Posted by David Kalat on March 24, 2012
One day, Japanese pulp cinema auteur Kiyoshi Kurosawa was watching TV. A killer had been apprehended, and the TV newscasters mobbed the perp’s neighbors to ask all the familiar questions: what was he like? Did he act unusual? Did you ever suspect you were living next door to a monster? And the answers to these inevitable questions are inevitably frustrating: he was just a nice, quiet man who never aroused any suspicions. He must have been a monster disguised as a man.
People want to be able to explain away crime as something aberrant. The press tries to meet this need, to package the reporting of crime in ways that pit us versus them. But Kurosawa, a cynical man who studied sociology before becoming a moviemaker, recognized these impulses as delusional. The killer, his neighbors, his victims, the detectives who caught him, and the reporters who covered the tale are all made of the same stuff. Kurosawa saw the disquieting truth: anyone can be a monster. Even you.
This was in the mid 1990s, a period when the world’s cinemas were clogged with serial killer dramas all hoping to be the next Silence of the Lambs, or Se7en. That, or at least hitch a short ride on their coattails. Most remained just that—wanna bes, never weres, nots. This is the story of the film that did become the Next Big Thing, and along with Hideo Nakata’s 1998 Ring invented J-Horror.
Kurosawa had, by this time, spent most of the last fifteen years toiling in Japan’s B-movie industry. The rules of the game were simple, if brutal. To make a living making movies in Japan, you had to make lots of movies, make them fast, and make them cheap. The theaters were dominated by American imports (if not for protectionist policies by Japan’s exhibitors, there would be no room at all for domestic productions), so movies had to have a viable life on video. Certain genres became entrenched as the prevailing mode of commercial filmmaking: pornos, yakuza shoot ‘em ups, and horror movies.
Kiyoshi Kurosawa was capable of playing this game very well. Low budgets didn’t discourage him at all, and indeed he considered them something of an advantage. When he was hired to direct Bright Future in 2003, the first thing he told producer Takashi Asai was, “I’ll come in on time and on budget.” Asai was little taken aback by this promise: “A director who before saying I’ll make a great film or a compelling film says, ‘I’ll come in one budget and schedule,’ a director who announces this to the producer is either really great, or I don’t know… I don’t know really know what to make of it.”
Furthermore, Kurosawa eagerly embraced genre limitations. “I am a genre director,” he proudly described himself.
In short, Kurosawa was an almost ideal B-movie hack. He appreciated his boundaries and was willing, even enthusiastic, to work within them. Like American low-budget pioneers Edgar Ulmer or Roger Corman, he was prepared to use the seeming limitations of his circumstances to create personal works of art that could be profitably marketed.
But, that’s not the whole story.
He embraced genre conventions in order to toy with them, to recombine them in new forms and at times undermine audience expectations. He specializes in highly commercial genres but does so with a distinctive aesthetic. His movies are arthouse cool, yet emotionally cold, cinematically precise (the camera moves as if controlled by factory robots), and are riven through with a martini-dry wit.
He had studied film theory under the legendary Shigehiko Hasumi, who believed strongly in the larger cultural importance of cinema beyond mere escapism—and as a university-trained sociologist, Kurosawa was in a position to wield his films as a tool of social commentary. Perhaps more importantly, the guy was a serious movie buff whose extensive exploration of Western genre pictures not only gave him mastery of their filmic language, but an ability to cut and paste their techniques and ideas into his own work.
It’s not really possible for me to describe Kurosawa’s cinema with mere words. I can try—I will—but nevertheless I am at a loss to recreate for you the singular experience of his unique vision. You need to see it for yourself.
By way of describing the indescribable, I can say this: Kurosawa’s peculiar gifts have been granted to others before him. There was a time, back in the late 1950s and 1960s in France, when a similar coincidence of cultural influences and commercial restrictions produced a similar kind of filmmaking. Claude Chabrol, Jean-Luc Godard, Francois Truffaut and others of the French New Wave grew up gorged on American B-movies, rankled against the decaying and insular French film industry, and set about regurgitating those pop inspirations as personal—and often political—arthouse concoctions. It is as if the French New Wave skipped a few generations and leapt across an ocean; Kiyoshi Kurosawa would have felt right at home alongside Godard and Chabrol.
This talent would ultimately serve him, and Japan’s entire film world, in good stead. But first he would have to learn to control it, and for many years his greatest gifts would be a liability.
A prize from the most prestigious forum for young independent filmmakers, the PIA Film Festival, for a short 8mm film of his became his entree into the professional film world. Kurosawa took his now irrelevant sociology degree with him to become an assistant director. Within three years, his apprenticeship served, Kiyoshi Kurosawa was ready for the big leagues: directing Kandagawa Wars for Nikkatsu Studios.
Which is pretty much the same thing as saying it was a porn film.
