A wuss--and proud of it: Takeshi Kitano with Yusuke Sekiguchi in Kikujiro

At the moment, Takeshi Kitano has the greatest face in movies. Meaty, bruised-looking, and blockish, it somehow resembles Gene Hackman's porkpie hat in The French Connection for being the definition of bluntness. Having more in common with an elbow or a rump, framed by a silly half-pompadour that his wife might have suggested, Takeshi's face is punctuated by a pair of eyes so limpid and relaxed as to look dead to the world. The rest appears almost immobile--except on the rare occasion when a smile breaks, like a zigzag crack rippling across a frozen lake.

In case you haven't heard, Takeshi is a recently crowned prince of international cinema and a one-man tsunami of artistic and commercial activity in his native Japan, famously showing up as "Beat" Takeshi on no fewer than eight TV programs per week. Last fall Oak Street Cinema programmed a double feature of his first two films as writer-director-actor, Violent Cop (1989) and Boiling Point (1990), although the two Takeshi movies that got real play in the United States are Sonatine and Fireworks--both of which topped numerous ten-best lists at the end of 1998 (including the one in these pages). A PR wage slave at Miramax brilliantly promoted Sonatine with the blurb "Imagine Martin Scorsese, Jim Carrey, and Howard Stern rolled into one," although the Takeshi style could be more accurately boiled down to a list of ingredients: a series of neutral locations, mostly hotel bars and the beach; a gentle lounge-piano score by Joe Hisaishi that recalls Dave Grusin's music for Neil Simon movies of the Seventies; a tone and tempo of enforced relaxation; and eruptions of almost unbearably vivid and awful violence. Kitano's two aesthetic touchstones seem to be the Noh plays of Zeami and the Zen surfer movie Big Wednesday: His movies tend to end on the beach, conceived as a place of infinity, of coming to rest, of oblivion.

The latest Takeshi picture to reach American shores is a deliberate change of pace for the massively prolific, multitasking artist--as if Tarantino had followed up Reservoir Dogs with an earnest remake of The Yearling. Or, to take a cue from that Miramax flack, it's as though Harvey Keitel had stepped into Adam Sandler's shoes and become a Big Daddy. Takeshi's Kikujiro has been roundly dissed by many Western critics who felt their beloved meat-faced hard guy had turned wuss. The truth of the matter is that he has--and that was precisely his intention. A road movie about an implacable tough guy and the little boy he reluctantly shepherds, Kikujiro is the hardest to defend and most affecting bucket of unmitigated sap since Spielberg's "Kick the Can" segment of Twilight Zone--The Movie. Plotwise, there's not much to distinguish it from The Champ or Little Miss Marker--it's all in the approach. And, as it happens, Takeshi approaches the material exactly as he did in his other, nonwuss works.

Wringing yuks from his home-team fans by casting himself as a henpecked schnook (the casting is analogous to Ishtar's Warren Beatty playing a guy who needs lessons in getting laid), Takeshi stars as Kikujiro, known by his pint-sized companion simply as "Mister." Hornswoggled into taking this little boy (Yusuke Sekiguchi) to his far-off mother's house, Kikujiro immediately detours the tyke to the racetrack, and all is made clear: This will be the most derailment-oriented road movie ever made. Which makes sense, as much of the director's work is about what happens when the story's main characters hang out, waiting for the action to peak or start up again. In Kikujiro, this method leads to a harrowing double climax as the aging, layabout Mister and the Kid both have dream-crushing encounters with their biological mothers, after which the movie continues for 30 minutes of roadside antics with a couple of tame Hell's Angels whom Kikujiro forces to entertain the Kid--and us. (In Sonatine, bloodbaths are sidelined so we can watch the principals play a human game of Rock 'em Sock 'em Robots in a sand-dune dugout.) The true climax of the movie, involving Mister's theft of a kitschy, Hello Kitty-like "angel bell," is the quintessence of Takeshi culture--Japanese hand-me-down schlock purified through a Cuisinart of austerity.

As always, Takeshi, with his static camera and static countenance, gets all the details right. He knows precisely the quiet hum a little kid hears while eating a lunch left for him in Grandma's doily-clotted living room. He knows the eerie calm at the end of a day at a suburban street carnival. And he knows how to turn things on their ear: Just when you think Takeshi is overdoing the mugging, as Mister pretends to be a blind man tapping his cane on a public highway to get a ride, he has his character smashed and killed by the truck. (In Warner Bros. cartoon style, Mister is up and around in the next shot.)

What some people--well, not some people, but some film critics--seem unable to understand about Kikujiro is that Takeshi really means it. Fully embracing melodrama, the director doesn't just jerk Spielbergian tears but pries them out. It's the work of a true romantic.


Kikujiro starts Friday at Lagoon Cinema.

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