Despite being one of the most accomplished, intelligent and adventurous filmmakers to come out of Japan in recent years, Kiyoshi Kurosawa has inexplicably been ignored in this country. With the overrated Ring spawning a seemingly unquenchable thirst for anything that more or less fitted the ‘J-horror’ label, it looked like Kurosawa came to maturity just in time to ride the wave, but the subtler, deeper thrills of his films have kept him stranded on the shore. The fact that Kurosawa has worked in different genres hasn’t helped, his idiosyncratic approach to genre conventions even less so. Too oblique for the grindhouse, too creepy for the art-house, his films seem to have fallen in between audiences, penalised for being so utterly and wonderfully unclassifiable.
Having started out as a director of low-budget pink and horror flicks, Kurosawa came to the attention of Western film-goers in 1997 with the release of the astonishing Cure, a richly enigmatic serial killer story that impressed festival audiences around the world. Kurosawa’s equally masterful Pulse (Kairo, 2001) was the subject of an American remake, but this did nothing to increase his notoriety in the West. More stunningly original films followed, from the tree-centred Charisma (1999) to the lighter Bright Future (Akarui mirai, 2003) via further forays into the supernatural with Seance (Kôrei, 2000) and Doppelganger (2003); but of the director’s prolific output only Pulse and Bright Future have, to date, been released in the UK.
A true film artist, Kurosawa has created an instantly recognisable cinematic world, all greenish, watery colours and eerie sound effects, moving lights and fleeting shadows, run-down buildings and strangely empty streets, and in the midst of it all the befuddled, determined or downright mischievous presence of the great actor Kôji Yakusho, who, appearing in no less than seven of the films, serves as something of a stand-in for the director. Weaving multi-layered metaphors, elliptical narratives and beautifully textured visual and aural landscapes, Kurosawa has created captivatingly complex universes that cannot be reduced to any straightforward, single ‘meaning’. Suggesting more than they affirm, his best films deal with the unexplainable, the unsayable, the rich phenomena that lie beyond the reach of words. Some of these phenomena take the form of supernatural evil or ghosts, but while this is the main focus of this article, these concerns are certainly not the only themes that Kurosawa’s work explores.
Each film is built around a cryptic visual motif imbued with multivalent meanings: the jellyfish in Bright Future, the wheelchair in Doppelganger, the tree in Charisma and perhaps most memorably the X in Cure and the red tape in Pulse. In Cure, murder victims are found with an X slashed across their throats. But in each case the killer is a different person. Soon Inspector Takabe (played by Kôji Yakusho) comes to believe that the link between the killings may be the enigmatic Mesmer student Mamiya who is seemingly able to suggest murderous thoughts through hypnosis to whomever he encounters. Later in the film, when the X appears on the wall at the house of a psychiatrist who has been questioning Mamiya and also at a doctor’s surgery the student has visited, it chillingly and wordlessly signals that both the psychiatrist and the doctor are about to kill. It is a symbol of extraordinary force, condensing the unknowable depths of human nature into two black strokes on a wall, and leaving the question open: is Mamiya really able to manipulate apparently decent citizens into committing homicide, or does he simply reveal the dark impulses that were already present within them?
A supremely ambiguous figure, Mamiya is a potent creation whose mere presence on-screen is enough to give the viewer goose bumps. ‘Tell me about yourself,’ he says to everyone he meets, answering all questions that are put to him with another question, never disclosing anything personal. Is it possible that Mamiya should be truly empty, as he claims, and that by having emptied himself of everything that made him what he was, he has become the ultimate seducer, a sheer void that reflects their own selves back to people, enabling him to exert total control over them? Whatever the answer, evil in Cure is not limited to one character but is a diffuse phenomenon, an atmosphere that pervades everyone and everything, buildings too. Mamiya’s former haunt, a grimy warehouse partitioned by plastic sheets hanging from the ceiling and filled with caged animals and books on hypnotism, exudes an unwholesome, malign air; the same atmosphere of occult malevolence pervades a derelict building that was the venue for mysterious experiments in hypnotism decades previously. Building up throughout the film, it is all this that comes to be invoked in each re-appearance of the X, the profound enigma of evil, the contagion of the malefic through the air, through invisible waves that circulate between people and places.
