Kikujiro no natsu [1999]

When words like "sweet" pop up in a review of a Takeshi Kitano film, you want to check that billing again. But yes, this really is Beat Takeshi, the funkiest dead-eyed gangster in Japanese cinema, in a gooey road movie about a glum orphan and a bumbling would-be tough guy who becomes his droopy guardian angel. The shambling walk is the same, as is the blank expression that twists into a cockeyed smile, and the film erupts (albeit infrequently) into sadistic bouts of petty violence. Takeshi is something between a gruff teddy bear and a bully as the former criminal turned unlikely babysitter who, on a whim, decides to hit the road in search of the kid's long lost mother. Whimsical adventures and silly games are punctuated by violent beatings: despite its moments of sweetness and offbeat humor, this is no family film. In one scene the downcast orphan struggles with a child molester who is trying to yank down his underwear before Takeshi rescues him. It's an uncomfortable scene that is inexplicably played for uneasy humor, the most extreme example of the film's ambiguous tone. Kitano never gets the film under control and the sweetness gets cloying at times, but he invests it with hilarious moments of bizarre, deadpan humor. Though hardly his best, this is without a doubt his strangest film to date, and that's saying something. --Sean Axmaker

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