Monday, July 12, 2010

An Appreciation: Kiyoshi Kurosawa

Kandagawa Lewdness Wars (1983) ** - Kurosawa’s debut film is something of a compromising mess. Part “pinku” film and part self-reflexive homage, it’s clear he stayed true on his commission of delivering a straight up erotic film while sneaking in bouts of Godard-like pop moments and sly evocations of Hitchcock. The story: two female friends, one bored by continuous sex with her boyfriend and the other just bored, spy across the street from their apartments and observe an older woman forcing her son into incest. They devise a plan to spring him from the confines of this life, thus sending the film into an airy series of foiled break out attempts and long shots of people running around in very animated mannerisms. It doesn’t always come together, but Kurosawa’s deviant swipes of humor and his obvious love for Godardian snatches of cinema (the two women staring directly at the camera and posting a paper on the wall that reads “charge!”, as well as the endless names of classic films on the background of one apartment) create a slowly endearing attitude. Not available on DVD.

Excitement of the Do Re Mi Fa Girl (1985) *1/2- Even for the most ardent Kurosawa devotee, this is a tough pill to swallow. A young girl comes to a local university looking for a lost boyfriend. Beyond that, the film is a Godard like riff on campus politics, heady professors and over-sexed coeds.... and I'm making it all sound a bit more interesting than it really is. Even the inclusion of Nicholas Ray film titles on passing poster boards or the allusions to "Made In USA" fall a bit flat.

Sweet Home (1988) *** - This tribute to the scary old house genre reveals the beginnings of Kurosawa’s visual style, such as his obfuscation of images through shadows (especially faces) and his playful attention to light and dark. The story- a news crew enters an old house that belonged to an iconic Japanese artist and stir up some pretty ugly spirits- is straight out of the horror genre playbook, yet Kurosawa makes it work through some nightmarish creatures and genuinely unsettling images. It also features one of his more outwardly affectionate finales through personal sacrifice. And honestly, any movie that inspires a video game (and not the other way around) has gotta earn some bonus points! Not available on DVD.

The Guard From Underground (1992) **1/2- Besides being a slasher film where the killer is revealed face and all in the first ten minutes, “The Guard From Underground” also deploys Kurosawa’s now trademark visual style for the first time. Filmed completely in a dank, industrial office building where the predominant colors are green and black, a newly employed six foot plus security guard goes on a killing spree as art buyer Narushima (Makkiko Kuno) chooses the wrong day to start her new job. The film lags a bit at times, but its most interesting as the breeding ground for Kurosawa’s slow-burn long takes, spooky lateral tracking shots around corners and a deep psychological about face in the finale that has a killer questioning his actions in a world that doesn’t seem to understand him.

Door 3 (1996) **1/2- “Door 3” (as in the number of a door and not the third in a trilogy) is more interesting for its ideas that will eventually surface in his later films than for its own outright creepiness. Basically, this is Kurosawa’s “Invasion of the Body Snatchers”. An insurance saleswoman (Ryo Amamiya) travels to a non-descript office building, where she becomes seduced by the male client there,. She is then slowly stalked by a group of zombie women who spit out little green monsters. Yes, I realize the description sounds like a bad 50’s sci-fi, but this is nothing new for Kurosawa…. Recycling themes and bracketing them around his own distinct style (slow zooms, shadows, plastic sheeting etc). It is curious, though, because “Door 3” features the identical blueprint for a scene that would appear later in “Pulse”- the crab walk woman, although less freakish here, is rolled out with the same droning music and shot placement. “Door 3” is a minor work in Kurosawa’s oeuvre, yet it’s fun to see this talented filmmaker playing with ideas and images way before they became ingrained in the Japanese horror new wave.

