Kitano initially attracted attention when his first two films -- the crime movies Violent Cop (1989), which he directed and starred in, and Boiling Point (1990), which he directed, wrote, edited and starred in -- became hits at film festivals around the world. The two films eventually received minor releases in the U.S. before going to video; meanwhile, three other Kitano crime films -- Gonin (1995; actor only), Sonatine (1993) and Fireworks (Hana-bi) (1997) -- were all released in the States in 1998. In short, to the extent that audiences here have seen his work, Kitano is firmly established as a tough-guy actor, one who only plays cops and crooks in hard-boiled films.
But there is another side to his work that is rarely seen outside of Japan, and Kikujiro -- a dryly emotional story with a mostly comic tone -- is its apotheosis. Kitano plays the title character, a middle-aged slacker whose tough-guy act is almost comically ineffectual. If it weren't for his competent, domineering wife (Kayoko Kishimoto), he'd probably be sleeping in a gutter somewhere. When Masao (Yusuke Sekiguchi), a sad-eyed little neighbor boy, decides to run away from his grandmother's house and visit the mother he's never met, Kikujiro's wife -- we never learn her name -- insists that Kikujiro accompany the child and look after him, since it's not as if Kikujiro has anything else to occupy his time.
A bully, a fool, a hustler and a grouch, Kikujiro is not crazy about the assignment until his wife unwisely gives him a little money for the trip. She should know better: Rather than leave town, he immediately drags Masao to the track and, superstitiously deciding that the boy has a magical knack, bullies him into picking the bets. Broke, they hit the road, with Kikujiro enlisting Masao in a series of tacky little schemes to get them rides. Eventually Masao, more responsible at nine than Kikujiro is ever likely to be, ends up taking care of his supposed protector.
We are only a little more than halfway through the film when they reach their goal, only to be disappointed. Kikujiro, whose attitude has thawed as he's begun to see himself in the kid, decides to cheer him up with a vacation at the beach. Still a bully, he press-gangs an itinerant hipster and the world's two wimpiest bikers into joining him in entertaining Masao.
Unlike Kitano's other movies, Kikujiro has no truly violent events, no suicides or killings. Even its occasional highly dramatic moments are presented with minimal emphasis. But the style of both the acting and the directing will feel familiar to fans of his gangster films. As an actor, Kitano is all restraint; his repertoire of facial expressions is limited, and his characters tend to be laconic. He relies almost entirely on his eyes and his body language. The same is true of his visual style, which is flat and often refuses to guide the audience's attention in a conventional manner. Emotional moments rarely include closeups; when characters are sorting through feelings, Kitano will often let the camera linger on them for long stretches in a medium shot, while other crucial scenes are shot at an even greater distance. The camera rarely moves, other than to follow the action. Sometimes it doesn't even do that: Like Woody Allen, Kitano likes to lock down the camera while characters go off-frame, where crucial events often occur.
It is this spare style that saves Kikujiro from becoming intolerably sentimental. The basic plot setup is reminiscent of Silas Marner, Little Miss Marker, Chaplin's The Kid and dozens of others: Lovable child attaches himself to reluctant, often emotionally distant adult, who eventually learns how to love. But Kitano would never give us Kikujiro breaking down in tears and running to embrace a crying Masao. At most he'll show us Kikujiro putting his arm around the kid, whose tears will be discreetly hidden from us. Although the film is emotional, perhaps even sentimental, it strenuously avoids the sort of blatant manipulation that marks cheap sentimentality.
This isn't Kitano's first effort in this direction; back in 1992 he made the similarly low-key A Scene at the Sea. Both that earlier, rarely seem film and Kikujiro are no less worthy than Kitano's more sensational, obviously "serious" movies.