★★★★★The mind of 'Beat' Takeshi Kitano is surely a singular and unique one. Last month saw the blu-ray release of his acclaimed crime melodrama Hana-bi, a compelling fable of violence, grief and nihilistic defiance. This month we are treated to his directorial follow up, Kikujiro, a comedy that is as similar to Hana-bi in style and structure as it is different in tone and content. As in Hana-bi, Kitano stars, this time as the eponymous grumpy, middle aged man who finds himself in the unlikely position of caring for a little boy, Masao (Yusuke Sekiguchi). Masao is on the hunt for his long-lost mother whose whereabouts have recently been discovered; an acquaintance of Masao's grandmother, Kikujiro reluctantly agrees to take the boy to his mother.
The film is structured as a series of vignettes as Kikujiro and Masao make their way across country. In the grand tradition of road movies they encounter strange characters and stranger situations as they traverse the highway. A directorial signature of Kitano's is that he shoots the moments in between the action, skipping the beats where something happens to focus instead on the build-up and aftermath of events. In Hana-bi, this flourish punctuated violence with a sense of melancholy and distance, but here the style works even better, lending comic timing to Kikujiro's questionable antics as he hustles for free rides, attracts the ire of fairground toughs, and bullies bikers into handing over their chopper ornaments.
Kikujiro doesn't have any twists per se, but to reveal more about its story risks spoiling the pleasure of its discovery; this is a film to be enjoyed with as little prior knowledge as possible, to be taken by the hand as a friend and led away on its journey. What elevates the film above enjoyable whimsy is the combination of Joe Hisaishi's light, introspective score, central performances that are at once nuanced, warm, and tantalisingly distant, and a sense of pace that allows subtle emotional moments to breathe without ever dragging; Kikujiro is a film in no rush at all, and it's all the better for it. Perhaps the closest parallel to Kikujiro for Western audiences is Disney Pixar's delightful Up, a film with a very similar central relationship, successfully situating grief against broad laughs.
But as lovely as Up is, Kikujiro's melancholy informs its comedy as opposed to being set beside it; the editing that creates comic timing in one scene creates dreadful sadness in the next, and the love and warmth that Kikujiro and Masao develop for each other, never explicitly stated, is nurtured as equally by their consequence-blind antics as their experiences of tender loss. Kikujiro is a work of delicate balance, a profoundly emotional experience without ever being sentimental, sad but not hopeless, strange but not unsettling, it is a quiet masterpiece that delights and affects long after its revels have ended.
Christopher Machell | @MagnificenTramp