Curiously, what he decided to try was a variation on the curmudgeonly-adult-transformed-by-the-innocence-of-a-child genre, and the resulting film is indeed reminiscent of Wim Wenders' genre-defining Alice in the Cities. Unfortunately, Kikujiro fails to hold up to Wenders' masterful example, and although it is full of beautiful moments and suffused with Kitano's trademark stylistic flourishes, it is likely to disappoint those expecting a film with the magnitude of Fireworks or Sonatine.
Kikujiro tells the story of a nine-year-old boy named Masao, who lives alone with his grandmother and has no one to play with during the summer. One day, Masao discovers the photo and address of the mother he has never known and decides to set out in search of her, only to be intercepted by a concerned neighbor as he is "running away from home." She promptly orders her good-for-nothing husband, Kikujiro (played by Kitano himself), to accompany the boy and watch over him, and the odd couple sets out on the open road.
Their first stop is the racetrack, where Kikujiro proceeds to lose all of their travel money. Suddenly penniless, the two of them are now forced to hitch their way to the town where Masao's mother lives. Their resulting adventures (and misadventures) on the way to Masao's mother's house make up the bulk of the film's remainder and, predictably, by the time they reach the mother's house, Kikujiro has been transformed from a good-for-nothing lout to a kind and caring guardian.
Unfortunately, it is at this point where the film begins to veer off course. Once they've found Masao's mother's house, the film loses all narrative drive, and the last 30 minutes feel tedious and self-indulgent: The story is essentially over, the main questions of the film have already been answered...and yet the movie persists.
Kitano's forte has always been his specific way of telling a story. His singular style makes extensive use of long static shots, tableaux vivants, deadpan humor, Brechtian interruptions, and a constant intermingling of fantasy with reality. In Kikujiro, the narrative is told through the Brechtian device of the boy's "What I did last summer" snapshot album, with each titled snapshot constituting a kind of chapter heading for a particular episode. Kitano's use of the snapshot album to frame the story allows him to identify the boy's point of view, and gives the film a semblance of the sense of wonder and naiveté in a child's world view. The result is a strange mixture that is, at its best, funny and metaphysical at the same time. Sadly, though, the humor in this film occasionally verges on slapstick silliness, while Kitano's trademark metaphysics occasionally verge into schmaltz. (Worse, this sense of schmaltz is heightened by an annoying use of a sappy, pull-at-your-heartstrings musical score.)
Before directing films, Kitano was already a famous television personality and comedian in Japan, known mostly for his lowbrow humor and popular appeal. Before making the restrained, quasi-Bressonian gangster art films he is now known for in the West, he made several early films that bordered on maudlin. Kikujiro, especially in its last half-hour, unfortunately seems to exhume this less-appealing side of Kitano's decidedly complex personality, and ultimately keeps it from being a film one can recommend wholeheartedly. While Kitano's unique stylistic flourishes perhaps make Kikujiro a film worth seeing, his misguided and indulgent sentiment makes the film less than enjoyable to watch.