Takeshi Kitano's popularity is mostly based on his crime films, especially in the West. Those who have delved deeper into his oeuvre know that he never has backed away from trying out other genres. Right before he had his big breakthrough with Fireworks, he directed a small drama titled Kids Return [Kizzu Ritân]. It's probably one of his most inconspicuous films, but that doesn't mean the quality isn't there. It was years since I last watched Kids Return and I didn't remember much of the finer details, even so I was quite confident that this Kitano film wouldn't disappoint.
Kids Return is probably Kitano's most typical Japanese film. His other dramas tended to have quirkier and/or more distinctive sides to them (take the mute characters in A Scene at the Sea, the quirky comedy of Kikujiro or Dolls' stark visuals), Kids Return is the one that has the most niche Japanese characteristics. The bike rides in particular stand out. That may sound like an odd detail for people not used to Japanese dramas, but once you've seen a couple of these films it starts to dawn that they're a true staple of the genre and Kitano puts them front and center here.
All things considered, Kids Return could probably be categorized as a sports film, since boxing is a central part of its story. Don't expect to see anything like its American counterparts though (neither Rocky nor Raging Bull), for Kitano the boxing theme is just a canvas against which he paints the lives of two young delinquents as they try to figure out what to make of their lives. It's in fact an interesting case study if you want to delve into the differences between Eastern and Western drama cinema. Even though they share many of the same traits on paper, distinctly placed accents have a big impact on the way these films pan out.
Masaru and Shinji are good friend who love to goof around. Their teachers have all but given up on them, so nobody cares when they skip a class or two. With no obvious goals in life, the two just loaf around, annoying the people close to them. Until one day, when Masaru suddenly disappears, only to reappear a couple of days later as a boxer in training. He invites Shinji to join the club, and he indulges Masaru's request. After a few training sessions it's obvious that Shinji is the one with the most talent. Masaru, somewhat dispirited, drops out and joins a local Yakuza gang.
On a visual level, this is one of Kitano's weaker films. The color palette is rather dim and lifeless and the editing is a touch more conventional than in his other films. There are some nice shots here (especially the tracking shots on the bike) and it's certainly not terrible looking, but knowing that he made Dolls because some people accused him of not putting enough color into his work, it's clear this is one of the films they were referring to. Kids Return does deserve props for the way the boxing scenes are shown though. While they're not excessively pimped nor edited to shreds, they still manage to come off very energetic and forceful.
With Hisaishi on board for the music, a decent score is pretty much guaranteed. And Hisaishi doesn't disappoint. It's not his best or most distinctive work for Kitano, but the main theme is amazing and only grows in strength as it is repeated throughout. It's a mellow score that flows very well with the rest of the film, properly highlighting the stronger dramatic moments while providing mostly soothing vibes during the quieter scenes. This is a solid, very competent and quality soundtrack that falls neatly in line with the rest of Kids Return.
The same can be said about the performances. Kitano's usual crew of actors is present, though mostly in smaller roles (if you blink you may even miss Ren Osugi's appearance). The lead roles went to Masanobu Andô and Ken Kaneko. They form a great duo and give their characters the necessary depth, without the need of too many words or explicit actions. The rest of the cast is on point too. There aren't any performances that stand out or leave a lasting impression, but again there's not a single weakness to be detected here.
There seems to be a common thread here, which is that Kitano seemed determined to prove that he could deliver quality output without having to rely on gimmicks, extraordinary talents or unique angles. Kids Return is a core Japanese drama, revolving around two kids trying to find their way in life. It works up to an ending that keeps away from big drama and life-changing events, but concludes the film on a more grounded and down-to-earth note, exactly what you'd expect from a proper Japanese slice-of-life. In a way it's nothing out of the ordinary, except that it still works wonders and left me incredibly content once the end credits start rolling across the screen.
Kids Return may be a bit overlooked, not too surprising since it's a rather modest film, but that says nothing about the overall quality. It's a pretty good choice for people wanting to break into Japanese cinema, though certain trademark elements (like the manzai acts) may be a bit puzzling at first. The solid cinematography coupled with the nice soundtrack, the fine performances and the pleasantly subdued drama all help to highlight Kitano's talent as a bona fide director. Hardened Kitano fans will still be able to recognize the man's signature style, but it's not what makes this film stand out.