Proving himself once again a master of comic timing and pathos, Takeshi Kitano’s 1996 feature Kids Return represents something of a thematic medley for the director, playing in equal parts as a high school comedy, gangster film and boxing drama. While it is perhaps not as stylistically accomplished as his later Dolls, nor as emotionally gut-wrenching as Hana-Bi, Kids Return is still a charming turn from the reliably idiosyncratic ‘Beat’ Takeshi.
Kids Return concerns itself with Masaru (Ken Kaneko) and Shinji (Masanobu Andô) as they skip school, torment their fellow classmates and pose with the unironic machismo that only a brazen adolescent would try to pass off. In their delinquent activities, the pair are unmistakable wrong’uns, yet director Kitano’s peerless comic timing gives them an unlikely aura of heroism, and their antics – hanging a wiry effigy of their maths teacher from the school roof replete with tumescent hose tapping at the classroom window, and torching a deserving teacher’s treasured car – rank among the funniest school pranks put to film.
Less heroic, perhaps, are the boys’ routine muggings of their peers, but Kitano is careful to use these incidents to complicate his characters, not to villainise them. Indeed, one of Kids Return‘s strengths is its expansive, complex cast of characters. While Shinji joins a boxing gym and Masaru falls in with the local gangsters, the power dynamics of the supporting cast shift around them with everyone negotiating their own way through that uncertain space between school life and the adult world.
Kitano’s cheeky, affectionate wit for describing life’s fitful absurdity informs the film at every turn, and even at its darkest, Kids Return remains optimistic for Shinji and Masaru’s future. Indeed, an overarching theme in all of Kitano’s films is time’s nonlinearity: for Kitano, life is not an unbroken journey towards an inevitable conclusion, but a series of moments, each significant in their own right, each passing in their turn. The film’s framing device reinforces this sense of time, effectively giving the boys a second crack at the future.
Although Kids Return doesn’t quite match up to Kitano’s best work, in the hands of such a director it is an effortlessly charming piece. Beautifully marrying Kitano’s dual interests in crime and comedy, Kids Return is frequently hilarious while never losing sight of the integrity of its characters. Shades of Rocky are clearest in its training sequences, and Kitano’s stylistic sensibilities perfectly match the overly coiffed and colourfully dressed gangsters against the film’s moments of brutality. Kids Return may be a minor entry in Kitano’s canon, but is nevertheless an unerringly delightful one.
Christopher Machell | @Dr_Machell