Kids Return

kidsreturnThere’s the feeling, watching Takeshi Kitano’s films, that the man is either a cheerful pessimist, or he regards ambition as an inherent evil. Playfulness is the sole virtue of his characters. (Without it, they’d be hopeless wrecks.) Play is recuperative in Kikijiro, it’s the one redemptive aspect of the gangsters in Brother, and it’s the point of life in A Scene At The Sea. In Kids Return, a story about a couple of thugs, all their lives are play, and things go bad when the play turns serious, and their friendship is torn apart.

Masaru and Shinji are high-school layabouts who’d rather go to porn theaters than class. Beating up kids for pocket change, they engage in petty thuggery. Soon they hit the wrong kid, one with a pugilist brother, and they get revenged on. Masaru wants to get his own in, so he learns to box. Shinji does too, and almost immediately, he outshines his friend in the arena.

Not interested in being outmatched, Masaru drifts into the local Yakuza while Shinji gets a shot at being a professional boxer. Masaru rises quickly through the ranks of the syndicate, but he’s a hothead. He doesn’t know his own limits, and Shinji is adrift without his best friend. He latches onto the wrong sort of element at the gym, palling around with a loser on his way down. He learns a few bad habits, gets a chance to shine, and he screws up.

Each Kitano film is about values, and that makes them fun to evaluate — conviction is more interesting than indifference. Kids Return is a celebration of the value of having no values. Masaru and Shinji are without purpose, but they’re happy. Just following your emotions (even the destructive ones) is better than having to work at being something1.

In these pages, I try to ignore biography and focus on the movie. But we’re looking at a series of films by one guy, so context plays a role. After Sonatine, Kitano was in a motorcycle accident that nearly killed him. Kids Return is his first film after the accident. Cliches are true, so it’s fair to assume that Kitano’s reaction to his brush with death was a greater appreciation for the moments he had, not the ones to come. Kids Return is a product of this. Why should these kids work so hard to be something they’re not, when it divests them of the one thing they have, their friendship? Youth is precious and it shouldn’t be wasted on ambition. Death can interrupt at any time.

Look at Kitano’s narrative scheme. The film is bookended by scenes from the kids’ future, once the boxing has run its course and the kids are yet again pointless slugs in society. We see two of their classmates in an empty theater, working on a comedy routine that sucked back in high school2. When our thugs bike around the school, a former teacher sees them (though he doesn’t recognize them) and he makes a comment similar to the one he made when he saw them in the same place doing the same thing years ago. But the teacher isn’t doing anything different, either. Nothing changes, really, so enjoy life.

1Kitano’s work is a little too complex for absolutes. If the point I’m trying to make is that Shinji and Masaru’s waistreling is superior to their lives of direction, I’m not trying to say that it’s idyllic. In Kitano’s films, nothing is. He can’t be pigeonholed.

2Another biographical aside: This is how Kitano got his start, as part of a comedy team called The Two Beats.

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