Regular readers will know that I keep ranting about four directors: Kiyoshi Kurosawa, Sion Sono, Takashi Miike. and Shinya Tsukamoto. The reason these four men are always mentioned is that they have made a lot of my all time favourite live-action films. I’ve grown up watching a lot of Japanese films from classics to the most contemporary but it’s these four who have blown my mind with their imagination and use of the medium of film. There are few other directors out there who can match them, in my opinion. Sion Sono and Shinya Tsukamoto have had a season dedicated to them but my most favourite of all, Kurosawa, has not… UNTIL NOW!!!
This is going to be a short season dedicated to the maestro, Kiyoshi Kurosawa because I have reviewed most of his films that are available in the west already. It has come about because I have recently watched three of his lesser known works and two of them are going to be released in the UK this time next week! We start with a biography! A long and boring and incoherent biography! WAIT, COME BACK! There are pictures!
Kiyoshi Kurosawa was born in Kobe in the south of Japan on the 19th of July, 1955. Kurosawa studied filmmaking at Tokyo’s Saint Paul’s University (Rikkyo University¹). After graduating in the 1980’s he started making pink films (soft-core porn) and low-budget films like The Excitement of Do-Re-Mi-Fa Girl (1985). Despite budget restrictions his unique cinematic vision was apparent and his prodigious talent was spotted by one of the film’s actors, Juzo Itami, the most commercially successful director in Japanese cinema at the time.
Juzo Itami took Kurosawa under his wing and helped produce Kurosawa’s big-budget debut Sweet Home (1989), a haunted house survival horror title which gained a video game adaptation. Kurosawa wrote and directed the film and crafted a title with his favoured techniques of using lighting and shadows and elliptical editing and smart camera movement to create horror but Itami undermined Kurosawa’s efforts by adding his own elements like the comedy and gratuitous special effects. Itami went further and took the final cut away from Kurosawa, editing it to his own satisfaction. What resulted was a bitter legal battle which saw Kurosawa take Itami to court over the release of the film but his case failed.
After the Sweet Home legal dispute, Kurosawa was effectively blackballed from the industry so he took up teaching film and directing low-budget v-cinema (direct to DVD) genre titles. It wasn’t until the success of the low-budget slasher film The Guard from Underground (1992) that he began his come-back. His weird style and genre twisting is apparent here in a film that takes place in a decrepit office block with a basement wreathed in shadows and a killer who is a murderous sumo wrestler with an existential nihilist mind-set. Kurosawa continued to make a series of v-cinema/TV yakuza films known as Suit Yourself or Shoot Yourself!! Starring Sho Aikawa during the 90’s before he won a scholarship to the Sundance Institute where he studied filmmaking in America in the 1990’s.
When he returned from America he hit something of a stride because from 1997 with the psychologically intense serial-killer film Cure: The Power of Suggestion, which starred the big name actor Koji Yakusho. In this film, Kurosawa’s trademark imagery and genre blending is in full effect. What initially starts out as a serial killer film takes a dark turn into psychological horror and the supernatural as detective Takabe (Yakusho) journeys through a grim looking Tokyo looking for a fiendish serial killer who plays upon people’s pent up rage. Thanks to the international success of Hideo Nakata’s film Ring, Cure rode a J-horror tide into international film festivals and was a breakout hit gaining him an audience on the international stage where events like Cannes and the Rotterdam International Film Festival would screen his other films.
One of the major reasons for his success with critics and audiences alike is the effectiveness and intelligence of his scripts and visuals. He uses genres like horror and crime to explore the human condition. Genre and mise-en-scene, indeed, everything is used rigorously to explore all of the things that beset humanity which is what makes his films as effective at being scary and compelling as they are because ultimately, no matter how outlandish, his films are about us and the world we live in.
The easiest way to describe his visual style is bleak. Whatever the genre, whatever the story, he creates haunted worlds where he reveals the horrors to be seen in normal life. Visuals may be washed out and colours are subdued and there is patient and creative deployment of lighting and shadows and camera movement to guide the viewer to certain conclusions and scary sights. The locations he uses are frequently dilapidated buildings, abandoned rubbish strewn warehouses, long dust strewn rooms that stretch into infinity, grimy hazardous work places, smoky impersonal homes and cavernous hospital waiting rooms, dark corridors with menacing shadows ready to swallow anybody foolish enough to venture in. Bleak looking urban settings where characters full of self-doubt live their daily lives and find their inner faults exposed. The visuals portray everything as a brittle shell which something will puncture to expose the horror Kurosawa wants to explore, the various causes of existential crises that can emerge in modern society for various reasons, whether it’s the barely suppressed rage of a character under extreme pressure, profound soul destroying guilt, alienation from others through technology, fear of the future due to unemployment/family break-up or utter loneliness.
All of this has so much of an influence on a film it can be considered a character in itself. It is easiest to identify his style with his horror films, especially with what is unofficially known as his apocalypse trilogy which contains Cure, Charisma (1999) and Pulse (2001). Each film is like a supernatural mystery, the first two with a police detective played by Koji Yakusho and the last with a team of vaguely connected teens lead by Kumiko Aso exploring the disconnection that people suffer through modern technology. These are films where Tokyoites are stalked by a menacing supernatural power bent on exploiting their anxieties but they end in the most magnificent of supernatural apocalypses where that fragile façade of society crumbles unleashing some new age of terror and Kurosawa is there to document it.
