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  • Benjamin May

Kikujiro (1999) Review

It is summertime, and Masao is a lonely boy living with his grandmother in Tokyo. One day, he finds an address supposedly belonging to his long-lost mother, and decides to try and find her. His grandmother's friend insists that her husband, Kikujiro, accompany Masao, and the two set out together; despite not knowing each other well. On their long journey, Kikujiro and Masao engage in many adventures, meeting colourful characters along the way and forging a bond stronger than that between parent and child. Whether or not their friendship withstands the test of time- and if they find Masao's mother- remains to be seen in the dramatic powerhouse that is Takeshi Kitano's 'Kikujiro.'


Kitano's eighth feature film, 'Kikujiro' is a delightfully funny and poignant road movie sure to warm the cockles of any viewers' heart. A simple story about friendship and connection, the trip Masao and Kikujiro undertake contains subtle power and emotional depth, whilst also being frequently hilarious. The characters are all well-drawn and the escapades they engage in both wildly entertaining and affecting. The relationship that develops between Masao and Kikujiro is realistic and heart-warming, and the film's exploration of those considered 'outsiders' is one most intelligent and subdued. Much like Kitano's previous 'A Scene At The Sea,' the film's power is of the low-key and naturalistic variety; and 'Kikujiro' will surely linger in the mind long after the credits have rolled.

'Kikujiro' reunites Kitano with cinematographer Katsumi Yanagishima, for their sixth out of sixteen collaborations. Yanagishima's muted work is undeniably powerful and beguiling, lending the film and its' story additional beauty and depth. His is not pretentious or needlessly hectic cinematography, it is steady and sure work that produces sagacious, artful and distinct results. That Kitano has utilised Yanagishima's immeasurable talents for every one of his movies bar 'Violent Cop' and 'Hana-Bi' proves just how effectively the two men work together; and the visuals borne of their partnership for 'Kikujiro' are unforgettable.


The same can be said of another frequent collaborator of Kitano's, composer Joe Hisaishi: his score for 'Kikujiro' is catchy and evocative. The fifth film of Kitano's Hisaishi has worked on, his melodies are haunting and delicate. The theme, 'Summer,' is particularly beautiful, and like an earwig worms it's way into one's subconscious, establishing itself as a tune one will find it most difficult to forget. Hisaishi frequently plays the 'Kikujiro' soundtrack while touring, and the enduring popularity of the music shows just how moving and ineffaceable it is.

'Kikujiro' also boasts highly detailed costume design from Fumio Iwasaki that lends additional dimension to characters, as well as echoing past works from Kitano's cinematic canon (most notably through the short sleeved Hawaiian shirts featured so prominently in 'Sonatine'). Also of note is Ryôji Kasumi and Michio Miyauchi's work in the makeup department and Tatsuo Ozeki's rich set decoration; which adds further believability to the proceedings.


'Kikujiro' stars Kitano in the titular role and Yusuke Sekiguchi as Masao, making his big screen debut. Sekiguchi is a fine actor who remains understated throughout, crafting in Masao a character both believable and compelling. It could be argued that he has the least to do in the cast- certainly he has relatively little dialogue or any large displays of emotion- and that many other young boys could have played the role as effectively. However, that is to do a serious discredit to the subtlety of his acting. Though he only has one other film role to date, Sekiguchi has left an indelible imprint on cinema through his brilliant performance as Masao.

Kitano is terrific as Kikujiro, making him a slightly unhinged comedic force of nature, as well as a profoundly complex man. His relationship with Masao forces him to examine his own life, which he finds wanting; and Kitano's performance is powerfully understated and wildly entertaining. It is assumed that Kikujiro is a facsimile of Kitano's own father, and the fondness and exuberance with which he approaches the role betrays a great respect, admiration and love for the man. Kitano's Kikujiro may be one of his finest performances from his storied career; and is certainly his warmest and most heartfelt.


The supporting cast is populated with talented actors like Kayoko Kishimoto and Akaji Maro, both of whom steal their too few scenes as Kikujiro's wife and a seedy fellow Masao encounters in a park, respectively. All the secondary performers do admirable work, with Nezumi Imamura, Gurêto Gidayû and Rakkyo Ide impressing and entertaining the most as a travelling writer and two bikers Masao and Kikujiro befriend along the way. From the smallest role to the titular one; everyone in the film is perfectly cast.

'Kikujiro' is a powerful, funny and genuinely moving film from Takeshi Kitano that impresses on every level. Strongly acted, well-written and featuring stunning cinematography from Katsumi Yanagishima; the movie is entertaining and memorable both. With an atmospheric Joe Hisaishi score and detailed costume and set design; there is little to fault with the film. In short, 'Kikujiro' is a bittersweet symphony of unaffected profundity and voluminous emotional depth that hits all the right notes.

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