His idols are American, but his work is distinctly Japanese. Genre-master Kiyoshi Kurosawa talks about his unique approach to filmmaking
(First published on time.com and used with the written permission of the author and publication of first instance.)
By Ed Grant
As the big-and-dumb movies cranked out by Hollywood studios continue to get bigger and dumber, it’s refreshing to discover a filmmaker who believes in the power of silence to unnerve and emotionally involve an audience, who doesn’t require computer-generated effects, a bombastic musical score, or big-name stars to convey his vision of things. Japanese filmmaker Kiyoshi Kurosawa may openly acknowledge his debt to American genre movies of the past, but the low-key, disturbing works he’s produced bear no resemblance to American genre movies of today.
Kurosawa, who is not a relative of master-director Akira, has been making his mark on the film-festival circuit since 1999, but sadly none of his features has been officially released in the U.S. until now. Cowboy Booking International, an independent distributor, has assembled a mini-retrospective of Kurosawa’s films, spotlighting his intense, atmospheric (though not multiplex-compatible) serial killer drama Cure (1997). Currently finishing up its NYC run at The Screening Room (where Cure will play until August 16th), the retrospective has already played The American Cinematheque in Los Angeles, Boston’s Museum of Fine Arts, the Seattle Film Festival, and is continuing on to Chicago, Santa Fe, Berkeley, and Honolulu.
The mini-retro features three crime pictures, one horror movie, one character-driven drama, and a thoroughly uncategorizable item that is the most innovative and odd religious/political allegory in recent memory. Taken individually, the films can be seen as well-crafted, uncommonly intense variations on familiar themes; taken as a group, they announce the arrival of a major new talent. As original as Kurosawa’s approach is, various elements in his work bring to mind the work of other Japanese directors, most notably Renaissance man/consummate tough guy Takeshi Kitano. His revitalization of time-honored genres and willingness to move his storylines in directions that often jar the viewer, recall the work of his professed heroes, action specialists Sam Peckinpah and Don Siegel, and arthouse favorites Jean-Luc Godard and John Cassavetes.
In terms of career trajectory, the American directors that Kurosawa has the most in common with are Coppola, Scorsese, Demme and other talents who toiled for producer Roger Corman before they went on to produce more accomplished work. Born in the town of Kobe in 1955, Kurosawa made films in college with 8mm equipment. He apprenticed as an assistant director for a time before making his feature debut in 1983 with Kandagawa Warriors. His second, feature, The Excitement of the Do-Re-Mi-Fa Girl (1985), caused him to be fired from the Nikkatsu studio (known for softcore-with-a-plot) for producing a movie that was “not a Nikkatsu film” (read: Kurosawa kept interrupting sex scenes to introduce narrative elements). One movie of his from this period, Sweet Home (1989), shows him deftly mimicking the Lucio Fulci/Sam Raimi blood, gross-outs, and impressive camerawork school of horror filmmaking.
In the U.S. and other Western countries, Kurosawa is praised for his prodigious output. In truth, he makes about two, sometimes three films a year, but from 1995 to 1997, he experienced what a French critic termed “cinematic bulemia” by making six features in one film series (the deliriously titled Suit Yourself or Shoot Yourself) and two in another in a period of two years. After completing this barrage of Yakuza (Japanese gangster) features, he made what he considers his first truly satisfactory work, Cure. Judging from the different filmographies available on the Internet, the film was either his 15th or 21st film (the always dubious Internet Movie Database has it ranked as his 7th).
Now four years later, Cure again represents a turning point of sorts for its director, as it has become the centerpiece of the mini-retro currently touring the country. Visiting New York in conjunction with the Screening Room debut of his works, Kurosawa sat down for an interview, offering insight into his approach to genre filmmaking and the hallmarks of his recent, more personal work.
The one constant between the two “eras” of Kurosawa’s career is his use of traditional genres, specifically crime and horror. He maintains that “I’m certainly not trying to overtly betray any audience expectations. I actually think that there’s much to be valued in the genre approach to filmmaking, and right now, around the world, it’s really still Hollywood that predominates in the world of genre films. And though I really enjoy watching Hollywood genre films, living in Tokyo it’s impossible for me to replicate that style of filmmaking. If an incident from an American movie were to take place in Japan, a Japanese individual would have a far different response to it. That s what I m trying to portray in my films.”
