ExEAS Teaching Unit

Using Takeshi Kitano’s Kikujiro in the Undergraduate Classroom
Rachael Hutchinson
Department of Foreign Languages and Literatures
University of Delaware

Takeshi Kitano’s 2000 film Kikujiro is an excellent film for use in a wide range of courses on Japan. It provokes interesting discussions about Japanese culture, society, identity, and film criticism, whether among first-year undergraduates or more advanced undergraduate or M.A. students.

The Film
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Kikujiro dir. by Takeshi Kitano. Culver City , CA : Columbia TriStar Home Video, 2000. 116 minutes. In Japanese with English subtitles.
  • Available for rental from Netflix and through many college libraries. Copies are available for purchase (for under $30) from retail outlets such as Facets Multimedia, Barnes and Noble.com, and Amazon.com.
  • For a review of the film by Sachiko Hiramatsu for the Asian Educational Media Service, see: http://www.aems.uiuc.edu/downloads/Fall2002.pdf
First-Year/Introductory Classes
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Kikujiro can be used in introductory courses to portray Japanese family values and the breakdown of those values in contemporary society: both the main characters are in search of family and feel abandoned by their parents. That one of these characters is a young boy, in the temporary care of the other, a gangster, provides the narrative impetus and gives rise to strong feelings of sympathy for the boy as well as humour. Part of the film’s appeal lies in the highly staged costumes of the latter half, where the film medium seems to give way to conventions of Japanese television humour.
Characters dress up as samurai warriors, kabuki actors, aliens, pieces of fruit, and mythical beings from Japanese culture — all in order to entertain the lonely child. The various costumes can be used as a starting point for discussions of various aspects of Japanese culture, and how they are interpreted in Japan today. Here, the costumes primarily function as jokes, reminiscent of late-night comedy sketches, but the class can discuss what other meanings are signified by the different costumes and why they are being used. In this way, the film can be used as an exploration of the Japanese search for identity, particularly in terms of Kitano’s use of traditional Japanese costumes and dance in the modern context. The class can be asked to discuss why Kitano uses these traditional art forms, and what effect it has on the audience’s understanding of the question of Japan’s “modern” versus “traditional” identity.
This film works extremely well, perhaps even better than Ozu or Kurosawa films, as a starting point for discussions of essentialism and Orientalist readings of Japanese culture, because Kurosawa now seems so old-fashioned to students that his films are seen as “traditional” themselves. With this contemporary film, featuring film star Kitano as the gangster, students are more able to relate to the film as just a film rather than as a “Japanese film.” First-year students in particular are more ready to discuss this film in terms of cinematic techniques and Kitano’s aims as a filmmaker — with older films they can feel intimidated and reluctant to judge the film by their own standards.

Advanced Undergraduate/Graduate Classes
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For advanced undergraduates or graduate students, the discussion of Japanese identity can be used as a jumping-off point for questioning the dominant arguments of secondary critical literature on Japanese film. As Yoshimoto Mitsuhiro has argued, many critics of Japanese film read films in terms of “how Japanese they are”, an outmoded and Orientalist reading technique. As a seminar activity, Kitano’s use of Japanese dance in Kikujiro can be contrasted with Kurosawa’s use of Noh theatre in Throne of Blood (1957). Critical readings of the latter film tend to focus on Kurosawa’s “Japanese sensibility” and how “natural” it is that a great Japanese director should utilise his cultural heritage. However, students should be able to distinguish between this kind of essentialist reading and a reading which asks about the construction of the film itself — why has the director chosen to construct the film in such a manner, and what does the film have to say to the audience?