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Mister is strange
A region 1 DVD review of KIKUJIRO / KIKUJIRO NO NATSU by Slarek

My fondness for Kitano Takeshi films has become almost legendary with the season organisers and regulars at the film society I co-run. We meet to discuss the new season and on seeing that a new Kitano film is released, all eyes turn immediately to me in expectation – everyone knows I am going to propose it for inclusion in the next season. What I have to make clear, though, is that it's not just me that requests them. Hence our decision to run Kids Return, Hana-Bi, Brother, Dolls and – of course – Kitano's 1999 Kikujiro.

Kikujiro (actually Kikujiro no natsu, which translates as 'The sumnmer of Kikujiro', a title that offers more than one interpretation) marks a change in pace for Kitano as director. Weary of reviews that focussed on the violence of his previous films, he decided to make a film that was devoid of his trademark characters and action. Though some felt this would produce a softer, less affecting work, Kikujiro is still very much a Kitano movie, and proof positive (if any was really needed) that he is far more than a director of hard-edged gangster movies. Mind you, the evidence is all there in the director's earlier work, in the poetry, surrealism, character detail and comedy of Sonatine, and in every minute of the gentle, utterly violence-free A Scene at the Sea [Ano natsu, ichiban shizukana umi].

Kikujiro tells the story of a dual awakening, that of Masao, a quiet young boy who wants to travel across country to find his departed mother, and of Kikujiro, a loud-mouthed but hopeless layabout who plays constant second fiddle to his stern and strong-willed wife. It is she who insists that her husband accompanies Masao on his cross-country quest, an arrangement that neither man nor boy seems remotely happy with. Plot-wise, what follows is familiar stuff, with the pair involved in a series of escapades that eventually, inevitably, draw them closer together, a storyline that goes right back to Chaplin's The Kid. But in common with every Kitano film before it, what makes this film so special is the detail. The seemingly familiar is made to feel fresh through Kitano's deft directorial touches and the extraordinary film-making economy that those familiar with his other work will instantly recognise. Here it is played strictly for laughs and scores a number of comic bulls-eyes – Kikujiro's foolish attempt to show of his non-existent swimming skills compresses fifteen minutes of action into just four brief static shots, and in a way that is visually witty and very, very funny.

Unexpected characters and turns are everywhere: the carnival-skilled couple who delight Masao but make Kikujiro feel inadequate; the burly-looking Hell's Angels who wouldn't say boo to a goose; the increasingly desperate attempts to flag down a lift at an isolated bus stop; the hilarious consequences of attempting to stop a car by puncturing its tyre. Kitano even manages to find comedy in a potentially distressing scene involving a middle-aged would-be child abuser without ever belittling the wrong the man is attempting to do.

This is all made to work through Kitano's consistently inventive direction and a string of sometimes delightful performances, with Kitano himself on fine form as the bullish Kikujiro, though he is given a real run by young Yuseke Sekiguchi's engagingly natural turn as Masao. The offbeat travelling trio of driver Nezumi Mamura and bikers Great Gidayu and Rakkyo Ide are a delight, and that's Kitano's old stand-up partner Beat Kiyoshi as the Bus Stop Man "with that face." The final layer is provided, as always, by the magnificent Joe Hisaishi, whose gorgeous score may rank as his best yet for Kitano and is key to the film's emotional heart.

As the film progresses it becomes increasingly and magically surreal: Masao's stark, richly stylised dream of his mother; the two fairground workers who warn Masao not to stay out after dark and then return as a pair of dancing demons; the strange riverside games Kikujiro invents to keep Masao amused that have the easily put-upon bikers dressed as a fish, an octopus and an alien, used as a target for kendo practice, and even stark naked (with a most odd optical effect that appears to be very deliberate rather than a result of censorship – certainly it was on the UK cinema print as well as this US DVD). And as Masao and Kikujiro become closer, our emotional bond to them grows, enhanced by two genuinely affecting looks of sad recognition on the face of Kikujiro, first at the home of Masao's long departed mother, then again at the rest home in which his own mother now resides.

We are left with some interesting and unresolved questions about Kikujiro's past, his relationship with his family, and just what shaped him into the man he has subsequently become. Frequently acting the tough guy, he is scolded by his wife for playing gangster, and when he gets into a fight with an irate lorry driver, he takes a pasting. Yet when he removes his shirt at the hotel swimming pool, his back is adorned with the sort of elaborate tattoo usually sported only by the yakuza. Has he taken his tough guy dreams to the extreme of bodily decoration (a social no-no in Japan), or are we looking at a former yakuza who and has been expelled from their ranks and has been unable to adjust to normal society (a theme taken up more seriously in Hana-Bi)?

Kikujiro toys with sentimentality but never loses its foot, and even when it comes close, the sheer invention and creative skill of the director keeps the film on track. This is a work that prompts a genuine emotional response because it cares for its characters, and rather than trying to force a reaction in the Hollywood manner, it allows us to discover our liking for them in our own time. The effect of this is marked by the opening shot, which is actually from the film's end – on a first viewing it means little, but the second time around it carries with it so much more meaning that the triggered response is instantaneous and powerful, firing the anticipation of taking this wonderful journey again.

sound and vision

The film is presented here in a generally solid 16:9 anamorphic transfer. The bitrate is low at times but this is rarely reflected in the on-screen image, though there is some minor artefacting in areas of single colour. Most of the action takes place outdoors in bright sunlight, where the colours are bright and the picture clear and sharp, but even during the night-time fairground scenes the high standard typical of Columbia Tristar's foreign language releases is maintained.

The lack of a 5.1 track is once again a disappointment, but the Dolby 2.0 track is suprisingly full bodied at times, and Joe Hisayashi's superb score always sounds good.

extra features

Almost none, which is a real shame, but sadly almost inevitable. Brief biographies and a trailer are OK, but the film is the only real draw here.


The lack of extras and a 5.1 soundtrack are a bit of a disappointment, but so few foreign language films get the special edition treatment (especially in the US) that it's not all that surprising, and Kitano fans will be happy enough that with the solid picture quality and decent 2.0 soundtrack. With some earlier Kitano films getting a bare bones only, full-screen release in the US and a shabby, non-anamorphic release in the UK, this, along with Hana-Bi and Brother, remain the best Kitano disks for those of us not fluent in Japanese. On that point alone, the disk comes highly recommended.

[Kikujirô no natsu]

Japan 2000
116 mins
Takeshi Kitano
Takeshi Kitano
Yusuke Sekiguchi
Kayoko Kishimoto
Yuko Daike
Kazuko Yoshiyuki
Beat Kiyoshi

disc details
region 1
1.85:1 anamorphic
Dolby stereo 2.0

Columbia Tristar
review posted
26 November 2003

related reviews
Kikujiro [Blu-ray review]
Violent Cop
Boiling Point
A Scene at the Sea
Getting Any?
Takeshi Kitano Collection

See all of Slarek's reviews