Promised Lands

Shades of big daddy: Kitano and Yusuke Sekiguchi in Kikujiro
photo: Tsuranuku Kumagai

Anyone who knows Takeshi Kitano only from Violent Cop, Boiling Point, or Sonatine might be understandably bewildered by the sugary pink seraphim that flutter through the credits of his latest feature, Kikujiro. But, however deadpan, Japan's king of all media is a man with more than one face: There is Kitano the tough guy and Kitano the rank sentimentalist. Fireworks, which allowed him to impale an enemy's eye with a chopstick as well as nurse his wife through a terminal illness, was an attempt to synthesize the two. Kikujiro, which was unfairly dissed last year at Cannes, does much the same thing, albeit in a lighter mode.

Kitano has made inspirational movies about deaf-mute surfers and lonely teenagers, as well as dramas of rogue police officers and crazed yakuza. Kikujiro concerns a sad little nine-year-old boy (played with abysmal cuteness by TV actor Yusuke Sekiguchi) taken on a summer vacation to find his long-lost mother. His escort on this trip is the least likely of guardian angels, Kitano himself. Although the journey is carefully structured as a series of episodes, the personal connection is blithely casual. Kitano has been volunteered for the job by his acerbic wife, an acquaintance of the boy's caretaker-grandmother.

The loudmouthed, hectoring Kitano, who may be a retired yakuza, agrees only to take the boy to the beach—which actually means a day spent at the track, gambling the kid's travel money on the bicycle races. Kitano stages a 24-hour celebration when the boy, Damon Runyon-style, picks a winner. Unfortunately, his pint-sized good-luck charm fails to repeat the trick—to Kitano's mounting, voluble frustration. It's a richly comic sequence with a discomfiting denouement. The kid wanders off and "Mister," as the child respectfully calls Kitano, has to rescue his charge from a predatory pedophile.

This unpleasant bit of business is a necessary inoculation, as the boy is a largely self-contained and passive foil for Kitano's own brand of (mainly verbal) abuse. Let no one suspect Kitano's motives. Kikujiro is intended to be a man-boy odyssey in the tradition of Chaplin's The Kid, De Sica's Bicycle Thief, and Adam Sandler's Big Daddy. What gives the movie its edge is Kitano's abrasive personality. Far from lovable, he's a relentless bully and an opportunistic sneak as well as a genuine oddball. The movie is divided into sections, one of which is simply titled "Mister Is Strange." He's also pretty funny—impulsive, scurrilous, and barely socialized.

After dissipating what's left of the winnings on a luxury hotel, Mister takes the boy hitchhiking into the countryside. This leisurely sequence affords additionally dubious antics, seemingly designed by Kitano to mock what he sees as the timid self-absorption of his Japanese audience. Kitano feigns blindness in order to get a lift; he's not only ignored but actually run down by a car, which quickly speeds away. Infuriated by the failure of this ploy, Kitano tries a more drastic way of securing a ride, inadvertently creating an accident that sends him scampering off for cover.

These gags work because Kitano has created an intrinsically funny character and because he has perfect timing and a terrific sense of construction. Not unlike Albert Brooks, Kitano is an impressively classical filmmaker who favors clean compositions, deliberate camera movements, and precise sequences. Most of the jokes are purely visual. Kitano, who edits his own films, enjoys cutting from cause to effect, leaving out the transition for comic payoff. More gratuitous, but no less elegant, is his taste for stunt camera-placement, which, in Kikujiro, includes the interior of a champagne flute. (Kitano also trains his camera on a spinning hubcap and throws on a lens to simulate an insect's-eye view of a scene.)

Failing to reunite the boy with his mother, Kitano creates a surrogate, all-male family composed of a wandering writer and two hapless bikers, whom he relentlessly harasses for their blue-angel charm and consequently bullies into endless games to entertain the kid. This prolonged Peter Pan setup, a good half hour of plotless pranks, recalls the extended vacation riffs in Fireworks and, especially, Sonatine—an example of what Sigmund Freud (see below) called "taking pleasure in nonsense." It's as if Kitano simply decided to switch from one TV mode to another, ending his movie with an elaborate vaudeville coda.

