up style release of the crime films — Kikujiro made just under $300,000 in America upon its release in the summer of 2000, but it was nominated for a prize at Cannes and won other festival awards as well.

Columbia TriStar's DVD release of Kikujiro offers a clean anamorphic transfer (1.85:1) that is flawless. The audio production — for what is fundamentally a near-silent movie — is Dolby 2.0 Surround, here in both Japanese and French, while subtitles are available in English, French, and Spanish. Otherwise, the disc has almost no extras, aside from trailers for other CTHV releases, including Johnny Mnemonic, in which Kitano has a cameo.

— D. K. Holm

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