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What I Did Last Summer: Close-Up on Takeshi Kitano’s "Kikujiro"

Re-appraising the Japanese master's yakuza-and-child road trip film.
Close-Up is a column that spotlights films now playing on MUBI. Takeshi Kitano's Kikujiro (1999) is showing March 23 - April 22, 2017  in the United Kingdom in the series Kitano x 3.
With each viewing, Takeshi Kitano’s Kikujiro becomes increasingly porous. The gaps are clear: though the film is the story of Masao, a young boy searching for his estranged mother, and Kikujiro, the former yakuza forced to accompany him, they and the strangers they encounter exist without much background. The sleepy-eyed Masao (Yusuke Sekiguchi) speaks only in short murmurs. Meanwhile, Kikujiro (Takeshi Kitano) spends most of the film gambling off the two’s spending money at the track cycling racetracks, only to develop a compassion so subtle that he himself does not notice it. Simply put, the film is a blur, or a series of blurs.
But these lacks of interconnectedness are why Kikujiro has only gotten better with age, though its mainstream popularity has inspired many to cast it aside as cute but overrated. The film was never complete to begin with, always having been nothing more than a collection of vignettes. These vignettes resemble the loosely bound pages of Masao’s summer vacation journal, entitled “What I Did Last Summer.” Kikujiro borrows its structure from this journal, beginning each of its episodes with a new page. Not only does the journal inform the film’s form, but also its narrative, filtered through the dry, aimless, and offbeat humor of a child, indulging in a silliness without ironic excess.
In “Old Forgotten Children’s Books,” Walter Benjamin writes that children gather debris from the handiwork of adult society to create a “smaller world of things within the greater one.” During adulthood, unlike childhood, pieces are expected to unify into completeness. Kikujiro, then, is Masao’s creation of a smaller world, made up of detritus. With his journal, Masao, and not the director Kitano, is the film’s true, and adorable, auteur, having created a cinema of pieces. When he discovers a hidden photograph of his mother holding him as an infant, the photo’s incompleteness is so fulfilling that he immediately packs his backpack and walks out the door. We have no choice but to follow along on his sweet quest.
In an interview with Sight & Sound, Kitano explains that he wanted to make a road movie, something like The Wizard of Oz. It is an apt comparison; both The Wizard of Oz and Kikujiro privilege the trace of memories over their concrete logic. Dorothy has a dream that she is in Oz. Whether or not she was actually in Oz—or if Oz even exists—matters less than the fact that the dream has changed her life. Likewise, Kikujiro has little concern for a tangible string tying together Masao’s summer, or providing any realism behind the events at hand. Why are there men half-dressed as fruit, fishes and octopus, dancing in the lake? Who are the juggling and breakdancing lovers that present Masao a knapsack with angel wings attached? Are Masao’s cosmic dreams suggestions that everything is only a figment of his imagination? Rather than ask such questions, Kikujiro relishes in the fact that the summer occurred; and thanks to the summer, Masao will never be the same. Of course, road movies, at their core, are films about roads rather than destinations.
The destination is a place and an imagined event: Toyohashi, the city where Masao’s mother now resides, and a long awaited reunion. But just as the Wizard of Oz was nothing more than an average man hidden behind a curtain, Masao’s mother is revealed to be nothing more than human. After much walking, Masao and Kikujiro arrive at her home, and they stand at a distance when suddenly, Masao’s mother opens the door. She never looks in their direction, instead turning her back to join her husband and their child, a girl around Masao’s age. Before Kikujiro can block his vision, Masao has seen everything. Realizing that their endpoint was not the end after all, the two move ahead in pursuit of further adventure.  
Takeshi Kitano claims that unlike other filmmakers, he produces images of violence that hurt. This pain includes both the pain of violence itself—a gunshot to the head, a punch in the face—and the painful nature of violence’s unexpectedness, how it unfolds quietly then manifests as sporadic bursts. However, there is a flow to the madness of Kitano’s violent episodes, in that they follow a pattern of entropy.