Kikujiro is assembled as a memory album, and even when the movie does finally turn maudlin, the formal values remain intact. Caught cheating at a rural fairground, Kitano is beaten up off-camera. With characteristic understatement, the title for this sequence is "Mister Fell Down the Stairs." The same discretion extends to the surprise visit he pays his aged mother in a rest home. For all its Hello Kitty-ism, Kikujiro struck me as less cloying and perhaps more audacious than Fireworks.

Fireworks was a violent movie that meditated on mortality and was infused with unexpected mawkishness; Kikujiro is an overtly saccharine fairy tale of abandonment that is subverted by its own comic brutality. It's oddly affecting—which is to say, sad in a way that its maker might not have intended.

Speaking of unknowable intentions, Young Dr. Freud—made for Austrian TV in 1978 by the late Axel Corti—is a movie about how Freud got to be Freud. Call it a mental action epic. Now in its second week at Film Forum, this modest historical drama is unlikely to challenge Gladiator, although it's scarcely devoid of sadistic drama. At one point, the resolute young doctor calls his Vienna "as cozy as an arena."

Young Dr. Freud, unlike Young Dr. Kildare, is structured to suggest an extended psychoanalytic session or an episode of The Twilight Zone. The story is told in flashback, prompted by occasional questions from an unseen interlocutor (screenwriter Georg Stefan Troller). As befits an Austrian film, Young Dr. Freud makes the experience of anti-Semitism crucial to the hero's psychology, returning to the Moravian outpost of Freiberg for what's described as the hero's earliest memory—his father's humiliation at the hands of gentile ruffians. The child Freud is shown walking with his father when a group of rowdies order them into the gutter—"Off the pavement, Jew!"—and, for good measure, knock his unprotesting father's hat into the mud. (In fact, this indignity was a secondhand memory, at least according to Freud, who recounts the story at a crucial moment in The Interpretation of Dreams, framed not as something he observed himself but rather a story his father told him.)

Forever shamed by his father's inability to resist, Freud grows up spoiling for a fight and hyperconscious of Jewish stigma. He endures the puritanical anti-Semitism of medical school to become a provocative firebrand, arguing with his mentor Josef Breuer—the pioneer of the so-called talking cure—while shocking his colleagues with his interest in the sex life of eels. In a bit of comic relief, the young doctor expounds on this very subject during the course of a Sunday excursion to the Prater amusement park with Martha, the proper Jewish fiancée his parents have managed to find for their poor and struggling son.

Freud, who confesses that he doesn't like people enough to be a doctor, becomes interested in human sexual pathology through Breuer's treatment of Bertha Pappenheim a/k/a Anna O, a hysterical young woman who, in the hothouse world of Vienna's Jewish bourgeoisie, happens to be a friend of Martha's. (The filmmakers are well aware that Pappenheim became a pioneer feminist, social activist, and implacable foe of psychoanalysis.) Making the rounds of the mental cases in a Vienna hospital, Freud ponders the meaning of repression; sent to France to study with Jean-Martin Charcot, he's further convinced that sex is the key to human nature. In an example of Takeshi-like understatement, his subsequent lecture on the subject is greeted with much offscreen shouting.

Unfolding in nondescript shades of gray, while making the most of small-scale period details, Young Dr. Freud is not even ostentatiously neutral. The mode is low-key and informational. Tossing off pearls of wisdom ("Maybe every neurotic believes he has committed some crime") en route to his discovery of the unconscious, Freud is himself somewhat heedless. More than once, Martha offers some illuminating insight that he is too reflexively sexist to grasp. (Among other things, she intuits the seduction theory of hysteria that, perhaps to his regret, Freud later abandoned.) The movie suggests that Freud was a kind of Moses, leading us to the promised land of self-knowledge without being permitted to enter it.

New Yorkers are blessed with a fantastic variety of films screened on a daily basis. The Museum of Modern Art, where 250 members of the professional staff are out on strike, may be a preeminent venue but it is scarcely unique. As a moviegoer, as well as a union member, I ask all comrade cineastes to get their celluloid fix elsewhere. Show your support for those dedicated and undervalued people who make the MOMA programs possible.

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