Kids Return, completed in 1996, marks Kitano’s return to film-making after the serious motorcycle accident which almost claimed his life and has continued to have long term effects both personally and in terms of his career. Once again he remains firmly behind the camera but displays a more contemplative, nostalgic approach than had been present in much of his previous work. The tale of two delinquent slackers in small town Japan, Kids Return has an obvious autobiographical quality and even if the future look bleak, Shinji and Masaru, like Kitano himself, are not beaten yet.
Beginning with a sequence of the older Shinji delivering rice and sharing a melancholy reunion with school friend Masaru, Kitano then hops back to their carefree school days of slacking off and intermittently trolling the entire institution. Masaru is the leader of the pair, loud mouthed and violent, always trying to big himself up, while Shinji is the classic sidekick - always following dutifully behind and lost without his friend's leadership. Their paths diverge when Masaru decides to join a boxing club after someone he’d bullied and extorted for money hires a boxer to get revenge on him. Masaru is hopeless in the ring and lacks the dedication it would take to become a serious althete but Shinji shows promise, eventually knocking Masaru out after being forced into a humiliating duel. Masaru ends up joining the yakuza gang which hangs out in his favourite ramen joint and quickly rises through the ranks. Though both boys look to be going somewhere along their chosen paths, they each squander their given advantages through a series of poor decisions and eventually find themselves right back where they started.
Shinji and Masaru are typical of many young men of their generation and social class. They “go to school” but rarely attend lessons and are often to be found riding their bike around the playground or pranking the other students such as in a particularly elaborate plot where they dangle a stick figure of a teacher down from the roof to the classroom window below, joyfully erecting the “penis” they’ve given it by attaching a torch to the middle section complete with wire brush hair and cardboard balls. Such tricks may seem like innocent, juvenile behaviour but a more serious side emerges when an obnoxious teacher’s car is set on fire.
The teachers at the school have already written the boys off as not worth saving. Always referring to them as “the morons”, the school seems reluctant to actually expel the pair and has come to view them as amusing inconveniences more than anything else. None of the teachers are interested in reaching out to Shinji or Masaru and, in fact, they appear to be a cynical bunch with no real interest in the children in their care. At the end of the school year the teachers begin discussing their progress and reveal that only a handful of students will be going to university (and only one to a public rather than private institution) and that those who are have largely achieved it through their own steam. The education system has nothing to offer these students who have already been judged unworthy of advancement and is in no way interested in providing any kind of pastoral care or social support.
Shinji and Masaru are expected to find their own paths, but the film posits that this idea of total, individual freedom of the modern era is at the root of their problems because it leaves them with too many choices and no clear direction. Failed by education, the pair must find new ways to move forward but the opportunities on offer are not exactly appealing. Masaru, the loud mouth of the pair, ends up on the obvious path of the disaffected young man by joining a gang and finding for himself the familial comradeship of the criminal brotherhood rather than that of a traditional family.
Shinji’s path looks more solid as he begins to train as a serious athlete, honing his skills and perfecting his physique. He is, however, still unable to take control of his own life and repeatedly looks for more dominant male role models to follow. This might have worked out okay for him if he’d stuck with the paternal influence of the coaches, but Shinji is easily led and falls under the influence of an embittered older boxer, Hayashi, who is full of bad advice. Under Hayashi’s tutelage, Shinji learns illegal moves and that he can still drink and eat what he likes because you can just throw it all up again afterwards. When even that doesn’t work, Hayashi begins giving him diet pills which exemplify the quick fix approach he’s taking with his life. Needless to say, his training suffers and his previously promising career is soon on the rocks.
It’s not just the two guys either. Their shy friend with crush on the cafe girl leaves school and gets a good job as a salesman but the aggressive boss makes his working life a misery leading him to take a stand with a colleague and quit to become a taxi driver. No good at that either, he experiences exactly the same treatment and is now unable to earn enough money to support both himself and his wife. In fact, the only success story is the manzai stand-up comedy duo which Masaru mocked in the beginning. Knowing exactly what they wanted to do and working hard to get there, the pair have built a career and an audience through steadfastly sticking to their guns and refusing to listen to the naysayers. If you have direction, progress is possible, but for Shinji and Masaru who have no strong calling the future is a maze of uncertainties.
The kids have returned, not quite as men but in the first flush of failure, ready to start again. When Shinji asks Masaru if it’s really all over for them already, he tells him not to be silly - it hasn’t even started yet. The town goes on as normal, unchanging, kids goof off lessons and melancholy people waste time over coffee. Perhaps nothing will change for Masaru and Shinji and their aimless days of drifting from one thing to the next, looking for guidance and finding none, will continue but there’s fight in them yet and the possibility remains for them to find their way, as difficult as it may prove to be.