Kids Return (Cert 15)
1 Disc (Distributor: Third Window Films) Running Time: 108 minutes approx.
In 1994 “Beat” Takeshi Kitano, the popular actor, director, painter and comedian was involved in a motorcycle accident that left half his body paralysed. Many thought he’d never recover but true to the Japanese fighting spirit, Kitano was back at work a year later, the struggle of his recuperation indirectly influencing this first post accident film.
This may not be immediately apparent but this tale of determination and resilience by two delinquents looking to avoid a life as total dropouts can be applied to Kitano’s “return” after the accident, looking to the future with a different attitude.
However it doesn’t go so smoothly for our two principals, Masaru (Ken Kaneko) and Shinji (Masanobu Ando), a pair of hoodlums wasting lesson time larking about either on or off school premises. The film actually begins with the duo meeting up after a prolonged period apart, leading to a flashback of their prior time together.
A true double act, Masaru is the bully and lippy one, Shinji the quieter sidekick yet still complicit in their tomfoolery. Both are constantly told by their teachers to quit school after their outrageous and disrespectful behaviour reaches an incendiary apex, until one of their bullying victims gets a measure of revenge through a boxer friend.
Masaru decides to learn boxing to get revenge encouraging Shinji to join him but it is Shinji who proves the more adept pugilist, flattening Masaru in a sparring match. While Shinji decides to continue boxing Masaru quits and ends up working for a local Yakuza boss (Ryo Ishibashi), marking their first time apart from each other.
True to form for Kitano, his lead characters are anti-heroes that have no business eliciting encouragement or empty from the audience yet, for all their faults, we find ourselves quietly rooting for them, Shinji in particular. Any turn around in their behaviour to endear them to us isn’t forced or marked by a singular incident resembling redemption, they still are rough around the edges and learn many life lessons the hard way.
While we shouldn’t laugh some of their antics are very funny – from making a mock up nude puppet of one of their teachers and suspending out outside the classroom window during his class, to trying to gain entry into an adult cinema by pretending to be office executives (a ruse fellow classmates try later on with equally hilarious results). But when they follow this up with shameless bullying of classmates, we are reminded of their unpleasant yobbish instincts.
Kitano juxtaposes the journey Masaru and Shinji undertake with that of more earnest classmates also seeking more from life – an aspiring comedy duo (possibly based on Kitano’s own duo Two Beat) whose gradual rise to success is scattered throughout the film, as is a shy lad who covets the waitress at a coffee shop, trying everything to win her over whilst struggling in every job he gets in his quest to prove he is a worthy man.
For most of the film it is Shinji’s path that is featured, his quick grasp of boxing giving him a much needed focus and confidence booster but his inability to choose his friends threatens to derail his career. After listening to the older and jaded Hiyashi (Moro Morooka) and picking up his bad habits, Shinji is practically to being the led astray sidekick again.
We are only shown through his rare appearances how far up the ranks Masaru has risen in the Yakuza gang and typically, it goes to his head with disaster not being too far behind. Unlike other Kitano films where this would be portrayed as a bleak and depressing scenario, and while not exactly a bundle of laughs, this again is shown as Masaru learning a tough lesson about being out of his depth and taking too much for granted.
To that end this doesn’t feel like a typical Kitano film as the narrative is linear and the tone is harsh but honest and relatable. Yet there is no mistaking his distinctive style, be it in the quirky humour, wistful atmosphere and maverick attitude. In his native Japan this became his first box office hit, the reflective and nostalgic aura and simple message of staying on the right track resonating with audiences who couldn’t relate to the violence propagated in his previous films.
Buttressed by the evocative but dated soundtrack from the inestimable Joe Hisaishi, the cinematography by Katsumi Yanagishima does much to tell the story as much as the script does, and this excellent HD transfer truly brings its beauty to the forefront. The picture is so vivid and rich, if it wasn’t for the fashion and lack of 21st century technology, one would never guess this film is twenty years old.
Relying on many regular collaborators to fill out the adult roles, Kitano chose two then newcomers for the lead roles of Shinji and Masaru. Masanobu Ando will be known by most as the psychotic Kriyama in the seminal Battle Royale, but here he is the hard working but easily lead Shinji, a role which saw tremendous dedication from the young actor for the boxing related scenes.
Ken Kaneko has since spent most of his subsequent career as a TV actor but his lanky frame and sharp features serve him well as the cocky and misguided Masaru, only bringing warmth to the character in the bookend scenes as the pals reunite older but perhaps not wiser.
And this is where the elliptical nature of the film’s theme reveal itself – the returning kids any neither any better nor worse off after leaving school to become men, their Auld Lang Syne reunion being either a warning of what could go wrong to the current students or a sign the lessons weren’t learned after all.
Kids Return is Kitano in a pessimistic yet forward looking mood in what might be his most accomplished and affecting film to date, revitalised by this gorgeous new release from Third Window Films.
Japanese DTS-HD 2.0
Audio Commentary with Aaron Gerow
Rating – ****
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