Kikujiro (菊次郎の夏, Takeshi Kitano, 1999)

b97b89932bReview of Takeshi Kitano’s 1999 masterpiece Kikujiro AKA Kikujiro’s Summer (菊次郎の夏, Kikujiro no Natsu) first published by UK Anime Network.


When thinking about the career of iconoclastic Japanese director Takeshi Kitano, “cute” is not a word which immediately springs to mind. Nevertheless, it’s a fairly apt one for describing the bittersweet tale of one summer in the life of a lonely little boy and the roughhousing ex-yakuza who becomes his reluctant guardian.

Masao is a mournful looking schoolboy who lives alone with his grandmother. It’s almost the school summer holidays and all the other kids are excited about family trips and activities but Masao’s grandmother still has to work so they won’t be doing anything and he’ll have to entertain himself throughout all of the long, hot break. Seeing as all of his friends have gone away, and after finding a photograph of his parents and another of his mother and grandmother with him as an infant, Masao decides to take off for an adventure of his own to track down his long absent mum. However, he doesn’t get very far before some bigger boys have taken all his money and actually seem annoyed he doesn’t have more. Luckily, a former neighbour and her husband turn up and get the money back for him but they explain the town where Masao’s mother lives is too far for a little boy to travel all on his lonesome. The wife makes her husband, Kikujiro (Kitano) take the boy on summer trip of their own but what they find there isn’t exactly what either of them had been expecting.

In many ways, Kikujiro is in the best tradition of odd couple road trips. Kikujiro didn’t really want to escort this sad little boy on a strange family holiday but his wife insisted (and she gave him quite a lot of spending money) so he reluctantly takes Masao on a journey but introduces him to some of his favourite pursuits such as gambling on bicycle races and hanging out in hostess bars. Little by little he starts to warm to the boy and the pair go on to have several strange encounters throughout their trip, largely down to Kikujiro now being broke after losing all the money gambling at the beginning.

Sending a little boy off with a total stranger doesn’t seem like the best idea in retrospect, even if it’s preferable to letting Masao head off alone. Kikujiro is very much not an appropriate baby sitter which makes for a lot of comedic scenes from an outsider’s view though perhaps Masao’s grandmother might not find it so funny if anyone ever decides to tell her about any of this. There is only one scene in the film where something very untoward threatens to befall Masao involving a “scary man” in a park but luckily Kikujiro turns up just in the nick of time. This episode is, in truth, a little hard to take alongside the otherwise fun encounters which showcase Kikujiro’s own clownish, immature qualities.

The film is seen more or less through the innocent viewpoint of Masao and broken up into chapters seemingly taken from his “what I did on my holidays” scrapbook project. Perhaps not having the material to complete this inevitable post-summer assignment was one of the motives for Masao finally taking off on his own to solve the mystery of his absent mother but what his teacher’s going to make of this strange collection adventures is anyone’s guess (perhaps if he’s lucky no one will believe it anyway).

The story doesn’t finish once Masao and Kikujiro have reached the furthest point of the journey but carries on through their way back too as Kikujiro tries to cheer the boy up and begins to reflect on his troubled relationship with his own mother. The true reason for film’s name becomes apparent towards the end as Kikujiro mournfully watches Masao run off back home perhaps feeling sorry for him but also a little wistful that his own summer adventure is over and he might never have such a fun trip again.

Warm and funny, Kikujiro employs a hearty dose of sardonic black humour for its tale of a childlike gangster’s growth process as he morphs into the figure of a guardian angel for a sad little boy. Aided by Joe Hisaishi’s wistful score and the beautiful landscape of a Japanese summer by the sea, Kikujiro proves a slightly unusual entry in Kitano’s filmography (though only up to a point) and an often underrated one though it ranks among his highest achievements for its sheer poetic power alone.


Kikujiro is re-released on blu-ray today in the UK courtesy of Third Window Films who will shortly also be re-releasing Dolls and, it’s recently been announced, Kids Return and A Scene at the Sea.

This is the only trailer I could find and it’s from the original US VHS release so it’s extremely irritating (sorry), film is not this annoying (promise).

Our Day Will Come + Q&A at the ICA

Our Day Will Come is the sort of polarising film that will upset a lot of people. It’s essentially an absurd road movie in which two red headed men take revenge for all the confusion and disappointments in their lives by exploiting racial prejudice and trying to con their way out of Northern France. This is in itself quite funny as neither of the men actually have very red hair, the boy’s is a fake looking reddish brown (very dark), and the older man’s a greying pepperish colour. Nevertheless they seem to believe they’ve found a common bond and a persecuted minority to claim them as their own, even going so far as developing the desire to go to Ireland so they can be among their people. However, after things come to a crisis point for Patrick (Vincent Cassel), the older man and possibly the worst guidance counselor ever (if he ever really was one), events take a definite turn for the worse.

The humour here is really very dark, a lot of people probably won’t quite get it or its absurd tone. For those who do though this is likely to be a very enjoyable film with a lot of interesting things going on. It’s a film that perhaps doesn’t have a direct message, is it a film about persecution? about violence and alienation? about French society, or more specifically Northern French society? All these elements are in the movie but as for which of any of them the films means to express in point, it can’t be said. The absurdity is perhaps the point itself. Cassel and Barthelemy both turn in astonishing performances as the conflicted leads with good support from the unfortunate people they encounter during their pointless quest, notably the sullen little girl in the red jacket. Romain Gavras has made a very strong feature debut and is definitely a voice to look out for in the future. It’s certainly a film that many will find offensive or fail to engage with but also one that will find its own audience.

Vincent Cassel and Romain Gavras  kindly came to the stage after the film to answer some questions, of which there were undoubtedly a few. They first explained how the film got made, that Cassel had known the younger Gavras and the film’s producer for many years and after seeing Gavras’ last music video had come to the conclusion that Gavras was now ready to direct a feature and so decided to produce and possibly star in it. Gavras and the creative team then set about writing the script which went through many iterations, it did not originally feature red hair as a plot element but Gavras liked the idea of these two men who didn’t really have red hair banding together as red heads and convincing themselves they’d been unfairly persecuted for this reason. The completely pointless quest to find and liberate their people then became the driving force of the film. However Gavras was quick to say he himself doesn’t really know the point of the film or if it has one. Apparently they did test dye Barthelemy’s hair bright red but it looked too odd and Cassel added that after that he would have himself refused a full red dye. Someone asked if Cassel actively sought out these more extreme parts or was it just that it’s what he’s offered to which he answered he’d tried playing nice guys but it wasn’t very interesting and anyway he doesn’t find the nice guy archetype very true true to life. The same person then asked how he’d been influenced by his father Jean-Pierre Cassel which he found he couldn’t possibly answer other than in ways he couldn’t tell, but pointed out also that he’d ended up making very different films from his father. The same question was put to Romain which he answered in a similar way but added he hadn’t really had any choice about becoming a director and that all his siblings had entered the same field. The Q&A session then ended with a slightly odd (and a bit redundant) question about the Irish tourism board which was answered with a fairly flat ‘yes they approved’ style answer but all in all a very interesting conversation about this film that defies explanation.