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 rough housing ex-yakuza who becomes his reluctant guardian.
Masao is a mournful looking schoolboy who lives alone with his grandmother. It’s almost the 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 also 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 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 babysitter 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 is 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 of 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 the 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 does 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.