Takeshi Kitano has won some U.S. recognition for his oddly
ruminative yakuza films, the best-known probably being 1993’s
“Sonatine” and 1997’s “Hana-bi” (“Fireworks”), but this partial
change of pace proves a sad indulgence. Kitano stars under
his thespic pseudonym as the title figure, a gruff, nasty thug
who’s forced by his wife (or girlfriend, it’s not clear which)
to take a young neighbor boy, Masao (Yusuke Sekiguchi), on an
odyssey to find the mother who apparently has abandoned him.
The character Kitano plays has the same surly, volcanic mien as
the gangsters he’s previously essayed, but in this instance,
despite his penchant for insulting everybody who has the
misfortune to come into contact with him and acting belligerant,
he’s a semi-pathetic comic figure, intended to be Chaplinesque
as well as Bogartesque. And like so many screen tough guys of
the past, his contact with a child shows that he’s got a soft
heart despite the harsh exterior, and by the end of their joint
journey he’s grown almost paternal in his attitude toward the
kid. This lovable curmudgeon layer of the picture, perhaps
most ponderously portrayed in a sequence in which Kikujiro
attempts to swim, gives Kitano a chance to chew the scenery
and play for auudience sympathy, with pretty dismal results.

The plotline insures that to a certain extent the picture is
going to be formulaically sentimental twaddle, of course, and
indeed it does resemble a bad old John Hughes movie–1991’s
“Dutch,” in which blue-collar Ed O’Neill had to transport
snotty Ethan Randall cross country while a series of comic
episodes led them to bond–except in this case it’s in
Japanese, and Kitano’s turgid directorial pacing makes it seem
to be running at half-speed. But Kitano has more than this
in mind: he apparently wants the picture not only to be
simple-mindedly picaresque, but also to try to portray the
duo’s adventures almost surrealistically from the child’s
point of view. This leads him to stage the various episodes
with a hamfisted quirkiness that’s designed to raise the
picture beyond the pedestrian level of road-movie sappiness.
But the result is to make it frequently weird and unpleasant.
An episode in which Masao is lured away by a pederast, who
tries to molest him in a park (and who later reappears in
the boy’s nightmares), is simply repellent; and when, later
on, the pair join up with two oddball bikers and a travelling
writer who engage in all sort of shenanigans (most involving
either nudity or self-debasement) to amuse the kid after his
hoped-for meeting with his mother has failed to pan out, the
protracted whimsy gets positively deadly. Kitano’s decision
to introduce many of the sequences with images and titles
annoncing what will follow is, moreover, heavy-handed and
distracting rather than magical (as was obviously intended).
The device is, once again, clearly supposed to represent the
boy’s perspective on events and create a mood of childlike
wonder, but it winds up seeming more like a hapless variant of
the “family postcard” montage that ended “National Lampoon’s

Still, though Kitano’s characterization is overly familiar, the
storyline too predictable and the style overly contrived,
“Kikuhiro” might have maintained a modest charm if it weren’t
for the singularly ineffective performance of young Yusuke
Sekiguchi as Masao. Simply put, the kid’s so glum and impassive
that it’s impossible to muster affection for him. At the
beginning of the picture he’s shown gamboling about the streets
with a school pal, who’s much more animated and expressive; if
that other boy had been moved into the lead role, the picture
could have had a chance, even though the utter embarrassment
inflicted upon Great Gidayu, Rakkyo Ide and Nezumi Mamura as
the trio of whimsical clowns toward the close would have
remained a potent obstacle.

That the shopworn idea of a journey bringing together a gruff
adult and a naive but winsome child can still work as a
narrative scheme was demonstrated only a couple of years ago
by Walter Salles’ remarkable “Central Station” (the real best
foreign-language picture of 1998, not the smarmily meretricious
“Life Is Beautiful”). But though one might respect Kitano’s
attempt to put a new seriocomic twist on the oft-repeated plot,
“Kikujiro” winds up as a complete misfire.