It's an award-winning film that was written, directed and edited by Takeshi Kitano. He also plays the title role. It did well at the Japanese Academy Awards and was nominated for the Palme d'Or at Cannes. I'd been expecting something less throwaway, I think.
It's amusing, but it's an episodic road movie with almost no plot and a theme that doesn't come across the same way outside Japan.
So, that story... Takeshi is an ex-yakuza with no clue. He's so foul-mouthed that it makes him slightly tiresome to listen to, he walks with a stomping waddle and he's best imagined as an obnoxious one-man Laurel and Hardy. He's incompetent at everything. He blows all his money immediately on gambling. He has a mental age of four when trying to blag a lift from passing cars. He's even bad at thuggishness, coming off worst every time things get physical.
However he's helping a small boy (Yusuke Sekiguchi) who's looking for his mother. Sekiguchi lives with his grandmother and has been told that his father is dead and that his mother is living in a distant area, working to support her son. Sekiguchi and Takeshi one day go off to see her.
...and that's nearly all the plot. Random stuff happens and there's a bittersweet discovery, but essentially this is a road movie. It's divided into episodes, each of which is introduced by an intertitle in childish handwriting. "Mister Played With Me", "This Guy's Weird", etc. Most of them could take place in any order. It felt to me like an anthology of deadpan comedy sketches, reminding you that Kitano started his career as one of the most successful Japanese comedians of the 1970s and 1980s. He also has a great rapport with little Sekiguchi, who's stolid in a way that plays well opposite Takeshi's trademark deadpan acting style. I love their interplay in the "pick two numbers" gambling routine.
They meet other people, of course, which is where that theme comes in. This movie is exaploring alienation and inclusion in Japanese society. Almost everyone we meet is an outcast in some way, not part of mainstream Japanese society. There are yakuza, bikers, itinerant poets and a paedophile sex offender (um).
However to me, that's not the main thing that came across. Instead, it felt like a "mothers vs. men" movie. All the female characters are mother figures, defined by their responsibilities to their families. (The only exception is Fumie Hosokawa, who can juggle and is the cute girlfriend of a punk in a car. In real life, she's a gravure idol who's done a bit of acting.) In contrast, all the men are children. They're goofing off, incapable of anything useful and/or haunted by their missing mothers. It's worth noting for instance that Sekiguchi's mother and grandmother are fundamental to the story, yet we never learn what really happened to his father and there's never even a mention of his grandfather.
The cast interested Tomoko. Many actors here are from a theatre dance group that she and her mother are fans of, possibly because of the dance numbers. This is great, actually. The dream sequences are whacked out, for a start. There's also a cameo (Man at Bus Stop) for Beat Kiyoshi, who was Beat Takeshi's stand-up partner in the old days, when they were taking Japan by storm as The Two Beats.
It's evocative of Japan and the sights one sees as one travels through its countryside and semi-rural areas, as you'd expect of a road movie. It's scenic. This made Tomoko feel nostalgic for home!
There's also a homage to The Inugami Family when Takeshi's character goes swimming.
Overall, it's a charming film, although you do sometimes feel its length. It's funny and sweet. Takeshi's character becomes likeable, despite his obnoxiousness and personal problems, and it's lovely to see all these miscellaneous people going to so much trouble to look after chubby little Sekiguchi. It's also a family friendly film, despite the brief sex offender episode. Takeshi's brushes with violence: (a) always fail big-time, and (b) never happen where we can see them. I think many children might love this movie, although I'm sure others would drift away at the lack of narrative. It's a story about a child looking for his mother, after all, helped on his way by grumpy eccentrics.
If you're expecting drama, you'll be disappointed. You'd be better off expecting something that's as quiet and offbeat as many Japanese films, but with a sense of humour. As long as you're not in a hurry and instead are willing to sit back and take things as they come, there's a lot here to like.