These titles marked him out as something of a horror auteur and are quite highly regarded but with underrated titles Loft (2005) and Retribution (2006), he seemed to signal a break with the genre. Loft is a playful yet scary ghost story about a writer going to a countryside retreat (which looks just as barren and scary as any urban setting Kurosawa films) and coming under supernatural siege from ghosts. It utilises and mocks J-horror tropes and seems like a meta-comedy at times. Retribution is like a re-tread through familiar territory with regular leading-man Yakusho playing a detective delving through suppressed memories and emotions on the hunt for a supernatural killer. It is like a distillation of all-things Kurosawa loves to do with exquisite camera work, mise-en-scene tracking deadly ghosts tweaking the twisted psychologies of the poor souls on screen. The enigmatic and explosive ending saying farewell to yurei for now.
All of that written, some of Kurosawa’s best films aren’t straight supernatural/horror genre pictures but are dramas or a mix. Séance (2000) is a prime example of the genre mixing skills Kurosawa possesses. Ostensibly a TV movie remake of the British film Séance on a Wet Afternoon, Kurosawa transported the story to modern Japan and inserted his trademark nihilist ghosts. What starts off as a conventional story of a little girl who has been kidnapped and a psychic (played by Jun Fubuki) who actually has supernatural powers looking for her, becomes one about a relationship that has faltered and a woman who is hugely unsatisfied with life and bitter with regrets and the lack of recognition. Long-denied the chance to prove her powers are real finds an opportunity to take the limelight which proves to be her downfall. While the film has ghosts it is more compelling as a drama and as a character study.
With the first two titles, Kurosawa was offered the chance to make two low-budget films in two weeks with the same cast and so he came up with these gangster revenge films which have the same inciting incident for the story (a man named Nijima – played by Sho Aikawa) seeking revenge for his murdered daughter) only going off in two totally different directions. Of the two, The Serpent’s Path is the most conventional sticking to its gritty tone but it features a plot and performances that are genuinely compelling and unpredictable which makes the film a gripping watch. Eyes of the Spider is the least conventional film with its more elliptical editing and script and general bizarreness. At points it reminded me of Takeshi Kitano’s yakuza flick Sonatine with a conventional gangster thriller torn to shreds by Kurosawa’s surreal direction and scenes of gangsters acting like big kids.
Moving further into the realm of normality is License to Live which involves a man waking up from a ten year coma he went into at the age of fourteen. In the story, he must grow up in the space of days and come to terms with the fact that his family have broken up and moved on without him. There is little sentimentality given to family reunions, or lost childhoods just lots of irony. Indeed, rarely has a subject normally given melodramatic treatment focussing on tragedy in most films been the source of understated humour and intelligent in Kurosawa’s hands it is more like a dry comedy as he writes a sympathetic, compelling, and complex central character who is both a terrified and sulky teen and a burgeoning adult who has a haphazard and late in life coming-of-age.
Perhaps his greatest effort is Tokyo Sonata (2008) winner of the Prize Un Certain Regard at the Cannes Film Festival. No ghosts or gangsters, just a brilliantly crafted moving and ultimately uplifting family drama that shows the pitfalls and horror of a disintegrating family in an uncaring society. Kurosawa captures the emotions and actions of a family reacting to and against their newly unemployed salaryman patriarch’s identity crisis as he struggles with ideas of self-worth and his role in society. Again, there are no big action pieces or monsters, just normal things like testy family dinners and humiliating job interviews. It came two years after Retribution and focusses on normality but Kurosawa still finds horror and madness in the world. It is seen in the uncaring nature of life and the dehumanising expectations of others, our jobs and society as a whole which gives rise to a disheartening existential landscape and the subconscious agonies people suffer through in reality. The normality of the film is what makes it scary but there is hope. Amidst all of the anger and uncertainty is humour and the chance for growth in life which culminates in one of cinema’s greatest end scenes ever.
If all this stuff about ghosts, anxiety, dehumanisation and people suffering sounds overwhelmingly scary and miserabilist then the ending to his experimental film Bright Future (2003), a title concerned about Japan’s lost-decade thanks to the economic downturn of Japan’s economy, shows that Kurosawa has hope for the future as we watch a group of young teens with Che Guevara T-shirts saunter down the street acting like kids and full of potential.
Right now, Kurosawa is recovering from the well-received and intellectually stimulating crime thriller Penance and Real. Real is a big-budget sci-fi film which has been getting mixed-reviews. Although visually splendid, the plot and narrative are formulaic and the acting lacks the spark of genius and intent seen in his earlier films. More interesting is Penance, a harrowing five-episode study of how four women who live lives under the shadow of the murder of a friend they were connected to as kids. Again, he mixes genres with familiar crime and supernatural and it works well.
If you made it this far down then thanks for the effort. As you can tell from the amount I wrote, I really love Kiyoshi Kurosawa’s films and while this bio does not do justice to the man or his works, it at least acts as a quick summary of his filmography as I know it. For a more in depth take on his films you can read the reviews. If I had to rank my favourites then it would look something like this:
- Tokyo Sonata
- Cure: The Power of Suggestion
- Licence to Live
- Eyes of the Spider
- The Serpent’s Path
- Bright Future
- The Guard From the Underground
- Sweet Home
- Seventh Code
¹ Shinji Aoyama of Eureka and Tokyo Park fame is another graduate