All About My Mother in Japan: A Boy’s Bottomless Sorrow

Kikujiro is best described by its writer-director-editor-star, Takeshi Kitano, who for 25 years has been Japan’s updated version of Orson Welles. “I couldn’t help feeling that my films were being stereotyped, ‘gangster, violence, life and death.’ It became difficult for me to identify with them. So I decided to try and make a film no one would expect from me,” says Mr. Kitano in the production notes. “To tell the truth, the story of this film belongs to a genre which is outside my specialty. But I decided to make this film because it would be a challenge for me to cope with this ordinary story and try to make it my own through my direction, and I tried a lot of experiments with imagery. I think it ended by being a very strange film with my trademarks all over it. I hope to continue upsetting people’s expectations in a positive way.”

The filmmaker of Kikujiro has been rewarded for his self-acknowledged change of genres by the worst American reviews he has received to date. To top off the hostile reaction, one paper’s column on what children should be allowed to see on the screen singled out Kikujiro for censure because of a brief but graphic scene of child molestation.

Perhaps it is just as well that the film be denied a kiddie seal of approval, because its feelings toward the pain and solitude of childhood are too subtle and discreet to be understood by tots. The narrative is simplicity itself: Nine-year-old Masao (Yusuke Sekiguchi) is at loose ends one summer when all his friends are away on vacation. He lives with his grandmother because his mother abandoned him at birth. One day, he discovers the photo and address of the mother he has never met and decides to go looking for her. One of his grandmother’s friendly neighbors lends Masao some money for the trip and orders her ne’er-do-well husband, Kikujiro (Mr. Kitano), to look after the boy en route to his mother. Kikujiro promptly loses all his wife’s money betting on bicycle races and the two travelers are forced to hitchhike across Japan with only intermittent success amid many setbacks, including the aforementioned encounter with a creepy child-molester. Masao begins losing faith in his supposedly grown-up escort, who too often behaves like a childish buffoon, all bluff, bluster and bullying with nothing to back it up.

Finally, they reach what they thought was their destination. Kikujiro goes ahead to inquire at the address written on the photo. Masao’s mother emerges briefly with her new family, a husband and a small child. What Kikujiro sees up close, Masao perceives at an unseen distance. He turns to return to the only home he has ever known with his grandmother, but his head is bowed in heartbreakingly silent despair over his realization that his mother is lost to him forever. No more the bumptious boor, Kikujiro senses the boy’s bottomless sorrow, and the film does a pirouette as Kikujiro transforms the long trip back into an almost continuous frolic of entertainments to distract the child from his traumatic loss. Along the way, Kikujiro steals a glimpse of his own mother in a nursing home lost to him from the mental infirmity of old age.

Mr. Kitano is not and never has been a flawless artist. He takes chances right and left and he often stumbles over his own “experimental” digressions. Yet, Kikujiro is of a piece with the yakuza classics that have made his name in the West. The lyrical force of his art is enhanced here in no small measure by the unabashed romanticism of Mr. Kitano’s house composer, Joe Hisaishi, whose score invests every walking and running step of Masao’s childhood quest with the gravity of an emotional adventure shared by all children as they seek the unknown.

When the Crime Is Greater Than the Detective

Bruno Dumont’s L’Humanité aroused considerable controversy at the 1999 Cannes Film Festival by winning the Grand Jury Prize for best picture, as well as best actor for Emmanuel Schotté and best actress for Séverine Caneele, and I can certainly see why. This is to say, I must align myself with the film’s detractors, though not to the point of questioning the seriousness and sincerity of Mr. Dumont’s artistic intentions. His admirers have linked him to Bresson and Fellini, but I find him less rigorous than the former and less riotous than the latter. It is a strange spell Mr. Dumont seeks to cast upon us with his often pointlessly empty landscapes. On a few occasions, I found myself with my eyes darting around a composition searching for the human component, if any. I am not sure if this is good or bad, but over two and a half hours of deadpan stutter-step narrative, the sheer accumulation of visual irrelevancies becomes intolerable.