Nikkatsu existed primarily on the basis of a genre they perfected, affectionately called “Roman Porno,” or Romantic Pornography. Now, the whole point of pornography is the onscreen depiction of sex acts. In their book The Midnight Eye Guide to New Japanese Film, Tom Mes and Jasper Sharp described some of the reasons Nikkatsu’s producers were less than happy with Kandagawa Wars: “[Kurosawa] frequently interrupted the all-important sex scenes with such images as the tribulations involved in crossing the river, the sudden appearance of a choir on the roof of one of the buildings, and the frequent quoting of film titles.”
Neither party learned their lesson. Nikkatsu hired this temperamental artist to do another sex flick and Kurosawa took the opportunity to continue challenging his limits. The studio brass refused to distribute the result.
Happy to get some cash instead of write off the whole thing, and still certain the movie was unmarketable, Nikkatsu agreed to let Kurosawa buy the film from them and self-distribute it. Of course, the director didn’t have enough money on his own to do this, and he turned to a consortium of established directors (the same ones he had apprenticed under) to invest in the idea. He then reshot portions of it and went back to cutting room to make it even more of his own personal vision. Under the new title The Excitement of the Do-Re-Mi-Fa Girl his remade version hit theaters in 1985, where it won over audiences with its bizarre imagery and irreverent attitude.
Kurosawa’s resulting good press only stoked Nikkatsu’s anger. How dare these upstart directors second-guess corporate decisions? How dare they challenge our authority over what movies should be made or shown?
Of course, if the studio didn’t want to be shown up in this way, they could have avoided the dust-up by releasing the picture themselves, or less charitably, by simply not selling it back to Kurosawa in the first place. But there’s no point arguing. Forget it, Kiyoshi, it’s Nikkatsu-town.
Kurosawa was now effectively blacklisted in the Japanese film industry, and it would be several years before he would get another chance to direct. Eventually, the enormously powerful Juzo Itami asked Kurosawa to join him on a haunted house project called Sweet Home. Itami was a prominent actor and filmmaker, and he had a mind to produce a spooky chiller in the tradition of The Haunting or Poltergeist. Since he intended to be onscreen in the thing, along with his wife Nobuko Miyamoto, he needed someone to direct. And, since Itami had been in the cast of The Excitement of the Do-Re-Mi-Fa Girl and had come to like and respect Kurosawa on that delirious project, he knew whom to call. In turn, Kurosawa called in Hollywood make-up god Dick Smith to handle the extensive special effects work.
Unlike Kurosawa’s later J-Horror work, his earlier stuff like Sweet Home is obscure, hard to obtain even in Japan. Compared to the aloof, highly stylized abstraction of his more recent films, Sweet Home is a conventional, traditionalist work with its eye keenly on mimicking the dominant Hollywood style of horror.
It concerns a TV documentary crew that visits the abandoned mansion of famous painter Ichiro Mamiya, in hopes of discovering and restoring the vast mural he created there, entitled “Home Sweet Home.” The fact that the title of the movie omits one of the “homes” from that phrase is a tip-off: this home isn’t all there. It was the site of a family tragedy as Mamiya’s child died in a horrible accident. Mrs. Mamiya, in her grief, went mad—and the spirit of a woman wronged is more powerful even than death. The lady Mamiya may be dead in body, but her angry ghost (face obscured, you guessed it, by her flowing black hair!) continues to haunt the premises.
Although the family tragedy, the dead child, and the ghostly woman all prefigure the trappings of J-Horror, this 1988 production has virtually no recognizable relationship to Kurosawa’s later work. Think Lucio Fulci’s House By The Cemetery with a Japanese cast and you’re halfway there. During the film is a telling argument between the characters as to which of them holds final decision-making responsibility for the TV program they have come to make: the director, the producer, or the star. Meanwhile, behind the scenes, the very same argument was brewing between Kurosawa and his star.
Part of this disconnect between the tone of Sweet Home and, say, Cure lies in the fact that Sweet Home is not a full-blooded Kurosawa picture. Itami considered Kurosawa a gun for hire, and after the director finished his work he was helpless to prevent his producer/star from reshooting and reediting the end result.
Helpless, that is, but not resigned. He chose the impolitic route of suing Itami—that is, suing the man who had been willing to break Nikkatsu’s blacklisting efforts and give this undisciplined young man a second chance.
That turned out exactly the way you’d think it would, and Kurosawa now went looking for a third chance.
He found it in the form of the bustling underworld of low, low-budget horror movies. Some of these things were TV productions, some were direct-to-video, but all were fast, cheap, and out of control. It was in this world that Kurosawa thrived. He was surrounded by other misfits, outcasts, and nonconformists. And, more importantly, his whack-a-mole style suited horror filmmaking well. The formal experimentation that undermined the erotic quotient of his pink films served to enhance the tension and creepiness of his horror movies. Here, at last, was a venue within which to explore and tinker and innovate, while having a steady income and a constant supply of subjects. Over the next seven years, he would crank out 17 B-movies: from slasher flicks like Door 3 and The Guard From the Underground to yakuza actioners like the Suit Yourself or Shoot Yourself cycle.
