A complete departure from the lyrical violence of his gangster films, Japanese actor-director Takeshi Kitano’s “Kikujiro” is an unremittingly sentimental road movie that represents a substantial disappointment after his international breakthrough film, “Hana-Bi.” Story of a cherubic tyke and a gruff middle-aged tough guy with a soft side who journey together in search of the boy’s mother, the film displays many of the inventive visual touches that distinguished Kitano’s previous work, but its treacly mix of emotional manipulation and klutzy comedy will make it hard to digest for most audiences.
While Kitano has become a highly regarded cult director in recent years through international festival and arthouse exposure, his films have never been given the same consideration in Japan, where he is known primarily as a television personality and standup comedian. Tempering his trademark cool, silent demeanor here with bouts of wacky comic mugging, the director appears to be playing primarily to his legions of TV fans, indicating he may be angling with his eighth feature for wider domestic acceptance.
Set during summer, film centers on lonely 9-year-old Masao (Yusuke Sekiguchi), who lives with his grandmother. Told that his father died in a car accident and that the mother he has never known is forced to stay in a distant town due to her job, Masao sets off with a photo and address to find her. He hooks up with an unlikely traveling companion in Kikujiro (Kitano, using his nom de thesp Beat Takeshi), a smart-mouthed goon instructed by his no-nonsense wife (Kayoko Kishimoto) to accompany the boy.
The journey that follows is punctuated by eccentric encounters and by chapter titles and images from Masao’s summer-holiday project book. When they do reach Masao’s mother, a crushing disappointment keeps him from making contact. Discovering reserves of tenderness he perhaps wasn’t aware existed, Kikujiro steps in to relieve the boy’s sorrow, concocting elaborate fantasies and infantile games with the aid of two passing motorcyclists (Great Gidayu, Rakkyo Ide) and a traveling poet (Nezumi Imamura). The increasingly silly antics of this overextended section wear decidedly thin.
Kitano has traded in sentiment before, most notably in “A Scene at the Sea,” about two deaf-mute teens with a passion for surfing, and in passages of “Kids Return” and “Hana-Bi.” But while those films achieved a delicate, unforced poignancy, “Kikujiro” is heavy-handed in almost every aspect, most of all in its excessive use of regular composer Joe Hisaishi’s syrupy score. Failing to establish the seductive, fluid rhythms that normally propel Kitano’s work, this journey often appears to be going nowhere, with the clumsy comic episodes and surreal, somewhat incongruous dream sequences constantly halting the momentum.
Kitano plays Kikujiro as an impish, overgrown delinquent, uncovering a more sensitive side as his bond with Masao grows. But the focal character of the boy is problematic, and self-conscious young actor Sekiguchi fails to convey much personality or range beyond a generically adorable physical presence. As always with the director’s films, this one is visually impressive, with lenser Katsumi Yan-agishima deftly conjuring the hazy colors and lazy stillness of summer.