animefringe november 2003 / feature
Animefringe Coverage:
Kikujiro no Natsu: A Summer Vacation with Beat Takeshi

Some of you might be familiar with the media mogul Takeshi "Beat" Kitano. He's appeared in a few American movies, including Johnny Mnemonic and Brother, but he is nearly omnipresent in Japan. In addition to having his own show, he stars in many of his own films, and appears in dozens and dozens of other TV shows and movies - fans of Battle Royale will remember him as the middle school teacher who comes back to instruct the class on the rules of their new game. In a word, the man practically owns the Japanese media and is one of the biggest, best known stars in Japan.

Despite his popularity, his Japanese films see little press on this side of the Pacific, and the film Kikujiro no Natsu (Kikujiro's Summer or simply Kikujiro for its international release) is no different. In one of Kitano's more beautiful and touching films, he looks at the summer vacation of Kikujiro, a gruff former yakuza played by Kitano himself, and a young boy named Masao.

Masao lives with his grandmother in Tokyo. His father is gone and his mother lives far away. So when summer vacation rolls around and Masao's school friends go away, he decides to go find his mother. A kindly neighborhood woman enlists her husband, the gruff ex-Yakuza, to help the boy. Unfortunately, the old man gambles away the duo's money at the racetrack before even leaving Tokyo, forcing Masao and his guardian to hitchhike across Japan.

What results is a beautifully shot travel picture, both heartwarming and heartbreaking. The older Kikujiro lets down his guard and finds out that Masao is not so different from him. Along the way, our main characters meet a wild assortment of people, including a wandering hippie who gives the guys a ride in his van, and the scary looking, but warm-on-the-inside bikers who play with Masao and Kikujiro. Along the way, Kitano plays Kikujiro with his characteristic gusto: he steals cabs and lunches, yells at people, and generally behaves like a gruff old fogey, while still revealing how much he comes to care for Masao. That Kitano wrote and directed the movie is a given: he gets most of the best lines (though the bikers especially get a few good moments), but Kitano plays his role with relish.

The movie's cinematography is also classic Kitano. The use of colors in Kikujiro is sublime; one scene has Masao and Kikujiro covered in greenery, the whole shot exudes nature and peace. Some of the movie's scarier moments come at night. In one scene Masao wanders off with a stranger. When Kikujiro notices he's lost his traveling companion he sets out to look for him, only to find the boy nearly being molested by a pervert. Later in the film, Kikujiro takes Masao to a Japanese carnival. All the games are rigged and Kikujiro walks around the place taking prizes as if he were still a Yakuza; the thugs running the carnival, however, seem to think differently and show Kikujiro he's not a boss anymore. One of the film's lowest points follows Masao on a beach, where the hazy, light blue sky seems to touch the light colored sand in a dreamlike state.

The film's kicker comes at its close. After going through their adventures and hardships, the two return to their homes and their normal, everyday lives. They return to their ho-hum lives changed by their summer adventures (especially Kikujiro).

Not everyone will like the film. Like many Japanese films, Kikujiro tends to meander from scene to scene, with an emphasis on emotional quality as opposed to a straightforward narrative. Luckily, the narrative structure of the "trip" keeps the film moving forward. Still, American viewers might find the film too slow to be enjoyable. Additionally, while Kikujiro is a funny film, a lot of the humor is very Japanese and might fly right over the heads of Americans. Some of the perspectives and values in the movie might strike American audiences as bizarre. The scene in which Masao wanders off with a pervert, for instance, sounds horrific. However, nothing really happens and director Kitano plays the whole thing off as a joke, by throwing Kikujiro into the mix.

For Japanese movie fans, Kikujiro is a must-watch film. Along with a simple, but extremely stirring soundtrack by Studio Ghibli's Joe Hisashi, it is an important film in contemporary Japanese (and international) cinema. Kitano is definitely the successor to such great Japanese directors as Iganaki, Kurosawa, and Ozu. He is able to combine their very different directorial styles into something accessible for the average Japanese audience today. And, as if that weren't enough, Kintano aka "Beat" Takeshi is a delight to watch on the screen.