The Revenge- Parts 1 and 2 (1996) ***- Like his later films "The Serpent's Path" and "Eyes of the Spider", Kurosawa takes a central theme and tweaks it just enough to back end two films together in alternating fashion. Starring long time regular Sho Aikawa, "The Revenge; Parts 1 and 2" tracks a man's existence from goodly cop to incessant revenge-driven killer after his wife is murdered by the local yakuza. Part 1, titled "A Visit From Fate", is the better of the two parts, building up a slight back story for Aikawa's cop Anjo as his family is murdered before his eyes while he cowers in the closet as a scared five year old. Spared by the seemingly aloof killer, Anjo grows up to become a policeman. After a drug suspect kills himself when running from Anjo later in life, his body is picked up by a guardian, who turns out to be the seemingly benign killer who spared his life as a child. Anjo's tracking of the guardian leads him into the spotlight of a local yakuza gang, so they murder his wife as a warning. From there, Part 1 and Part 2, titled "A Scar That Never Disappears", follows Anjo on his quiet but violent quest to exact revenge. At times more of a comedy than anything else, Kurosawa's style of oblique editing and violent outbursts feel like a Takeshi Kitano film with its languid swagger and blank faced killers. Not available on DVD and hard to find outside of avi files.

Cure (1997) ****- Kurosawa’s first real international success and a truly harrowing, disturbing film that turns the moody serial killer genre on its ear. After three viewings, “Cure” is a film that continues to enrich and unfold it’s oblique narrative in startling ways. Each time, a different interpretation can be gleaned. In essence, a psychology student (Masato Hagiwara) stumbles across the ability of Franz Mesmer’s hypnotic suggestion technique and tweaks it in violent ways. Left to solve the rash of baffling murders is Kurosawa regular Koji Yakusho, a detective suffering the pressures of this case plus the weary job of tending to his mentally ill wife. I think. Kurosawa tenders information in subliminal cuts, elliptical editing and long takes that allows the tension and atmospheric dread of each scene to overwhelm the viewer, explaining very little overtly and ending on a succession of images that are frightening and maddening. Through it all, though, “Cure” is a dazzling masterpiece that opened the door for Kurosawa’s enigmatic career in the States.

The Serpent’s Path (1998) ***½- The first part in a two film series that examines the nature of revenge. Much like Park Chan Wook’s revenge trilogy, “The Serpent’s Path” morphs into a heavy moral tug of war that shocks as the true motivations of its characters is slowly revealed. A low level yakuza thug (Teruyuki Kagawa), with the help of a physics professor (Sho Aikawa), kidnaps a fellow criminal and forces him to confess to the murder and rape of his 8 year old daughter. More kidnappings follow as each yakuza member fingers someone else for the ghastly murder. The real force of “The Serpent’s Path” lies in the story of the professor, Nijiima, and exactly how and why he manipulates everyone to his satisfaction. Through simple, elegant camera moves and pans, Kurosawa expresses deep emotion. And the dark humor is never far behind either. The finale, which takes place in one of those omniscient and dilapidated buildings which visually marks so much of Kurosawa’a work, explodes on the screen in a wave of violence. Think of it as the Japanese “Taxi Driver”, just as fierce in its obsession for redemption and cathartic anomaly. Not available on DVD.

Eyes of the Spider (1998) **1/2- Less successful than its sister film, “The Serpent’s Path”, “Eyes of the Spider” is a complex reversal of that previous film. Where “The Serpent’s Path” was an oblique and shattering examination of revenge from the point of view of ordinary men, “Eyes of the Spider” shows just how an ordinary man could get wrapped up in the yakuza lifestyle. At times reminiscent of a Takeshi Kitano film, Sho Aikawa again takes the lead as a mild mannered professional who kills the man who murdered his daughter six years earlier. His photo is taken as he pays for a gun from some shady yakuza men, and an old friend soon comes calling to ingratiate him into the lifestyle. As a yakuza film- which is what Kurosawa was commissioned to do with both films- “Eyes of the Spider” is a more straightforward example of the genre but less interesting. There are a few haunting images though, built around the guilt of the dead girl and Aikawa’s stone faced portrayal of a man caught in some sort of hyper reality. Not available on DVD.

License To Live (1999) *** - “License To Live” was one of five films produced within a year and a half of each other, and one can sense Kurosawa’s overriding desire to slow down and populate a generous tale of a young man who awakens from a ten year coma and tries to reunite his dispersed family. Some of his regular crew are back, yet “License To Live” feels like a breath of fresh air, instilled with beautifully timed comic moments and a harmonious sense of peace. As the 24 year old who awakens from a coma and slowly learns to grow up, dour faced Hidetoshi Nishijima is a quiet revelation. And just when one thinks they know the direction “License To Live” is heading, Kurosawa usurps our expectations and favors his nontraditional approach to story and character… none more so than when Nishijima meets the man who put him in a coma for the second time and the final scene that speaks volumes about missed connections in life. Not available on DVD.

