Released in 1996, “Kids Return” was a change of pace for director Takeshi Kitano, whose films to date had usually starred Kitano himself as a cop or a gangster, meting out violence with a brutal efficiency and a wry black humor. Critics mostly admired them and moviegoers mostly shunned them, despite Kitano’s status as TV’s No. 1 comic and MC.
Made in the then-typical Kitano style — long takes, little camera movement, quirky jokes and sudden bursts of realistic violence — “Kids Return” was nonetheless atypical in its low body count and its focus on two high school dropouts, Masaru (Ken Kaneko) and Shinji (Masanobu Ando), who seemed to be going exactly nowhere. As it ambled toward its conclusion, with Shinji by now a struggling boxer and Masaru an apprentice gangster, the heroes were little closer to their goals, if still as outwardly defiant as ever.
Despite its ambiguous ending, “Kids Return” became a modest hit, while winning praise as a small gem that mixed rude, crude gags with sharp observations on human frailties — and the way dreams can abruptly turn into nightmares.
Now Hiroshi Shimizu, who was an assistant director on “Kids Return” and later made the Kitano-esque comedies “Ikinai” (1998) and “Chicken Heart” (2002) for his mentor’s Office Kitano company, is back with “Kids Return: Saikai no Toki (Kids Return: The Reunion),” which updates Masaru and Shinji’s lives 10 years after the action of “Kids Return.”
Based on an original story by Kitano, the new film is similar to its predecessor in being removed from its own time. (Kitano said he based the two heroes on kids he knew in his own 1960s school days.) It also has a Kitano-like look and feel, though Kitano’s direct involvement in its production was apparently minimal.
And yet “Kids Return: The Reunion” is definitely different, and not only because Shimizu and his producers are aiming at a bigger audience than Kitano managed to attract in 1996. Gone is the adolescent humor of the earlier film, exemplified by a doll with a bobbing penis that the heroes manage to use to subvert a flustered teacher’s lesson. Also softened is Kitano’s fatalistic view of existence, with character flaws dooming their possessors like terminal cancer.
What saves the film from being a sub-Kitano knock-off are the hard-boiled but recognizably human characters who populate it, beginning with Shinji (Yuta Hiraoka) and Masaru (Takahiro Miura), now wised up compared with their self-destructive teenaged incarnations.
Though still a boxer, Shinji is facing the end of his career as opponents become tougher and his motivation grows weaker. Just out of prison, Masaru returns to a gang that is only a shell of its former self, with a grim-visaged boss (Tetta Sugimoto) who can barely pay the office rent and a hot-tempered underling, Yuji (Akiyoshi Nakao), who is still an amateur at the art of extortion.
But when Masaru chances upon Shinji at his part-time job as a construction-site security guard the old sparks reignite. Masaru urges Shinji to return to boxing and Shinji, with the encouragement of his smilingly supportive pub-manager girlfriend (Kana Kurashina), decides to try. Meanwhile, a fired-up Masaru violently expands the gang’s revenue streams, with Yuji as an eager if impetuous pupil.
They must overcome obstacles along the way, of course, including a bottom-line-oriented gym manager (Bengaru) and a slick, ruthless gang boss (Hiroyuki Ikeuchi). Also, unlike their younger selves, they are running short on second chances.
Though we never see them with a smartphone, Masaru and Shinji, as well as their age-mates, are contemporary types, men well past adolescence who are still just scraping by (as we can see from the thin contents of their pay envelopes), with only limited prospects of something better. Both focus intensely, if not always wisely, on that small, briefly open window of opportunity.
One indication that the film is not going to be the usual zero-to-hero fable is the boxing scenes, which Shimizu films primarily from the middle distance, in longish cuts. The action is more thuddingly realistic than the usual J-film fights, with their hyper blink-and-you-miss-it editing rhythms. These scenes also show how punishingly hard it is land a knockout blow against a quick, strong, adrenaline-juiced fighter. It’s less like squeezing through a window, more like battering down a wall, while being battered in return.
So what starts as rather cliched ascent to boxing glory becomes a tough-love life lesson. What counts, we see, is the will to keep fighting, even when you’re flailing. Otherwise, your skill, your experience and your sweet personality will only buy you a ticket to Palookaville.
Fun fact: To prepare, Yuta Hiraoka trained for three months with former Olympic boxer/action coordinator Masahiko Umetsu. “I wanted to step into the ring with a form that wouldn’t embarrass him,” Hiraoka said.