Release Date: Feburary 26th, 2000 (Japan)
Running Time: 99 mins.
Director: Kiyoshi Kurosawa
Writer: Kiyoshi Kurosawa (Screenplay)
Starring: Koji Yakusho, Hiroyuki Ikeuchi, Jun Fubuki, Yoriko Doguchi, Ren Osugi, Yutaka Matsushige, Akira Otaka,
Happy Halloween! This is the fourth year where I highlight horror movies on Halloween night. So far I have reviewed Nightmare Detective, Strange Circus, Shokuzai, and POV: A Cursed Film. This year I take on Charisma!
Kiyoshi Kurosawa is my favourite director and for much of his career he has focussed on horror movies. Post Tokyo Sonata (2009) Kurosawa has become more conventional and mainstream as he slides into making dramas and adaptations of novels so it is great to revisit one of his horror films for Halloween 2015!
Charisma (1999) is the second entry in Kiyoshi Kurosawa’s apocalypse trilogy, slotting in between Cure (1997), a Se7en-like thriller about a detective investigating a wave of murders engineered by a sociopathic supernatural serial-killer, and Pulse (2001), a supernatural apocalypse film. Charisma may have been shot in 1999 but it is actually based on a script he wrote around a decade earlier. Kurosawa’s work on this script won him a scholarship at Robert Redford’s Sundance Institute and allowed him the chance to study filmmaking in America. It came at a fortuitous time since Kurosawa was reduced to making television movies after his attempt at suing his fellow director, and the box office king at the time, Juzo Itami over making unwanted changes to his haunted house film Sweet Home (1989). Ostensibly an off-beat detective film, it turns into a treatise on individuality with an apocalyptic ending.
Detective Goro Yabuike (played brilliantly by Koji Yakusho) is tired spiritually and physically. When we first see him it is lying on a bench in a waiting room of a police station and spacing out when talking to others. He is detached from everything.
Despite his superior asking him to take time off, Yabuike insists that he is fine, which is possibly the reason that the hostage crisis he handles goes badly wrong. Forced to take a break, he is driven by his partner into a forest outside of Tokyo and left to his own devices. It’s a lonely forest, a dark, and desolate mass of dying foliage dotted with ruined buildings. Here Yabuike figures he can drift away from his responsibilities and find himself. When he’s done he can catch a bus home.
He misses his bus. Or maybe, the bus doesn’t stop in that part of the forest anymore. Whatever the case, he is stuck there for the night. Fortunately he finds an abandoned car and decides to sleep in it but as he slumbers away someone sets fire to it and drags him out. This is Yabuike’s first encounter of many since the forest isn’t empty. In fact, quite a few lost souls wandering around the trees and hills and each person has their own agenda.
Yabuike first meets Tatsuo Tsuboi (Akira Otaka) and Satoshi Nakasone (Ren Osugi) from Environmental Protection. They lead a colony of men who are condemned to live in the dying forest, endlessly planting trees that wither as soon as they are placed in the ground. The men are puzzled and vexed by their Sisyphean situation and the foul atmosphere which they suspect is linked to a mysterious tree that stands alone and in a field.
It is a Charisma tree.
They might try and cut it down but it is protected by Kiriyama (Hiroyuki Ikeuchi), a ferocious young man who uses violence to scare people away.
Yabuike next encounters a botanist named Mitsuko Jinbo (Jun Fubuki).
She is a professor at Musashino University. She lives in a house near the forest with her sister Chizuru (Yoriko Doguchi). Mitsuko is of the opinion that something is killing the vegetation and like Tsuboi, she blames the Charisma tree. It’s the only one of its kind, a mysterious entity from the continent that poisons everything around it in order to survive.
Everybody in the forest is concerned about the tree. Jinbo wants it dead and the men from Environmental Protection want it for research while Kiriyama will kill to protect it. Reeling from the disaster of the hostage situation and with confusion over his place in the world, Yabuike sets about trying to settle the situation unaware that the situation might be changing him.
This synopsis is an easy way of entering the film but it is much more complicated on a deeper, more atmospheric level as it deconstructs ideas surrounding identity and individuality through Yabuike’s travails. It is this atmosphere and these ideas which slowly build up to create the horror that makes the film so potent.