In Pulse, the striking – and almost mundane – visual motif is the red tape that has been placed around various doorways to seal them shut. These are ‘forbidden zones’ occupied by the spirits of the dead who have begun to invade the world of the living. Those who ignore the red tape and enter those proscribed spaces find themselves face to face with some of the ghastliest creatures ever conjured on celluloid. They are both recognisably human and yet dreadfully inhuman at the same time – one female ghost’s creepily distorted, slow-motion walk is enough to scare one character out of his wits; another has the vague appearance of a living being, only paler and fuzzier, before his eyes suddenly come into disturbingly sharp focus. After a while, the simple sight of the red tape is enough to signify unspeakable horrors, inducing in the audience a powerful, unshakeable anxiety.
As he has repeatedly explained in interviews, Kurosawa’s films are concerned with what lies outside the frame. For the director, these ghosts are part of a wider world that we fail to perceive in our daily lives, part of the world beyond the frame. They are hidden behind doors, they appear through opaque windows, and in Pulse they make their way into the world of the living via computer screens. These doors, windows and monitors are portals between the living and the dead, echoing the cinema screen, the ultimate frame that divides the seen from the unseen. The ghosts are death made visible, and as they move from beyond the frame to inside it the characters are forced to face something which they would prefer to remain unseen. This is why the most frightening thing that can happen in a Kurosawa film is a door slowly opening: doors and windows are breaches through which the wider world that surrounds us can enter the comfort of our well-delineated spaces, allowing the irruption of the unknown, of forces beyond our control, into the familiar sphere of our lives.
This otherworldly reality is also evoked through sound, which plays a crucial role in all of Kurosawa’s work. Buzzes, low-pitched drones, shrill timbres, sounds that hiss, whir, ring and resonate in subtle modulations form elaborate, unsettling soundscapes that combine with the visuals to create a multi-dimensional, immersive world. These sounds are not generated through synthesizers but always come from the real world, as Kurosawa explains in an interview published in Outlaw Masters of Japanese Film. For instance, the ‘staccato, high-pitched sound’ that is heard every time the ghost is about to appear in Seance was created from the trill of a Japanese insect. What drives the director to use real sounds is, as with the visuals, the desire to ‘express (…) the world that lies beyond what is visible on-screen’. These ominous, alien sounds increase tenfold the effect of the visuals, adding an extra dimension to the unseen, stealthily submerging the audience into the film’s ambience and making for an experience of rare intensity.
Adding to the eeriness of the films is Kurosawa’s preferred viewpoint. Eschewing the conventions of traditional horror movies, Kurosawa films his characters from a distance. Rather than sticking the camera on the character’s shoulder and startling the audience when the bogeyman suddenly appears in the frame, Kurosawa observes the events from afar, putting us in a position from which we are able to see shadows move and shapes appear in the background, from which we can see everything, the living as well as the dead around them. Frequently, Kurosawa photographs scenes from behind windows, as though shooting from the point of view of the ghost. Throughout his films, the director chooses to position himself, and us, on the outside, like intruders, stalkers or spirits. In this way, he makes us part of the world that lies outside the frame, placing us on the other side of the screen, turning us, the audience, into ghosts, the passive observers of the living.
Never showy and shunning facile special effects to create elegant terrors, Kurosawa’s films generate a profound, lasting sense of unease in the audience because they make us experience that which lies beyond words. A master of disquiet, Kurosawa touches the forbidden zones of human life, revealing the unseen, probing the unspeakable.
Essay published in Electric Sheep Magazine, 1 February 2008.
Picture credit: Pulse/Kairo (Dir. Kiyoshi Kurosawa, 2001).