The characters in L’Humanite tend to be laconic to a fault. Pharaon De Winter (Mr. Schotté) is a police superintendent who lives with his mother in Bailleul, a working-class town in northern France. He spends most of the film gazing at one thing or another as he presumably agonizes over his latest case, the brutal rape and murder of an 11-year-old, whose mutilated body we are shown, section by section, in an early montage. Pharaon is ostensibly “investigating” the case, but he never seems to come up with any clues, insights or theories about the murder. Indeed, L’Humanité could be described as a parody of a murder mystery if the proceedings were less slow and portentous.

Then there is the sex, which comes as close to hard-core pornography as any serious film can get in these taboo-shattering times. Domino (Ms. Caneele) is Pharaon’s neighbor and a factory worker with a seemingly nymphomaniacal hunger for her all-too-willingly carnal boyfriend Joseph (Philippe Tullier), a fellow worker. Pharaon is drawn to Domino, even though he has witnessed one of her romps with Joseph. Yet when she offers to let him touch her most intimate parts, he walks away in confusion from her shameless overture. We learn later that he has not been the same since his wife and child left him. But nothing here makes much sense, in terms of either psychological or sociological realism.

For example, one needn’t be a devoted fan of Law & Order to feel that a police detective should project more authority than does Pharaon’s zombie-like pseudosleuth. Indeed, no one is more surprised than Pharaon when the murderer is finally caught. But the whole point of the movie seems to be the limitless compassion of Pharaon as he contemplates the cosmic suffering of humanity.

It is the old story of a filmmaker trying to rise above the conventions of a genre only to sink beneath them. But I suspect that L’Humanité will get more respectful reviews than did Kikujiro simply because Mr. Dumont is cold whereas Mr. Kitano is warm, and for many critics cold trumps warm every day of the week. I beg to differ in this instance. Mr. Kitano seems so much closer to his characters than Mr. Dumont is to his that my preference is for the Kitano.

The New Male Weepies: Frequency to Gladiator

Gregory Hoblit’s Frequency , from a screenplay by Toby Emmerich, belongs deep down to a venerable genre Raymond Durgnat designated decades ago as the “male weepy.” The most glorious examples I can remember offhand are King Vidor’s The Champ (1931), John Ford’s How Green Was My Valley (1941), Valerio Zurlini’s Family Diary (1963), Ermanno Olmi’s The Tree of the Wooden Clogs (1978), Victor Fleming’s Captains Courageous (1937), Kenji Mizoguchi’s Tales of the Taira Clan (1955), and, oh yes, Vittorio De Sica’s The Bicycle Thief (1948).

The basic relationship in the male weepy is either father-son or brother-brother, but it is all male, and it involves either self-sacrifice for the other, or outright loss.

Mr. Hoblit and Mr. Emmerich have broken new ground, however, in the realm of the male weepy. Not only does police detective John Sullivan (Jim Caviezel) resume contact with his seemingly long-dead hero-fireman father, Frank Sullivan (Dennis Quaid), through an antique 1969 ham radio, but this pre-Internet time-travel mechanism enables John to use his father to help catch a serial killer, prevent the murder of his mother and save his father’s life not once, not twice, but thrice. This requires some fancy plot footwork, particularly with André Braugher’s Satch DeLeon, the presiding police presence in both father and son’s time.

It isn’t just the time machine that the filmmakers exploit shamelessly, but also the time-honored images of Dad instructing Junior in the quintessentially American nuances of baseball. What is nice about Frequency is that time travel is not merely a plot gimmick, but actually an artful pretext to invoke the precious preservation of familial emotions through summoned memory images from the past. Still, Frequency remains only a marginally involving entertainment because of the excessive ingenuity required to pull all the rabbits out of the hat. Mr. Quaid’s ageless charm goes a long way toward keeping the time-travel machine from breaking down in a cloud of confusion.

Of course, I can’t guarantee that my grown-up male readers will cry over Frequency , and its tall tale of a father brought back from the dead by a son’s pluck and credulity. After all, I have been told on good authority that grown men have admitted crying over the sad ending in Gladiator , which one astute colleague has described as the first Roman suburban tragedy. It’s all a matter of taste.