Friday, May 30, 2008

The Other Kurosawa

It's strange to me that Kiyoshi Kurosawa is so strongly associated with J-Horror. Maybe it's just a personal thing. I don't really like connecting a director I have a great deal of respect for with a genre that I find to be... well, lacking. With a few obvious exceptions (Kaidan anyone?) I'm just not attracted to the setups, the actors, the imagery... I'm basically just tired of scary little girls with long wet hair, which in my mind is the most elementary building block of any J-Horror film.

Yet then there's Kurosawa, who isn't working in any genre, really. Suspense, maybe? But that's such a vague a classification. Charisma is an interesting example, and one that's discussed a lot less than his better known (masterpiece?) Cure. The plot is either entirely inexplicable or completely mundane, depending on your point of view. Basically: a disgraced cop leaves Tokyo, heads to the middle of an unnamed forest, and ends up stranded. He meets three weird groups of people, whose actions all seem to revolve around a strange tree in the middle of a clearing. He ends up living in an abandoned sanitarium with a former mental patient who uses whatever means necessary to ensure the safety of the tree (which he calls "Charisma"). Oddness ensues.

"Charisma" in all its glory

Tom Mes, in his review, draws connections between Charisma and Suna no Onna. He doesn't go into great detail and neither will I... the parallels are there if you feel like drawing them. Yet while I was watching it I wasn't thinking of Teshigahara (or Kobo Abe for that matter), but was instead reminded of Haruki Murakami, that other brilliant Japanese author.

It's tough for me to say why, exactly. Granted, I'm a little biased--Murakami's been my favorite writer for some years now--but it's not just that. There are links between the two, stylistic and otherwise. Charisma's protagonist, Yabuike, is strangely detached, and overly accepting of whatever's presented before him. In an otherwise "real" world, he finds nothing odd about a seemingly enchanted tree, or any of the other bizarre elements of the story. Given no other choice, both he and the viewer have to deal with the dissolution of reality in the best way they know how. And this is another thing that brought Murakami to mind: the fragmentation of reality, especially within some isolated, obscure, enclosed setting. His writing is rife with buildings, rooms, forests, and (especially) wells, all of which exist in their own unique "reality." Whatever happens there isn't strange--it makes perfect sense according to the rules of that place. And there's always the chance that these places aren't "places" at all, but something far more subjective and abstract... closer to a state of being, you might say (though I don't think that's entirely accurate either).


And much like Murakami's writing, Kurosawa's lens presents this strange existence in a straightforward, unintrusive style. Wide shots, long takes, little to no camera movement--we get the necessary image, and no more. In fact, in keeping with a typical Japanese aesthetic, he manages to give us just a little less than we'd normally expect. The viewer is almost always kept outside the action, looking in. In another film we might consider this a voyeuristic gaze, but here it feels like something different. The image isn't obscured as much as it's framed by these enclosures.

Outside looking in

I suppose I should clarify one thing: I'm not suggesting that Kurosawa is in any way influenced by Murakami directly (although I certainly can't be sure either way). It seems more likely that (at least with Charisma) Kurosawa is working within a very similar--but unrelated--aesthetic and thematic realm. I've actually noticed a unity in style among almost all Japanese directors who cut their teeth working in V-Cinema, churning out endless straight-to-video yakuza pictures. Takashi Miike, in particular... if any consistency whatsoever can be claimed across his heroic oeuvre, it's an adherence to this particular style of shooting. Long takes, wide shots, little camera movement. My personal belief is that what began as economy evolved into aesthetics, but I'll leave that discussion for another time.

The typical setup for a Kurosawa dialogue scene

Now that I think about it, I suppose the strongest connection I can draw between Charisma and Murakami's writing is a little vague, and entirely personal: they both leave me with a similar feeling, a certain undefinable taste in my mouth. One that I quite enjoy, obviously. It's not even that it's a such great film, necessarily. It just... appeals to me. I guess it might be useful to stop comparing them to each other and instead look back further to a body of work that likely spawned both Murakami and Kurosawa: namely, Kafka. But I'm tired, and this is probably already too long.

This post brought to you by several tasty bottles of Guinness, which I blame entirely for any lapses in spelling, grammar, or logic.


1minutefilmreview said...

Nice review, even with those Guinness!

elgringo said...

Topic: Scary little girls with long wet hair.

Serious, what the hell? They love these girls! Having a little kid point her face down towards the ground but still look up at you with her eyes is not scary.

Kid, if you want to be scary just look up at me and close your mouth, you're not a codfish.

Maya said...

Keith, thanks for offering up this piece for the Kiyoshi Kurosawa blogathon. It's a welcome addition, especially for its reference to Murakami, with whom I am wholly unfamiliar, so I thank you for the exposure. It sounds like he and Kurosawa do indeed play with the alterity of contrived realities.