Kurosawa’s diligence and productivity as a filmmaker is another key aspect of his work. In the late 1990s, he took time out from his professional career to teach at the Film School of Tokyo. This teaching gig culminated in a feature film made in collaboration with his students, Barren Illusion (1999). He also traveled to the U.S. in 1992, well after his professional career had already begun, to study filmmaking on a Sundance Institute scholarship. The films he has made in the last few years are in some cases screenplays that he wrote several years before: Charisma was written in 1992, but wasn t shot until 1999, and Cure was written some years before it finally reached the screen. Critics have compared the latter film to Seven, but Kurosawa is quick to note that he was in fact influenced by the Silence of The Lambs when scripting Cure, whereas Seven wasn’t even a blip on the radar at the time.
Cure veers from the standard Clint Eastwood cop-chases-crook/cop-confronts-crook scenario by having its hero, a bedraggled police detective (played by Kurosawa perennial Koji Yakusho, best known to U.S. viewers as the star of Shall We Dance?), meet its villain, a dazed, twenty-something hypnotist who turns average citizens into brutal killers, midway through the film. Asked about this decision, Kurosawa notes that the Eastwood hero is “influenced by whatever challenges and difficulties he faces,” whereas the protagonists in his films “are deeply influenced and changed by events.”
The hypnotist in Cure is a quiet, enigmatic somewhat annoying figure who changes the lives of everyone around him. Kurosawa’s initial (and thus far sole) foray into the world of the character study, the superbly moving License to Live (1999), centers around another such character, a 24-year-old who wakes up from a 10-year-old coma to discover that his family has come apart at the seams. The boy’s family comes back together for his benefit, but unravels again as the film proceeds. Kurosawa’s preference for “disconnected” leads, which caused one interviewer to refer to his “bleak, hallucinatory and unsettling trance films” — comes from “a deep understanding of my own life experience that, [when two individuals meet]instead of two absolutes colliding with each other, it’s more a case of two nebulous beings influencing each other s behavior.” Cure’s hypnotist and the young man in License are deceptively quiet individuals who initially irritate the viewer while they serve as catalysts for the storyline (the boy in License becomes a sadly sympathetic figure by the film’s end; the mesmerist in Cure deserves all that’s coming to him).
Watching License, one is reminded of a quote from American iconoclast filmmaker John Cassavetes (scorned by U.S. critics during his lifetime, now lionized by one and all) who said, “You go with the expectation to see something that’s going to knock you off your feet and you settle for a nice movie And you think I don’t want to see something different! I don’t want to! I hate it! I want it in my form, I want action! And then when you see something that’s different and you can’t get it out of your mind, you’re still angry with the son of a gun. You say, Oh, I hated that picture, I hated it! But you know ten years later, you remember it, and you think Hmmm, I saw something that’s interesting.”
Therefore it comes as a pleasant surprise that, when queried about so-called “arthouse” directors, Kurosawa cites Cassavetes as his all-time favorite. Though Kurosawa notes that “though I certainly don’t have the delusion that I’m anywhere near Cassavetes mastery” as a filmmaker, he does appear to have a clear and concise perspective as to what made the actor-director’s intense dramas so unique: Cassavetes underscored “the subtle, complex, confusing, real way in which people are slowly affected by new circumstances or another human being. When I watch a Cassavetes film, I am awed by the understanding that people can subtly change in the course of a simple conversation.”
One definite link between Kurosawa’s work and that of Cassavetes is his emphasis on the intimacy and tension that exists between married couples. Whether it s a horror movie, like his subdued, genuinely creepy remake of the 1964 British film Séance on a Wet Afternoon, called simply Séance (2000), a “family drama” like License, or a “straight-to-video” Yakuza saga like his 1998 Eye of the Spider, Kurosawa seems to dote on marital relations. Kurosawa earmarks this as a reflection of “contemporary Japanese society. In Tokyo there used to be larger communities, whether it was a corporation or a neighborhood. In the breakdown of that, we’re really seeing that individual relationships are mostly defined by the family, and the married couple has become the central sort of human relationship. So that’s the relationship that I’m most interested in.”
