Kids return was never given theatrical release in the US, probably because Takeshi doesn't actually act in it, and it doesn't focus on Yakuza. Despite this, it is one of his finest films, and definitely among his most accessible.
Made during his recovery from a motorcycle accident, the film focuses on a group of highschool students as they prepare to enter into the adult world. The two lead characters are Shinji and Masaru, delinquent losers who are looked down upon by their teachers, and feared by their classmates. After they're set up by the administration and thrown out of school, they fall into amateur boxing and embark onto different paths. We follow not only the two hoods, but their classmates as well, at they all enter into various occupations, trying to become adults and live a good life, and for one reason or another, failing.
All this seems fairly conventional until you remember that it was written and directed by Beat Takeshi,who lends it his trademark melancholy sense of style, and injects the script with just enough irony and pathos that it resonates. On a technical level, this is one of Takeshi's finest achievements. I've often felt that in his other works, his simple still frame compositions and slow editing rhythms didn't quite synch with the material, almost as if they resulted more from not knowing what to do with the camera than any kind of personal vision. Here he proves me wrong. Kids Return is directed by a man with a confident and assured hand: the shots, while still easy identifiable as "Kitano-esque" (can we just coin that now), are framed with a poetic eye, fusing themselves to the material to lend it the perfect sense of mood. The editing is smooth, craftsmanlike, aided greatly, as always, by the brilliant music of Jo Hisaishi.
The real difference here, though, is the writing. Kitano forgoes his usual rambling improvisational scene construction for a work that is very structured. The plot is circular, and the kids' lives are given a clear step by step descent into nothingness with an edge of Aristotalean inevitability thrown in. The result is something that is not only more coherent, but somehow also manages to be more naturalistic than his other films. Again, Takeshi's hand is still felt: from the affectionately stupid pranks of the leads to the recurring appearance of a twin comedy group, who banter in the style Kitano's own "The Two Beats." But it's organized, more confident. He knows what he wants to say, and how he wants to say it.
The acting is uniformly great, with Masanobu Ando (a long way from his almost demonic role as Kiriyama in Kinji Fukasaku's Battle Royale) a definite standout as Shinji. With little to no dialogue, he still manages to convey a sense of likeability and character. Ken Kaneko plays the more garish of the two, but still maintains the air of innocence that the part requires. There are also fun cameos from Takeshi regulars Ryo Ishibashi (who, happily, is spared any nasty encounters with a piano wire), Ren Osugi, and Susumu Terajima. Perhaps the ultimate compliment to the actors, and to the film itself, is that we don't seeing the man himself on-screen. There's no doubt that Takeshi has one of the brightest, larger than life, screen presences in all of cinema. He so dominates the movies he acts in that they would fall apart without him there. Kids Return, however, stands alone with a strength that seems to almost grow with his absence.
Final moments bring our kids back to the school ground where they grow up and the summation given by Masaru transcends the events beforehand in a way that would have made even Ozu proud. Where do you go when you've got nothing to look forward to, and the entire rest of your life still left to live? Kitano's encounter with death has somehow made him even more pessimistic, but at least he came out with something to say.