by Tom Mes
Kiyoshi Kurosawa has gained a good deal of worldwide attention in recent years. Thanks largely to his revisionist serial killer movie Cure, the filmmaker is in the vanguard of the new Japanese horror cinema. A genre that has slowly been getting a foothold on these shores, it has found an audience among gorehounds and art house crowds alike. Directors like Kurosawa, bad boy Takashi Miike and of course Shinya Tsukamoto have become regulars of the international film festival circuit, but find as much favour with horror enthusiasts as with highbrow film critics.
With video releases of his work sadly lacking in the West, the festival circuit is as yet the only way to catch up with the work of Kiyoshi Kurosawa. The director himself is more than happy to take this route, witnessed by the fact that he accompanied his two latest productions Charisma and Barren Illusion to Holland's Rotterdam Film Festival in early 2000. Both films firmly belong in that area of the genre that Steve Bissette once christened the 'trance film'. Their place is on the very edge of the genre, where 'horror' is far removed from body counts, gore and fx. Yet bleak, hallucinatory and unsettling as they are, these films manage to chill the viewer to the very bone.
Of the two, Charisma will no doubt be the film that genre enthusiasts will feel most drawn to. Set largely in a decaying forest, it tells the story of a burnt-out cop who flees the scene of a failed hostage operation and becomes involved with a young man's struggle to save a tree from the clutches of a group of radical park rangers. Though at first glance it seems a film about ecology and environmental disaster, within its wonderfully surreal story line it says far more about discommunication and mankind's lack of understanding than about the numerous dying trees that fill every frame. Its final scenes of armageddon take place not in the forest but in a neighbouring city.
Charisma in many ways feels and plays like a sequel to Cure. Leading Japanese screen actor Koji Yakusho once again stars as a down on his luck cop, caught in a situation that is bigger than he can handle. Visually styled to resemble Harrison Ford in Blade Runner, Yakusho plays the role as a continuation of his character in Cure. "It wasn't intentional," Kurosawa explains as he sits down to discuss his latest work, "partly because I wrote the script for Charisma ten years before I made Cure. So I didn't intend it as a Cure sequel at all, but then having made Cure with Koji Yakusho and then having cast him again in Charisma I guess it sort of naturally developed that way."
Visually the film is strikingly similar to its predecessor. It could be argued that overall the film is a step beyond Cure. Not in gore or the use of fx, but in the sense of alienation and despair that gave the first film its disconcerting edge. Kurosawa once again shows himself a master in the use of locations and sound to create a truly unsettling atmosphere. Like Cure, Charisma is set in a world of dilapitated buildings, crumbling concrete and broken windows, with a dying forest added for good measure. Why the love for these run-down locations?
"Partly it's just a matter of my taste, but also, I tend to make my films in and around Tokyo. One of the sad things about Japan, especially around Tokyo, is that as soon as something is a little bit old it is destroyed and recreated into something new. I guess whenever I find some place in ruins or falling apart I know it won't last. I know it will be turned into something new very quickly. Even though the location may or may not have some relation to the theme, I find myself filming there just in order to make a record of this wonderful ruined place."
The use of sound once again greatly contributes to the film's atmosphere. The constant background drone that helped make Cure such an unnerving experience resurfaces in Charisma. Kurosawa's handling of sound is very deliberate: "I don't like to use sound to accentuate the action or the story. Sound operates on a slightly different plain. Film to me is somewhere in between reality and fiction and sound is what defines that place that is neither story nor reality, but in between. Because I think when you're telling the story in visual images you reflect the characters and they can only be that what they are. They're two-dimensional. But in a way sound can give you a three-dimensional signal of the world."
In the past, the director has readily acknowledged the American influences in his films. In the case of Cure, he mentioned Seven and The X-Files. For Charisma he once again turned to mainstream Hollywood cinema for inspiration. "It's a sort of Indiana Jones/two-teams-vying-for-a-treasure kind of film," Kurosawa reveals. "At least that's how I started it. But instead of a box of treasure I decided to make the treasure a tree that's in a forest. Then you start to imagine 'what value does the tree have' and 'what is the condition of the forest it's growing in?'. Then you start to realise that you're not making an Indiana Jones movie at all, but you're making a much more complex film. That's the process of my filmmaking.
"The reason I take this approach", he continues, "is although film needs a fictional story element, it's also a medium that allows you to record the reality around you. You're filming real forests and real people. As I mentioned, film for me is a medium point between a fictional story and reality. You start with the genre, which is fiction, and gradually move towards reality. Somewhere in between you find film. To put it simply: I would like to make a movie like Indy Jones, but there aren't any real people like Indy Jones."
Though he says he doesn't work exclusively in one genre, Kurosawa doesn't hesitate to call himself a genre filmmaker. "Which genre my film ultimately belongs in is up to the audience when it's finished, but certainly as a starting point I always start my next project considering which genre I would like to work in. So in that sense I am a genre director. Actually, I'm often misunderstood. I don't start with a philosophical or thematical approach. Instead I often start with a genre that's relatively easy to understand and then explore how I want to work in that genre. And that's how a theme or an approach develops. The genre is first."
His genre roots have also made him a very pragmatic and above all prolific filmmaker. He has tried his hands at many different subjects, indifferent of prestige or budget. His extensive resumé contains commercial horror sequels, softcore porn and a six-part series of gangster movies entitled Suit Yourself Or Shoot Yourself, that was made in the space of two years. "I make about three films a year," Kurosawa states matter-of-factly. "I haven't done them recently, but I used to make a lot of those gangster films. They are shot on film and they have a very limited release, but in fact they are intended to recoup their cost on video. The budgets for those films were more or less around US$ 300,000 to 400,000 a piece. Charisma had twice that, about US$ 800,000. Barren Illusion was very low, about US$ 200,000."
Barren Illusion was made with a student crew from the Film School of Tokyo, where the director is employed part-time as a teacher. The film means an excursion into yet another genre; the love story. "That was the idea of my students. When I asked them what kind of film we should make, they all seemed very decisive. Which was too bad for me, because I'm terrible at making those kinds of films. I tried in the past and failed miserably. I don't think I did very well this time either, since nobody recognises the film as a love story," Kurosawa says with more than a hint of self-mockery. One of his earliest films, a sofcore porn feature called The Excitement Of The Do-Re-Mi-Fa Girls, was deemed too unerotic by its studio and was pulled from release.
While it might not share the visceral approach of the director's horror films, it should come as no surprise that for a love story, Barren Illusion offers a relentlessly bleak vision. In the near-future world his characters inhabit, romantic entanglements play second fiddle to loneliness and alienation. "Just because it's a love story doesn't mean it deals with different themes than my other work. It's still mainly about fear. My interest is not in how the two characters meet, but in how they can stay together," Kurosawa explains.
Kiyoshi Kurosawa is not about to turn his back on horror, though. His next project will see him back in familiar territory. At the Rotterdam Film Festival, a representative of production company Daiei announced the director's new film as "a scary movie about computer hackers who have an on-line encounter with the ghost of a relentless killer. It's a commercial film, but in his own style." And to illustrate that point, she adds: "Only two of the characters survive."
For further information on Kiyoshi Kurosawa and contemporary Japanese cinema, visit Midnight Eye - japan_cult_cinema at: