Takeshi Kitano’s latest film sees him continue with the painterly style of his earlier work while virtually reinventing his own on-screen persona. Here, the hitherto taciturn, hardbitten cop of films such as Sonatine and Hana-Bi becomes the loquacious, abrasive, and very funny yakuza-wannabe. The film initially centers on nine-year-old Masao, a boy being raised by his grandmother while his single mother works on the coast.
The boy is lonely at home, picked on at school, and so doesn’t look forward to his imminent summer holidays with any great degree of relish. However, he does plan to travel to the coast to be reunited with his absent mother. He is accompanied on the trip by an unenthusiastic Kikujiro (Kitano), a neighbour who has been ‘volunteered’ for the task of child-minding.
Inspired, according to the director, by The Wizard of Oz, the film from this point becomes a kind of road movie. The pair have many chance encounters, mostly positive, with characters as diverse as a paedophile, bossy and arrogant hotel staff, and two remarkably gentle bikers, finally ending up sharing a camping trip with some of their newfound acquaintances. Masao stands calmly at the centre of all these events, while Kikujiro brashly corrals everyone together in support of the child’s happiness.
What is perhaps most refreshing about Kitano’s take on this style of movie, where reluctant adult is forced to bond with adorable child, is that he refuses to indulge in the sentimentality often seen in such films. Although it is obvious that Kikujiro does grow fonder of the boy, and does share childhood experiences with him, there is no moment of crux in their relationship and the eponymous character does not leave as a better or calmer or less abrasive individual. In fact, it may be that, contrary to convention, the introverted child has learned from the harshness of his companion, and may in future be a stronger person, better able to protect himself.