I think Kikujiro is mainly about loneliness.
Takeshi's character and the boy, Masao, seem really different on the surface. Takeshi's provokes people, is loud and rude. Masao is quiet and sad.
But they're really the same person: someone whose life is full of disappointment, abandonment. They both feel isolated, like no one could understand. They might be pitied, but no one could understand like they'd been there, like they'd lived that kind of life.
And when you get really lonely like that, I think it makes you bitter. The whole world continues to smile and sing its fortunes while your life seems to get worse and worse, less and less reason to stay living.
Masao is very withdrawn because of this. Over time, as he gets older, I can see him getting more and more bitter about it. Maybe Takeshi's character was like Masao at first, too. Lonely and sad. And then maybe he thought, "why should I be sad? All the world has brought me is misfortune. I should rather be angry!" and then started trying to provoke and anger people on purpose. Why should they be content, anyway? But, all the other characters they meet on the journey are like that, too. Isolates, people on the edge of society, people who might call themselves "countercultural" or something like that.
What I think is really important is how they change over the course of the movie. Like they might have the liberty to sit around all day, smoking and brooding and depressed. Masao is only a child, and all this kind of disappointment is new to him.
In a less realistic film maybe the characters would be, in their characteristic brooding way, like, "Eh, them's the breaks huh kid". In Kikujiro they're people. They can see how much he's like them, how much pain he's in. And they're so jaded because they're still hurting, too.
So they try and cheer him up, play games with him. Show him the kind of love he never got from anyone else in his life, that they never got. And it's so touching because they, especially Takeshi's character, start to see it's not so bad, not so hopeless. That everyone loves, and everyone cries, and just because their lives have been particularly worse than others doesn't mean they can't reach out to and come to an understanding with others.
The film's long takes sometimes feel kinda pointless, like they're just there because that's part of the director's style. But other times they really work, especially in the more emotional scenes. They help say more than any amount of ridiculous sad symphonic music could.
And the music, which is intermittent and plays on a single theme, is really good too. It doesn't feel like some kind of deliberately tragic cliché, but still adds a great amount to the mood of the movie and helped bring me to tears at some points.
Some negative reviews I've read call Kikujiro shallow or emotionally manipulative, but I can't see that at all. The whole thing is very human, and doesn't force any moral down your throat other than that, I guess, that you are not so alone. And it feels like it's coming from someone who has been alone, who has felt this incredible sadness, and also conquered it. And I think, that means more than I can really put into words.
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