Barren Illusions (1999) *1/2- A love story in the most skeletal of terms, “Barren Illusion” is an almost impenetrable tale that stood as the third film of the year for Kurosawa in 1999. Taking place in 2005, the film follows a young couple as they waste away (literally and figuratively) in a Japan beset by a roving band of thugs and pollen pollution that forces the masses to intermittently wear gas masks. There are two scenes where the young girl appears to die, first by passively jumping off a building then later being beaten by a gang of men, and then reappears in the next scene alive. The couple wish to run away, but are thwarted by their own indecisiveness and a skeleton that washes up on the beach beside them. There’s an ominous shadow lady who appears to the young girl in the basement of the post office where she works and claims that the copy machine stopped working in 2000. All of this is thrown together with little regard for explanation or cohesiveness. There’s something in “Barren Illusions” that touches on Kurosawa’s penchant for societal alienation, yet its languid pace and unwillingness to allow any introspection works against Kurosawa this time. Not available on DVD.

Charisma (1999) **- A wild collision of genres and ideas is “Charisma”… a film I’ve best seen described as an ‘eco-thriller’. Kurosawa regular Koji Yakusho plays a failed police officer who runs away from his responsibilities and family and ends up in a forest, seduced by the allure of a seemingly magical tree. The ironic idea presented in “Charisma” belies the fact that despite being set in a forest, the power plays between aggressive environmentalists, feminist biologists and a crazed protector of the tree who lives in a decrepit sanitarium feel just as crowded as the city he’s abandoned. “Charisma” doesn’t fully come together in the end, but it feels like Kurosawa’s most pointed effort to the future…. A film that employs the slickness and ambient noise that will dominate his post Y2K features.

Séance (2000) ****- “Séance” is all about atmosphere, and the most perfect distillation of where Kurosawa the filmmaker is headed. Full of portentous zooms, figures that hide in the shadows and an unnerving sound track, this could be called one of the founding efforts in the J-Horror wave. And, as one of the few Kurosawa films not written by himself but based on a separate novel, “Séance” feels like the most complete film in the director’s oeuvre to date as well. Regular Koji Yakusho and his spiritually gifted wife end up smack dab in the middle of a little girl’s kidnapping, making all the wrong decisions (as in the best of noirs) and burrowing themselves into a psychologically haunted recourse with a devastating outcome. “Séance” has much in common with “Ring”… including the long black haired female spirit that crawls and swirls around the corners of the frame… and this is just exactly the greatness of the film. Kurosawa uses every inch of the frame to disturb and unsettle. In one scene, a couple have an ordinary conversation with a window in the background that looks out into a bevy of trees violently swaying in the gusty wind… and one half expects something to pop up. Kurosawa is in deep command, and in turn, “Séance” evolves into a devious subversion of the thriller genre. His familiar themes of a woman ghost in a red dress and the doppelganger idea are also explored a few years before each subject would get the full treatment.

Pulse (2001) ****- Much of the J-Horror wave enabled their narratives around the potential calamity of technology via spiritual influence, and “Pulse” is the apex of this idea. Hell is basically overrun with souls, so they reach the living through the Internet, slowly causing everyone to commit suicide and bring about the apocalypse. Challenging and a bit confusing at times, one cannot deny the genuine and propulsive spookiness of “Pulse”. Visually, “Pulse” also announces a dank netherworld that gives Kurosawa’s images a terrifying swath of darkness around the corners, toying with the viewer as images dance and swoon around the edges of the frame. It’s not only a masterpiece during a very productive time in Kurosawa’s career, but one of the best horror films of the last 30 years as well.

