Thursday, March 15, 2007

162. Going My Way of the Samurai

No apologies for the childish title: I'm writing about Takeshi Kitano's Kikujiro (2000), in which he directs himself--as "Beat" Takeshi--from his own script; and he edits himself, as well. Literally. Figuratively, though, Kitano does nothing of the sort, instead letting himself go, or leaving well enough alone, or something. His movies can be, to put it mildly, prone to outbursts. On the other hand, he can show amazing restraint: In Kikujiro, he gets as close to a "children's movie" as I've seen from him--and I won't check for Kitano films I haven't watched; for all I know, he's directed Pokemon episodes. But what I do know is that every time I see one of his movies he provides a new challenge--no, old ones: I keep thinking of Buster Keaton, especially the performances, blank-slated and waiting for life to write on him--which it does, like lightning across desert sand, heat-fusing the moment in muscled squiggles. This can be pretty unnerving in Kitano's action/crime films, in which he takes all kinds of time, until you can't tell whether he's building suspense or has, in some fit of audacity, simply left the building, the camera still running. During such stretches, I sometimes half-expect a member of the crew to wander on-frame, as oblivious as the characters that there's a movie going on; then ka-POW! Takeshi flash-edits something outlandishly awful at lightspeed. Again, it is as if he is re-claiming silent comedy, its skitters and ricochets as well as its slow burns and deadpans, all for his own purposes. The resulting almost-illusion is that Takeshi is always making masterpieces, in which everything he's capable of is enlisted in the effort, the only chance he'll get to show you what he can do.

Kikujiro follows this pattern to satisfying heights of beauty and strangeness and even a kind of joy--the kind you get from being free. I watched it with two of my children (13 and 16), and we laughed and gaped, cried--well, I did--and awww'd. It's a road picture, with menace and merriment, surreal appearances and open stretches of waiting terrain. To quote Groucho, "Pardon me while I have a Strange Interlude," but this movie gives me pause--in a good way, I think. Kikujiro puts me in mind of Peter Bogdanovich's Paper Moon (1973) and The Wizard of Oz, Chaplin's The Kid (1921) and David Lynch's The Straight Story (1999), but especially Alice's adventures, both in Wonderland and Through the Looking-Glass. "Beat" Takeshi plays a stone-faced gangster taking a kid from one city to another to see his mother. The plot is episodic and haphazard, sometimes serene in its simplicity, sometimes anxiety-inducing in its relentlessness. The little boy, like Alice, is knocked around and belittled, spoiled and ignored, stolen from and rewarded. The plot details do not matter; what keeps the movie afloat is the steady camera and steady looks Kitano demands and gives. And, like the Alice books, it never entirely abandons its abused child, but always manages at the last second to provide an Eat-Me or Drink-Me, a kind shoulder to lean on, a little squeeze of the hand. Or it asks the child to be leaned on, to see how little the grownups actually know--and how little that matters, since, whether there is any or no control left, something else, some dim-witted but kind-hearted White Knight, is bound to come along, who sees the child "safe to the end of the wood." And the child needs to learn how not to be afraid, because, well, you just never know.

Writing about Kitano, I have been given a very Kitano-esque experience: Slowly at first, imperceptibly, I have found myself suddenly realizing how deeply I admire his films. Like his adoring Japanese audience, I have known him as the tough guy, Dirty Harry with a Yakuza-tattoo, a Death Wish in a noodle-house. And then he pulls the same stuff with a little kid in tow, and shows us how those worlds fit together--and, despite all that bullying and those sudden drops and sickening thuds, Kitano takes care of the child, stoops down and puts on a show to keep away childhood's tears. It's as though Keaton--who never seemed to take much to children in his films--and Chaplin--who of course always wanted to be one--decided to adopt. Perhaps not the best of ideas, but the audience has a good time watching, and the kid seems to manage just fine. In the end, maybe it's because they all become kids--as with Kikujiro's long idyll in the woods, in which the child, his all-but-immobile ward, an itinerant hippie-artist, and a Mutt-and-Jeff motorcycle-gang duo stick leaves and branches in their hair, smear themselves with mud, and play-act, with no grownups watching, not even the audience--if they have been wise enough to stay with the movie long enough--who all but disappear, to allow such indulgence and let Kitano play.

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