Cinema of Attractions: On the Charismatic Worlds of Kiyoshi Kurosawa

By George Clark

bright-future-kiyoshi-kurosawa.jpgBright Future, 2001

A deadly but alluring shoal of jellyfish in the waterways of modern day Tokyo; an old dying tree that could be the cause of a catastrophe or savior of mankind; a charismatic hypnotist able to unearth peoples’ violent urges and an unbearable web page that drives those who view it to suicide. These are the hidden centres of a remarkable and disarming series of films by Japanese director Kiyoshi Kurosawa. In the guise of genre, Kurosawa introduces these parasitic elements in order to erode and re-direct his narratives. For Kurosawa genre is a carrier for his submerged and subversive examination of modern life.

Kiyoshi Kurosawa came to international attention with a lean and brilliant series of re-invigorated genres pictures from the police thriller Cure (1997) to yakuza flicks Eyes of the Spider and Serpent’s Path (both 1997), and horror films Séance (2000) and Pulse (2001). His knack for subverting and combining genres has also produced such outstanding cinematic anomalies as Charisma (1999) and Bright Future (2001) as well as the truly leftfield narrative experiments of License to Live (1998) and Barren Illusion (1999) improvised with students at the Tokyo Film School.

While occupying similar territory to other south Asian filmmakers from Takeshi Miike to Sogo Ishii, Takeshi Kitano to Chan-Wook Park, Kurosawa’s cinema operates on a more withdrawn and cerebral level, exploring the desires and hopes behind modern society. The films look at the effect of the modern world on how people live their lives; they propose a post-rural or even post-natural world where people reliance on technology leaves them prone to suggestion and manipulation.

The fanatical is never far away in Kurosawa films, his characters are drawn in by charismatic figures, objects or worlds and struggle to retain control of their lives. I talked to Kurosawa about his brilliant and infectious Bright Future among other films. Bright Future looks at what is perceived as a ‘lost’ and directionless generation of Japanese teenagers and touches on father son relationships and life in a crumbing metropolis all of which obliquely revolves around the attempt to acclimatize a jellyfish to the fresh waterways of modern Tokyo.

George Clark: One of the things I find fascinating in your films is the restraint and economy with which you approach the narratives. Often events that would be considered crucial to the story are only briefly touched upon, for instance in Bright Future the murder that sees one of the protagonists jailed, is only glimpsed after the fact and we are given very little psychological insight into why it was committed. Why do you choose to depict narrative events in such an elliptical way?

Kiyoshi Kurosawa: Well basically unless you’re going to make a very, very long film, you pretty much have 100-120 minutes to tell your story. You can’t tell everything that happens in a particular life, so it’s always a question of what to show, what not to show in any film. With Bright Future I wasn’t following the conventions of any easily recognizable genre, I was trying to follow my own instincts about what to show. Naturally within that context certain events will make an appearance and others will not. I guess in a horror genre, the killing itself is an important aspect of a murder, but it wasn’t in this film.

GC: Similarly the performances are very withdrawn; the characters emotions often don’t show themselves or if they do it’s in a burst or an explosion of anger or passion lending your film a very interesting rhythm?

KK: I think we have periods of complete quiet with very little going on and then what has been repressed can explode in a moment. I certainly did not want to make a picture in which the dramatic arch or the explosions of the characters emotions would be predictable. I really wanted to make something in which the dramatic moments were really quiet unpredictable and that you really don’t know where you are being guided to in this film until you’ve reached the end of the journey.

GC: Bright Future is shot on a mixture of high definition and home digital cameras. I think the visual texture is similar to the way you described the drama working, the film moves between moments of calm and disruption: between the pristine image and the grainy, more organic and explosive image.

KK: Well that is exactly what I was hoping for; to really use both the narrative and the image quality to create a sense of entire unpredictability. Some people just didn’t get the image contrast. In film you have colour timing in which all of the differentiations that naturally occur when you shoot in a different time or place are all modulated to try and create a uniform image quality. But there is a state for each shot that is pre-modulated, that is still raw and that’s kind of the assemblage that I wanted to show.

pulse-kiyoshi-kurosawa.jpgPulse, 2001

GC: One of the strange but very effective things in the film is the fact that the protagonist Yuri’s costume, seems to slowly decay as the film progresses developing with him throughout the film?