Doppelganger (2003) ***- I’ve always been fascinated by the idea of doppelgangers, and many movies have elevated the idea to unsettling proportions. Kurosawa’s take on the idea is a comic exploration when scientist Koji Yakusho splits in two and his evil twin begins to act out his repressed fantasies and feelings. Riffing on familiar themes, “Doppelganger” is an accomplished film that finds Kurosawa in a more playful tone, such as when the finale abruptly shifts to one of those dilapidated warehouses Kurosawa obviously loves. And, I can’t think of a more amusing moment in his entire career then the scene of an artificial robot body, wildly flaying its arms and slowly rolling towards the edge of a cliff like a child playing on the beach.

Bright Future (2003) **- An ironic title to say the least, mostly because it breaks from Kurosawa’s typical visual style of careful, static camera placement towards handheld photography and digital video… formats that where certainly the future in the mid aught. The story itself is not quite as interesting, involving a stunted factory worker who inherits the pet jellyfish of a friend that commits murder and subsequently populates the canals and rivers of Japan with said jellyfish. Rambling and incoherent story lines has never been a real problem for Kurosawa. He typically makes up for it in grand fashion, yet “Bright Future” failed to grab me on any real level. There is a version out there that is 20 minutes longer, so perhaps the film’s shagginess is a victim of the cutting room floor.

Loft (2005) *1/2- As one of the purveyors of the J-horror movement with “Pulse” and “Séance” five years earlier, Kurosawa’s unthinkably hard-to-find 2005 film serves as a cheap entry into the genre… and not much else. “Loft” spins a story around a woman writer (Miki Nakatani) who retreats to a country house, only to be disturbed by a sulking ghost and a slightly off-balance anthropologist who houses a thousand year old mummy next door. There are slight moments of unease, but “Loft” feels like a very labored piece of work, made all the more disappointing due to the fact it was written by Kurosawa himself. Part of me wonders if “Loft” was an intended throwback to the rubber and latex glory days of 80’s Asian horror- and more specifically, Kurosawa’s own “Sweet Home”.

Retribution (2006) ***- Dense paranormal murder mystery that distills a number of previous Kurosawa themes- including his fascination with ghostly female apparitions in a red dress- “Retribution” feels like a culmination of his recent films dealing with the sins of the past wrecking havoc on the modern population of Tokyo. Koji Yakusho is back as an amnesiac police detective working the deaths of several people who’ve been killed by loved ones possessed by something highly reminiscent of his breakthrough film “Cure”. As his investigation progresses, certain clues lead back to himself as he battles with his own visions of a tormented woman. “Retribution” has the potential to be something very special, but its ultimate reliance on past themes and ideas wears a bit. For newcomers to Kurosawa’s oeuvre, though, it’s likely to still terrify and unnerve.

Tokyo Sonata (2008) ***½- The most pointed effort to strike at the heart of Kurosawa’s recurring theme- the loss of self. By stripping away genre pretense, “Tokyo Sonata” is a straight forward family drama as the nuclear family tumbles apart from each other after father (Teruyuki Kagawa) loses his job and then pretends nothing happened. Youngest son Kenji (Inowaki Kai) submerges the fact that he’s taken his lunch money and paid for piano lessons. Oldest son Takashi (Yu Koyanagi) leaves home to become a soldier. And wife Kyoko Koizumi, whose story is probably the most revealing of the four as she’s kidnapped by burglar Koji Yakusho and has a sort of spiritual awakening on a beach, tries to hold everything together by dutifully cooking dinner every night. Even though “Tokyo Sonata” feels like the least identifiable feature in over a decade by Kurosawa, it does pack a wallop, especially in its beautifully realized closing moments as parents finally understand the meaning of child prodigy when they listen to Kenji play piano.


weepingsam said...

Yeah, one of contemporary cinema's very best. His work seems deeper and better the more I see of it, to the point, I don't think it's absurd to mention him in the same breath as his namesake. His films hold up very well too - the ones I've seen a couple times get better every time, reveal more, are more impressive... I think some of the ones I was less enamored with (Bright Future or License to Live, say) would move up if I saw them again... though I've never seen anything less than excellent from him.

Anyway, I might as well offer a top five, especially since it seems a bit different from your rankings...

1. Charisma
2. Doppelganger
3. CUre
4. Tokyo Sonata
5. Pulse

Anonymous said...

Thanks for this really useful summary of Kurosawa's work -- I went to see Cure, more-or-less by chance as there was not much else on that weekend, and was just blown away.

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