Takeshi Kitano’s Kikujiro tries on the buddy-movie formula and finds it wanting. A superbly photographed picture, it abandons traditional character development two-thirds of the way through, and turns into a free-form medley of sight gags that kid and prod us with their willingness to try anything once (or maybe even two or three times) just to see what will happen. The final product has a few more ups and downs than we’re used to – it’s by turns charming and boring, hip and cloying – but overall it feels like something fresh. It’s worth seeing.

Nine-year old Masao (Yusuke Sekiguchi) is an introverted, apple-cheeked boy living with his grandmother. His loneliness and boredom are making him old before his time; it isn’t hard to picture him as a squashed and lifeless bureaucrat twenty years down the road. But one day he discovers the address of his long-lost mother and sets off to find her, and through a fluke he comes to be chaperoned by another member of the dispossessed, a neighborhood lout and grumbler named Kikujiro (Kitano, acting under his stage-name Beat Takeshi). Kikujiro isn’t above shaking down strangers for their petty cash, and the first thing he does once Masao is under his wing is to gamble away the boy’s bankroll at the races. That leaves the pair with nothing to do except to hitchhike to their destination, and their journey (which involves a lot more stopping than starting) brings them into contact with the flotsam of life, including truck drivers, a juggler, a pederast, and a band of yakuza.

Kitano’s characters move through a gray void that resembles the moonscapes of Jarmusch and Wender: overcast stretches of highway that reach to the horizon, desolate beaches, a cavernous concrete coliseum, and barren corridors that the camera lingers on long after the characters have passed from them. (Kitano repeatedly uses these empty spaces for one of his favorite tricks, sudden "reveals" where the camera pulls back to include a new element that changes the meaning of what we are looking at.) When they finally reach Masao’s mother’s house, their cold, impersonal world is contrasted with the homey bungalow nestled on a country lane. It’s no wonder that Masao is traumatized when he sees the household and its happy occupants (there’s clearly no room for him there), just as it’s no wonder that Kikujiro begins at that moment to redirect the boy’s summer.

Kikujiro recognizes his own abandoned self in Masao the same way that Toshiro Mifune’s Kikuchiyo saw himself in the orphaned baby in Kurosawa’s Seven Samurai. After the aborted homecoming, Kikujiro and Masao take up with a band of motley wayfarers – a lanky trickster poet and a pair of dippy motorcycle bums – and the quintet camps out on a secluded beach. There the group, clad in their increasingly ragged clothes (or less), returns to a state of childhood. The last half-hour of the movie is given over to the tricks and role-playing and pantomime – filmed as a series of blackout skits – that the adults stage for Masao under Kikujiro’s direction. The games bring Masao back to life – they make him a boy again – while giving the older men a chance to indulge their own youthful longings.

Kitano has said that he made Kikujiro because he feared becoming overly identified with violent gangster movies, and his 1993 Sonatine was interrupted by a similar idyll when some gangsters laying low in a decrepit beach shack amused themselves with mock sumo wrestling matches and endless pranks. For all of his fatalism and visual sophistication, Kitano still seems innocent at heart, and the memories of childhood are fresh within him. He recalls, for instance, that summer vacation was a time for the doldrums as well as freedom, and he sketches the emptiness of Masao’s days with glimpses of an unused soccer ball or a cheerless lunch that his grandmother leaves out for him.

Outside of his own films (Sonatine, Fireworks), Kitano may be best known to Western audiences for his irreplaceable performance as the sadistic POW camp sergeant in Oshima’s Merry Christmas, Mr. Lawrence. He’s a stunning camera subject, and in his crime films he appears as a beautiful but clouded avenging angel. As Kikujiro, with a cruel tic pulling at his mouth and a rolling bowlegged walk, he’s a griffin-like fusion of Eastwood and Chaplin – a previously unthinkable combination. Sunlight floods into his face when he cracks a smile, but it’s still the smile of a two-bit lowlife because Kitano keeps his character pure. At the movie’s end it’s clear that the bond between Kikujiro and Masao hasn’t reformed the older man – there’s no guff about redemption.

Kikujiro has a spontaneous, work-in-progress feeling to it. Its rhythms aren’t completely worked out, so that too many of its still-life compositions are simply inert. There’s no reason why a road-movie about a shiftless rake and a little boy should go as flat as this one occasionally does except that it’s part of Kitano’s style. He refuses to rush things along, and insists on aligning the tempo of his scenes with the movements of his characters. (A scene in Sonatine is timed to the metronomic beat of a crane as it winches a man into and out of a bay.) Kikujiro may be slight and uneven compared to the high polish of Fireworks, but it’s still the work of a man who uses his craft to illuminate the world around him. And that’s nothing to scoff at.

– Tom Block