KK: Well the key word for all the characters is that they’re poor. None of them could be dressed in a way that would look like any money was involved, but their costume’s did change and evolve with the character.

GC: There is a fascination with decay throughout your films that often feature old derelict buildings or feature outdated technology, like the father figure’s junk collection in Bright Future, the large derelict spaces in Cure or the scientist machines in Doppelganger (2003). What draws you back to these ruins and old technology?

KK: I think that a very primitive function imbedded in the process of recording images is the wish to make a permanent record of something that is decaying or disappearing. It may not be the case in England so much but in Japan the buildings and architecture are constantly falling apart or being torn down whether in earthquakes or war or new developments. Whenever I see an old building or an old structure my first impulse is to record or to make an image of it because very possibly one month later it will be gone.

GC: This tendency to emphasize decay has had people label your films as post-apocalyptic and even as science fiction. This is especially apparent with Pulse which ends with the protagonists in a barren and empty world with apocalyptic overtones. Do you consider your films to be either of those genres?

KK: Well I guess it would appear that way; however I am not really sure. I know that the term apocalypse comes from the Bible and it’s really not a concept that I am very familiar, especially in the biblical sense. But it is possible that the genesis for my interest in ruins could be from a very important film that I saw when I was very small called Godzilla (dir. Ishirô Honda, Japan, 1954). In this film all the cities are systematically destroyed and although I know nothing of war, the people who made Godzilla had watched Japanese cities bombed back to the Stone Age. So it is possible that the makers, the adults who made Godzilla were trying to impress upon the children of the next generation what war looks like and that’s something that has returned to me as an adult filmmaker.

GC: There is a freedom from genre in your films especially Bright Future and Charisma, which are very difficult films to classify yet at various points appear to bare the influence of certain genres. Do you deliberately play with these associations and seek to merge genres in your films?

KK: In the case of Bright Future I really tried to avoid falling into the conventions of any particular genre, I mean I assiduously avoided them throughout. But if anything I just strove to make a contemporary Japanese film.

GC: I wonder if we can talk about how you came to this project, in your directors statement the image of the jellyfish and its life cycle seem very central to designing the rest of the narrative. Whereas when you watch the film the jellyfish is a withheld or almost secondary element?

KK: The film actually did start with the thought that it would be nice to have a jellyfish in the story. But even before any storyline came to me at all I really did want to make a movie about a ‘bright future’. But when you say ‘bright future’ then immediately you ask ‘well a bright future for whom exactly?’ And I think then I stumbled upon the notion that actually for everyone the future means something different and therefore a bright future would have to have very different connotations for every individual. Obviously ‘bright future’ sounds like some political slogan until you use a key to unlock the possibility for a filmic representation, which is that in fact a ‘bright future’ would mean something very different for each and every character.

GC: The end of the film is quite fantastic with the acclimatized jellyfish leaving Tokyo on the one hand and the amazing tracking shot of the marching youths in matching Che Guevara T-shirts. It seems to suggest that this generation is also going to leave the city. Would you elaborate on this juxtaposition?

KK: It’s true that from the perspective of adults in my generation those youths walking at the end may seem really just as alarming and fragile as jellyfish, possibly poisonous if you touch them but apparently quiet defenseless. Nonetheless unlike the jellyfish those boys don’t have the sea to escape to, they have no choice but to share this common society with others unlike themselves, they can’t just hide away in a common small society. But actually even though they may appear threatening I actually believe that in that image and in their existence there is a kind of a bright future.

GC: I think the end is elegiac and strangely inspiring.

KK: I was hoping that there could at least be a small ray of hope at the end of the film and so intentionally I left the title to the end, I didn’t put it at the beginning.

This interview was conducted at the 33rd Rotterdam International Film Festival.

George Clark is a London based writer and curator. His latest project with the Independent Cinema Office is Artists & Icons, a touring programme of artists’ films reflecting iconic images and personalities.