My Summer Vacation
Kikujiro begins with a small boy running on the street, wearing a pale blue backpack with white angel wings attached. This opening image is deceptively simple, however. Before long, Takeshi Kitano’s inimitable style most famously established in his acclaimed gangster films, like Hana-Bi (Fireworks) will overshadow the apparent innocence of this tale of a young boy searching for his mother.
The story starts off pleasantly enough. Nine-year-old Masao (Yusuke Sekiguchi) lives with his grandmother (Kazuko Yoshiyuki). It’s the beginning of summer vacation and his best friend is leaving Tokyo with his family. His father is gone, and his mother, he is told, works hard in another city to support her son. When Masao finds his mother’s picture and address hidden away in a drawer, he decides he must find her.
Despite this familiar story, and the ubiquitous display of angels’ pictures, angels’ wings, and angels’ bells, the film does not unfold as a predictable sentimental tale. The hijinks commence when Masao’s grandmother’s friend (Kayoko Kishimoto) convinces her husband, Kikujiro (Takeshi Kitano, under his acting name Beat Takeshi) to accompany Masao. Kikujiro or “Mister,” as the boy calls him looks and acts as if he just stepped out of a gangster movie and doesn’t quite belong in this one. Instead of helping the boy avoid trouble, he creates it. He gambles much of his own (or more accurately, his wife’s) and Masao’s money at the cycle races, then spends the rest at a posh hotel. Soon the two are forced to hitchhike the rest of the way, at one point waiting in vain for two days at a rural bus stop.
Through Masao and Kikujiro’s relationship, the film explores the vicissitudes of a parent-child relationship: they bond because neither knew his mother growing up. (Kitano claims in the press release that his father served as an inspiration for Kikujiro.) Their relationship develops slowly, in part because the gruff Kikujiro does not seem to be in a hurry to get the boy to his destination. Still, he takes his charge seriously enough that he compels a series of passers-by to lend the boy a hand in one way or another when the pair run out of money at the hotel and can’t rent a cab, he intimidates the desk clerk into giving them a ride. Masao’s journey sometimes seems an excuse to display the many socially and visually colorful characters who cross paths with the two travelers and end up entertaining the boy. When a young couple pick up the two penniless hitchhikers, the girl juggles oranges for Masao and gives him that pretty blue backpack we saw at the film’s opening. Later on, Kikujiro convinces a drifter and a pair of bikers, “Fatso” and “Baldy,” to amuse the child.
Kikujiro presents a variation on a theme, one examined recently by the recent Brazilian film Central Station, where an old woman goes assists a boy seeking his father. Central Station ends when the boy’s quest ends. Not Kikujiro: after the boy reaches his destination, Kikujiro, the drifter, Fatso and Baldy play games with Masao for several days, dressing up and painting their bodies to represent a fish, an octopus, an American Indian, and an alien from outer space. At this point, the story abandons its earlier boy-seeks-mother premise and becomes almost surreal against a backdrop of trees, river, and dirt road, Kikujiro conjures blue, red and silver paint, costumes and other props to mount elaborate performances.
Kitano can get away with disorienting formula-inured viewers because of his stature as a popular Japanese TV star, stand-up comedian, and painter, and his international reputation as a director of gangster films. Instead of trying to repeat the critical success of Central Station and similar poignant but predictable films, Kitano uses the child’s point of view to refract his own sense of color, action, and humor. Much of the narrative unfolds through Masao’s eyes, and is structured as his report on “How I spent my summer,” complete with snap shots and headings separating one story from another. Masao’s ingenuousness filters the difficult reality he confronts. When Kikujiro is beaten up by local yakuza goons at a country fair, for example, the episode is entitled “Mister falls down the stairs,” and a man who attempts to molest Masao is billed simply as “Scary Man.”
Kitano also shows the audience the boy’s vivid and often frightening dreams. In the most elaborate vision, inspired by a huge bloody face tattooed on Kikujiro’s back, a menacing stranger in red makeup and garments keeps Masao away from his mother by performing an elaborate ritualistic dance. We’re also privy to images that, according to conventional wisdom, children are more likely to notice than busy adults, such as a view of the world through a dragon-fly’s eyes or reflections in a moving car’s spinning, shiny hubcap. Throughout the film, the naivete, intensity, and choreography of the boy’s dreams so closely correspond to those of the horseplay orchestrated by Kikujiro, that it is hard to tell where the boy’s imagination ends, and Kikujiro’s, or Kitano’s, begins.
Kitano’s earlier work lends additional weight to the undercurrent of violence present in Kikujiro. Its opening credits, featuring primitivist red-blue-and-pink pictures of angels (drawn by the director himself) and Joe Hisaishi’s score (which recalls orchestra- driven soundtracks of mid-century European and U.S. films), mirror almost exactly Fireworks, which won the Golden Lion at the 1997 Venice Film Festival. Celebrated by critics as a clever and trenchant reinvention of the cops-and-yakuza genre, Fireworks, also starring Kitano, tells the story of a tough cop who uses brute force to protect and bring peace to his dying wife. Kikujiro also acts as Masao’s protector, perhaps not as effectively, but with the same earnestness.
Without this pre-history, it is hard to understand why Fatso, beefy and leather-clad, would give up a present from his girlfriend, a delicate “angel bell,” to Kikujiro without resistance. But who would argue with an actor like “Beat” Takeshi Kitano, who, in his previous incarnation in Fireworks, pierced his opponent’s eye with chopsticks? In Fireworks, brief moments of graphic violence punctuate pensive and quiet scenes where almost all action is suspended. In its visual and narrative style, Kikujiro is Fireworks with graphic violence left out.