Like many of Kiyoshi Kurosawa’s films of the ‘90s period it mixes genre trappings of a detective thriller and horror film while almost imperceptibly moving into the territory of a psychological-thriller as characters slowly break down due to societal and environmental factors.
Whether in the city or out in the country, Kurosawa’s unique eye for aesthetic sees him film everything like a decaying wreck with menacing things hidden in shadows, the atmosphere and surroundings just waiting to swallow characters up.
The forest in Charisma is perfect for this. It is a cavernous place full of people seemingly stuck there thanks to their jobs but it becomes clear that deeper psychological issues affect them. They pick their away amongst traps laid by hunters, and dense foliage. Poisonous mushrooms sprout amidst the roots of tall trees and there are vertiginous drops. Beasts can be heard but not seen and despite roads puncturing the interior of the forest, only the same people drive along them. Despite scenes that take place on rolling hills with characters farcically chasing each other in sunshine and with jaunty music playing, the washed-out look and the use of light and shot composition and increasing bizarreness of the scenes makes everything feel off-kilter.
Kurosawa’s imaginative camera work makes sure that the rhythm of the film and its feel is fast and interesting to watch. Shots are often taken from the less obvious angle, lurking behind a window or in a corner of a room or peeping out from behind a tree, surveying a scene that a character stumbles through. Kurosawa uses long-shots frequently so we’re observing characters from a distance and seeing them engulfed in the forest. There is his skilful use shadow and light and his penchant for filming in many found locations and he does so here in the forest and surrounding hills which contains abandoned hotels and factories, rusting and crumbling away. There are also the familiar interiors that frequently pop in his other films – the police station in the opening is surely the one acting as the hospital in Pulse and the university in Séance.
There are also shots reminiscent of his earlier films: Cure – haunted Tokyo Charisma – haunted hills.
The soundtrack consists of ambient sounds of water flowing and wind blowing harshly, a choir gives a chilling song that builds up into an electronic whoosh. It all contributes to a weird aesthetic that make this seemingly simple story gripping and unnerving as you watch characters come apart at the seams thanks to their surroundings.
City-boy Yabuike ventures deep into and around this environment which becomes oppressive, something that slowly drives characters mad. It is a living breathing entity and the more time he spends in its depths the more you feel that its ecosystem is corrupt. Yabuike’s perambulations have the sense of randomness as he is buffeted by various people he encounters and his own uncertain personality but the more he stumbles across various things and the further he gets sucked into the environment and the legend surrounding the Charisma tree and the more he changes which allows Kiyoshi Kurosawa to explore deeper themes he regularly crafts stories around: the individual vs society.
Moving between genre-boundaries and engaging in symbolism will mean the movie will surely baffle some viewers for most of its running time with its dense atmosphere and a delicious and is engaging resistance to being easily understood but its thematic ideas are easy to see: it is about an individual (represented by the Charisma tree) and how they fit in with the rest of society (represented by the forest). To make things more explicit Koji Yakusho’s character often has discussions with Jinbo about whether one can maintain stability of the forest at the cost of an individual tree which in its determination to live and be an individual, could result in the destruction of everything else. His investigation is quickly understood to be about himself (and people in general) and how he interacts with the world.
Yabuike’s tiredness in the film is one seen infecting many characters in the movies of Kiyoshi Kurosawa. It is more than physical, it is metaphysical, existential. Characters infected with this ennui move through the events and environments detached from everything, forgetting their families and jobs and forgetting to live an active life until something destroys or corrupts them. Yabuike is a prime example. His career in law enforcement, trying to protect society at the cost of himself, has resulted in a crisis that drives him from the city in search of a meaning to his place in society but if he had hoped to find himself and a balance in life in the natural world he does not. He finds chaos. With so many individuals fighting for space, it is inevitable.
Kurosawa is such a great filmmaker that he trusts the audience to recognise this and doesn’t force his ideas on them. The film can be enjoyed as a bizarre traipse in the countryside but it contains an easily recognisable and thoughtful psychological study that makes it fascinating to watch. While not as scary as other horror films it provides enough chills and an oppressive atmosphere to leave viewers unnerved.