That period of experimentation led to an apogee in 1997. Daiei Studios, once one of Japan’s leading film companies, now struggling to reestablish itself after bankruptcy, contracted Kurosawa to handle a theatrical feature. It was still a shoestring sort of affair, but a bigger chunk of money than the director was used to in the v-cinema ghetto. Furthermore, it was a chance to write his own screenplay—something he had been largely denied in the past.
What he wrote was Cure, inspired by watching the television coverage of a killer being caught, fusing his familiar genre territories of crime thriller and horror. Kurosawa says that with the likes of Se7en and The X-Files consciously on his mind, he felt a serial killer drama of this sort had obvious commercial prospects. There was also a stroke of genius at work: this would be no mere knock-off. Yes, he was starting with a tried and true formula, but in this case his habit of undercutting genre expectations would carry an added punch.
The premise is this: Tokyo is gripped by a wave of brutal killings. The victims are slaughtered in a ritualistic way, a huge X slashed through their necks. However, it is not the work of a serial killer, not in the traditional sense. Each murder is its own separate crime, each one committed by a different killer. These killers are just ordinary people, normal unassuming joes, who for no evident reason are suddenly seized by the impulse to kill whoever happens to be handy, and to do so with meticulous adherence to a grisly template that they can have no knowledge of. Each killer is caught, easily. Each killer confesses. But there is no connection between them, nor any connection between their victims. So what is the hidden link that explains this recurring pattern? Has crime become a disease, with murder itself spreading like a contagion?
It is this viral notion that gives Cure its distinctive slant. Like Ring, which appeared in theaters almost exactly a year later, Cure reverberated powerfully in Japan, a crowded society increasingly threatened by pandemics, both manmade and natural. In the aftermath of Cure‘s release, other Japanese directors would explore similar themes; the viral theme would become practically de rigeur for the genre.
“Ideally speaking, a person should have an identity, but does anyone really have an established identity?” says Kurosawa, “Could a person say that he is this one single being and nothing will alter that no matter what?”
“That’s why the people we see in Cure, including the main character, display different personalities as situations emerge,” Kurosawa continues, “They’re unlike the characters usually seen in films. They don’t have clear-cut identities. They don’t have easily discernable personalities. But from my point of view that’s more natural as a human being.”
Capturing that sense of human realism, even within the confines of an implausible or bizarre plotline, is one of Kurosawa’s overriding objectives. “Well, it’s about what I consider ‘ordinary,’” he explained, “I’m not sure if the word ‘real’ is what I’m getting at. In the simplest terms, it is what I think of as ‘the real.’ But the thing is, most people live their lives very ambiguously. You don’t find Hollywood movie characters anywhere in real life.”
The protagonist of Cure is Detective Takabe, played by Koji Yakusho. Yakusho is one of Japan’s greatest living actors and this performance marked his first collaboration with Kurosawa. It earned him a Best Actor Award from the Japan Academy (an honor he has monopolized for nearly ten years running). Takabe struggles with his incomprehensible case by day, and goes to home to a mad wife by night. She is undergoing psychiatric treatment, but is deteriorating, and his selfless care for her is taking a severe toll on his own psyche. Something is going to crack.
The catalyst for Takabe’s ruin is the enigmatic Kunihiko Mamiya (played to demented perfection by Masato Hagiwara). Mamiya is an amnesiac lunatic wandering Tokyo in a daze, pestering everyone he meets with the same persistent question: “Who are you?” He remembers nothing of his self or his past, and is never satisfied with the perfunctory answers he gets to his question. Everyone he meets identifies themselves by job title–I’m a doctor, I’m a cop—instead of indulging the soul-searching he seems to crave. There is also this: if Mr. Mamiya asks you who you are, then the next you know you’ll be compelled to slash an X into somebody’s chest. Somehow, he’s part of this contagion. But is he its cause, or just one of its symptoms?
This is the common denominator of Kurosawa’s films: he believes in questions, not answers. Between arch social satire and clinical observations of human misbehavior, his films posit that we can never fully know one another—but if had to take a guess, chances are your fellow man is either already or about to be a murderer.
“I really try to leave things as undefined as possible,” boasts Kurosawa. And that lack of closure makes Cure one of the most disturbing movies you will ever see.
Even Kurosawa himself realized that Cure marked a point of bifurcation in his career. In fact, he now rejected his entire pre-Cure back catalog as inferior, embryonic experiments. The past was just prologue.
Although it was not a major commercial hit in Japan, it was something much more valuable: an international critical hit.
It is perhaps too easy to discount what that meant. In 1997, the Japanese film industry was in the process of renewal. It had been generations since Japan had been a major player in the global film world. Back in the 1960s, Japan generated both mass-market commercial products and rarefied arthouse faves. Japanese cinema could be alternately cool, or chic, or slummy good fun. But the once proud studios fell into decline, the once fabled directors died or retired, and the industry collapsed in on itself. Through the 1980s and 90s, Japanese filmmakers had a hard enough time getting Japanese audiences to care about their films, much less the world.
Kiyoshi Kurosawa got the Western press, once again, interested in Japanese cinema. Almost for the first time since that other Kurosawa, Akira (no relation), got the foreign press all excited, the name Kurosawa was once again the big story.
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