There is a special bunch of art films in which an adult wanders many miles with a child who is not his or her own kin: Wim Wenders' Alice in the Cities (1974), John Cassavetes' Gloria (1980) and Takeshi Kitano's splendid Kikujiro.
All these movies offer strange, whimsical, suspended, rather melancholic fantasies. The adults start out as grumpy, reluctant minders; in fact, they actively dislike children, and have no idea how to entertain or nurture them. In the course of their stories, these adults learn a little how to bond with kids and guide them – discovering in the process a hitherto unseen ability to love.
But where the sentimental, Hollywood versions of such a tale always end up constituting a new parent-child duo, fully socialised, these films explore other states and emotions. While the meandering journey takes place, the adult regresses into infantilism, and the child quickly takes on qualities of resourcefulness and tenacity. Normal roles and identities become perfectly fluid, and playfulness becomes the order of the day.
What of the everyday, social world of homes, families, schools and workplaces? It becomes a fleeting mirage in these films, glimpsed from moving trains or out of car windows – a dream of happiness that seems like a lost illusion. And this loss becomes especially poignant when we realise that the child is pining for a largely absent parent.
Like the child, the adult also seeks to reconnect with the world and its community; but, for both, the time of personal indefinition on the road provides a kind of grace and freedom.
Compared to Kitano's previous film, the grave and masterly Hana-bi (1997), Kikujiro is a lark. Largely plotless – at least in a conventionally driving way – it is essentially a comedy with sad and occasionally serious undertones. As in the 'fairy tales for adults' made by Abbas Kiarostami (Where is My Friend's House?, 1987), Kikujiro grazes, in a nocturnal interlude, against some nasty realities of abuse and exploitation. But then it's back to the dreaming and the games – no previous Kitano film has felt so light, in the best sense.
Certainly, it is a pure delight to see and hear. Like little Masao (Yusuke Sekiguchi) and Kikujiro (Kitano), one loses track of time, geography and reason: enthralled, I found myself wanting the film to last forever.
Even in this relaxed mode, Kitano never loses his precise, unique way of putting images, sounds and actions together. Everything in his movies trembles with an inner tension: the angles at which people hold themselves in the frame; the punch-lines to sight-gags that are held off as long as possible; the passing moments of enigma in which we experience a blissful disorientation as to what is really going on; and Kitano himself, a model of stripped-down, hard-boiled acting who makes Clint Eastwood look hammy.
Kitano works in a chiselled, minimalist, even primitive style that recalls the simplicity of cinema's silent days (Chaplin is a constant reference here). Events advance in strictly patterned repetitions, driven by the cyclical melodies of Joe Hisaishi's beautiful score. This style turns out to be a strategic withholding: when Kitano finally creates an elaborate moment with a craning camera, full musical orchestration and modest special effects, the emotional impact is overwhelming.
Kikujiro shares much with Kitano's earlier films – such as his favourite images of angels or the sea – except for their intense violence. The small amount of physical mayhem here is delivered in a burlesque fashion and photographed from an exaggerated distance. In some senses, this film represents a deliberate inversion of the sombre, hyper-masculine obsessions of Kitano's dramas, carried to the point of self-mockery. (Kitano soon returned, however, to familiar, bloody terrain in his first American production, Brother .)
The more juvenile the humour gets, the lovelier Kikujiro becomes. Kitano conjures an all-male world in which the regression to childish pleasure turns even beastly brutes (a few are collected en route) into whimpering kids. Kikujiro himself is a big, demanding baby: like a film director, he is always ordering his companions around, stage-managing scenes and demanding to be the centre of attention.
Although Kitano is unquestionably one of contemporary cinema's greatest artists, his work sometimes meets audience resistance.
There is something fundamentally disconcerting about his sensibility; if his films do not manage to disarm your preconceptions, you will likely never enter into the spirit of his fantasy.
This can initially be hard work, for alongside all the signs of what we can readily recognise as film art, there is an inescapable level of what can seem like kitsch. This expresses itself in Kitano's deliberately naive symbolism; in his own paintings on prominent display; in the soaring music; and in the barely contained hysteria of elemental emotion.
Just as Kikujiro mixes up and fuses the roles of child and adult, it gently but powerfully redefines our values of art and kitsch. It will hopefully net Kitano a larger audience – as well as surprising his devoted fans with its new moves.
© Adrian Martin November 2000