On the subject of Eye of the Spider, and the Suit Yourself series, Kurosawa clarifies that although the films were intended to go “straight to video,” they do play in theaters (unlike America s own bumper crop of tepid “erotic dramas” and by-the-numbers “kickboxer’s revenge” action features). “It’s actually kind of an illusory trick,” he notes. “If you make something and call it straight-to-video it has a bad image. So what they say is: no, this film had a real theatrical release, it’s a real movie. So they show it at some tiny theater for two weeks and call it a movie. It’s a way of adding value.”
Although the films are “disposable” by definition, the two “video” titles included in the Cowboy Booking mini-retro are quite refined features: Serpent’s Path (1998) is a grim tale of a common man’s attempt to avenge himself on the gangsters that killed his young daughter, while Spider is an often (intentionally) ridiculous gangster saga mixing remarkably oblique violence with humor in the spirit of Takeshi Kitano’s Sonatine.
Kurosawa denies that humor is a central element of these works (although viewers will carry away from Spider the sight of an aged Yakuza chieftain taunting his youthful companion, “Hey, try to catch me!” as he runs like a madman through the Japanese countryside): “It’s not so much that I’m intentionally trying to get a barrel of laughs out of the audience. If the main character is going through very tough times, periodically the camera will be completely objective, and give us a static view as if to say, well maybe there’s something slightly comical or not so awful about what they’re going through. A small vignette like that from time to time can remind us that what he’s going through may not be the end of the world.”
The final cornerstone of Kurosawa s recent work has been his skilled and very sparse use of sound effects and musical scores. This is seen to best effect in Séance, where the lack of any sound makes the supernatural sequences far more startling, and in Charisma, his dazzlingly unusual allegory about a disillusioned city cop’s involvement in the “worship” of a tree in the backwoods. The latter film, one of the most esoteric yet visually entrancing of Kurosawa’s films to date, concentrates its action on the picturesque scenery and cryptic dialogue as the cop learns that a certain tree (dubbed “Charisma,” in English) is either the natural wonder one true believer conceives it to be, or an ecological threat that will destroy the plant life around it. Through it all is the reassuring sound of the wind rustling through the branches and the somewhat more menacing crackle of the leaves underfoot .
“I don’t just use the sound elements that are necessary to further the story along, or that necessarily emanate from the world that’s on the screen,” states Kurosawa. “My sense is that there’s a world well beyond, above, and below the little snippet that we re seeing on the screen. I’m interested in the sounds that echo from deep into that world, and want to have them reflected into the screening room”
Given the abstract nature of the last-mentioned film, it’s certain that the minds behind Cats & Dogs and Legally Blonde won’t be knocking on Kurosawa’s door anytime soon. But would he be interested in going the international co-production route, or worse yet (to American cinephiles minds) coming to the U.S. to make a more conventional sort of action picture? “I guess if there were a project that involved significant digital effects, I probably couldn’t pull it off without a larger budget. So if that were the case, I could possibly be interested. But I don’t want too much money to make a movie. I think that enough is more than enough. And what really matters to me is not a big budget but the freedom to make the kind of movies that I want to make. As long as I have a modest sum, I will keep on making the movies that I love to make.”
A fitting final statement for a devoted cineaste. As the American fan base for Kurosawa’s work continues to grow, one can only hope he will remain on his homeground, turning out delightfully individualistic works. One suspects, however, that with solidly-scripted chillers like Cure or his very latest horror film, an Internet thriller called Pulse (can you hear the “high concept” bell ringing in a Hollywood executive suite?), it won’t be long before a medicore remake of a Kurosawa film undoubtedly starring Bruce Willis or some such “adventurous” American actor hits the multiplex circuit. In the meantime take a trip to the local arthouse and enjoy the real thing; the Cassavetes “formula” for good cinema ensures that you’ll be disturbed, bothered, absorbed, and often moved by the work of Kiyoshi Kurosawa.
c. 2001, 2013 Ed Grant