Seven or eight years ago we rented a DVD of Takeshi Kitano’s Kikujirō for no better reason than liking the picture on the cover. We knew nothing of Kitano’s reputation as a hyper-violent yakuza film director, and so we weren’t astonished, as many of his fans seem to have been, by this sentimental, family-friendly comedy. We just thought that’s what Kitano did.
The story is simple: A bottom-rung yakuza mope is forced by his wife to take a pathetic little neighbor kid — Masao, a mope in the making — on a three-hundred mile journey to find the kid’s mom. Kikujirō (the adult, more or less, of the two) is utterly irresponsible and incompetent. His sole talent, exercised frequently and often successfully, is loud, demanding bullying. He botches the journey in every way: he gambles away their money, detroys a number of cars, strands them in the middle of nowhere and is only finally able to get the kid to his mom’s place through the help of an itinerant poet who, though he caught them stealing his hubcaps, befriends them.
Well, you can read a thorough plot synopsis of Kikujirō on Wikipedia here: KIKU, but it isn’t the plot that makes it. It’s Kitano’s idiosyncatic editing. Long static scenes juxtaposed with abrupt, almost violent, slapstick. Shots that don’t advance the story, but seem to have been put in simply because Kitano thought they looked cool, like a brief Point-of-View shot from the perspective of a dragonfly. Expectations wrongfooted at every cut. Offbeat timing like in a Wes Anderson movie.
The film completely enthralled us at the time, so we were curious to see if it was just as grabby on a second viewing eight years and a lifetime (for Liz) later. It pretty much held up.
If the jokes seemed a bit forced, they were still plenty weird — like the biker browbeaten by the ever-demanding Kikujirō into dressing, at different times, as an octopus, a melon, an extraterrestrial, a sketeton (though that may only be a dream), and a naked Indian. All to amuse the kid, we’re told, but probably more to amuse Kitano and us, the audience.
In Western fiction there’s a long tradition of making losers attractive, or at least sympathetic: Smike, Little Nell, Bob Cratchit, Little Eva, Hemingway’s parade of schmos, the nogoodniks of Beat literature. The list is endless. But in real life losers are neither attractive nor sympathetic. Losers are repulsive. We avoid them. Their mopiness seems contagious. We like our Bob Cratchits just fine on stage, but no closer, please. The unusual thing about Kikujirō — well, one unusual thing about Kikujirō — is that these two losers, Kikujirō and Masao, are just as repulsive and abrasive onscreen as you would find them if you met them in your life. Kitano wins our sympathy for them anyhow, maybe by nothing more than loudly repeating his demand that we like them. The way Kikujirō gets his way — when he does get it.