Kikujiro does not feature bursts so much as it contains several spouts and sparks that force Masao and Kikujiro to change course repeatedly. Kikujiro is also much more hopeful than Kitano’s yakuza films like Sonatine (1993) and Outrage (2010), simply because it does not lead its characters to a fateful end of chaos. But if we can consider, along with Kitano, that violence is disruption, and a violent world is one where the threat of disruption is constant, then maybe Kikujiro is a violent film.
The well intentioned adults in Masao’s life attempt to shield him from suffering. His grandmother tells him that his mother is only gone because she is earning money to support him. His soccer coach encourages him to go to the beach and have fun. After finding Masao’s mother happy without him, Kikujiro exclaims that they had seen the wrong woman, and that she must have moved away. Still Masao experiences instability, from his already-difficult life as an orphan, leading up to the instant that he sees his mother. The surprise of the moment—the shattering of a lifelong dream—stings just as much as the moment itself, latent with the unpreventable violence of childhood. Yet Kikujiro and Masao find time to move on and other spaces to move to, following the staccato rhythm of composer Joe Hisaishi’s soft piano notes as even pain settles into place on the wider road.
The film’s title is Kikujiro and not Masao, and in the original Japanese, Kikujiro’s Summer and not Masao’s Summer. Because the film exists only within the framework of Masao’s journal, Kikujiro is the main character. Masao’s summer is Kikujiro’s summer; Masao’s summer is about Kikujiro, his stand-in father figure. From the beginning it is evident that the man is not the ideal father, nor the ideal companion for Masao’s trip. But he is available and willing, continually promising to take Masao to his mother. The promise comes with a full commitment to take Masao to his mother by any means necessary. He steals a taxi without hesitation, beats up a pedophile, and, perhaps to convince the boy of his capabilities, even attempts to swim for the first time in a hotel pool, only to drown shortly after. For Masao, whose own father passed away and whose mother abandoned him, Kikujiro’s only redeeming qualities may be the most needed qualifications of a worthy father, even if only for summer vacation.
Kikujiro is also the name of Takeshi Kitano’s father, who Kitano describes as a drunk who did not speak to him often, and the original inspiration for the film. Nonetheless, unlike Kitano’s father as described, the fictional Kikujiro is physically and emotionally present. Of course, proving that this is because he genuinely cares for Masao is a harder task. But his presence is enough to mean the world to the boy, and enough for him to overlook Kikujiro’s many shortcomings. Occasionally, he steals glances at the large yakuza tattoo on Kikujiro’s back. But never does the boy associate it with any reason to fear him. Masao also plays along with Kikujiro’s bad ideas. One scheme involves painting Masao’s face so hideously that drivers would feel obligated to give the two a ride out of pity; for other hijinks, Masao allows himself to be an accomplice simply by tagging along. Though the two take time to grow comfortable with one another, above the minuscule complexities of Kikujiro’s personality, background, and skills, the protection ensured by his appearance alone is, for Masao, a sufficient sign of a love he can trust.
A montage of the pair wearing matching sunglasses and shirts as they do everything they are told not to do—touching a statue, sitting in a boat, fishing in the pond—implies that Kikujiro also lives in a small world of his own, and this connects him to Masao in a way that separates him from other adults. Though Kikujiro lacks Masao’s innocence, both follow their hearts in ways that position them against the rules in place. Kikujiro feels little guilt about cheating his way into an expensive hotel if it means winning luxuries for himself and Masao; the joy Masao feels while running across a grass field far overshadows the warning of a “do not enter” sign. The lighthearted nature of Kikujiro does not frame these acts as inherently malicious, but as proof that Kikujiro and Masao are not of the same fabric as the rest of their society. It is enough reason for nothing less than an inexplicably strong bond between the two, felt even in awkward lulls of silence, even when Kikujiro’s plans fail miserably.  
The love that little Masao feels for Kikujiro by the end of the film fills Kikujiro’s identity with new meaning. Before the two finally part ways, Masao asks for Kikujiro’s name. And because Masao is the one who asks for it, the name that we attach to the face is a very different Kikujiro than the aggressive, tone-deaf gangster that the adult world sees. Instead, we are introduced to Kikujiro through a child’s eyes, linked with the tender memories of summer, directionless walking, illogical jokes and matching swimsuits.

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