Takeshi Kitano, or “Beat” Takeshi, has long been an icon of Japanese cinema and a cult hero in America. An actor, writer, director, sometimes editor, and stand-up comic, he has derived his greatest success from playing most of these roles in a series of films that exploited an ultimate tough-guy persona. Both violent and reflective, movies known in the U.S. as “Fireworks,” “Sonatine,” “Violent Cop,” and “Boiling Point” have given him a hard-boiled image somewhere between Clint Eastwood and Robert DeNiro. If you’ll remember, though, I did mention that part about the comic and somewhere within Buddy Love, Professor Julius Kelp is trying to get out.
The sometimes jarring result of DeNiro crossed with Jerry Lewis (and that is what Kitano most resembles) actually comes across like Nick Nolte. You know, still physical and tough, but kind of full of s**t. The cause of all this nuttiness would apparently be a screening of “Central Station,” after which Kitano decided to make his own version set in Japan.
Summer vacation is here, and young Masao (Yusuke Sekiguchi) is feeling a little lonely. All of his friends are leaving on vacations with their families. All Masao has is his maternal grandmother who leaves for work each day. He’s never met his parents. His father is dead, and the boy is told his mother is working far away but will return someday. One day, he finds his mother’s picture and address in a drawer. When Masao tries to run away to find Mom, he’s intercepted by a concerned neighbor. Sympathetic to his plight, she sends her ex-Yakuza, layabout husband, Kikujiro (Kitano), to accompany the boy on the long journey. Kikujiro promptly blows all the money he’s given at racetrack leaving passage on the journey up to his questionable improvisational skills. Yes, like a late ’80’s/early ’90’s Disney movie starring Nick Nolte, hilarity does indeed ensue.
Does it work? I get the feeling that this is much closer to the real Beat Takeshi than the severe image he ruthlessly mocks here. Early in the film, his character’s wife even tells him to knock it off with the gangster routine. I’m not sure this film is so easy to get by a western audience that hasn’t viewed his other films to know the persona he’s tearing apart. Beyond that, the relation with the boy feels quite genuine and we mostly view Kikujiro through the boy’s eyes. In it’s final hour, after the gratuitous hijinx are over, the film generates some real magic as we witness what the old hard-a*s and a few others are willing to do for the kid.
I have not been Kitano’s biggest fan, but I do see his massive talent and have enjoyed him in his own works and other films such as “Gonin”. I loved about half of this film. I’m just glad that he’s always trying to grow. We’ll see how he does with his next flick, an American crossover set in Los Angeles co-starring Omar Epps called “Brother”. As it reportedly concerns a drug/gang war, I wouldn’t expect it to be quite so heartwarming.