Thursday, June 25, 2009

Kiyoshi Kurosawa's Tokyo Sonata and Cure

Though I've only seen a handful of his films, it seems fair to say Kiyoshi Kurosawa is an uneven filmmaker.

I'd admired the craft of The Guard from Underground (1992), a stylishly shot, restrained, and atmospheric Japanese "office slasher" film that happened to be the first of his films I stumbled across, but I found the story so drearily by-the-book as to wonder why the horror community was making such a big deal about him.

I was utterly stunned by the next film I saw by him, however, which demonstrated his abilities in spades: Kairo (2001), also known as Pulse, is one of those Japanese horror films that has served as the basis for a Hollywood adaptation, but I assume the remake has nothing on the original. It starts as what seems a more-or-less conventional, but extremely creepy ghost story, revolving around a suicide, then gets increasingly surreal, philosophically-minded and ambitious, audaciously wandering away from its apparent initial genre story to become a meditation on loneliness, isolation and alienation - a condition which it connects with computer technology and life in cities, which are gradually shown to be deserted, as more and more people become mere virtual ghosts, unreal to each other and even to themselves. The film is quite insidious in making its point, and one feels so unsettled by it at times -- I even found myself literally shivering at certain images, and I'm a hardcore horror film fan from way back -- that it must be onto something. Though it's not perfect - there are moments when it is a little too overt in articulating its theme, and the transition from ghost story to philosophical apocalypse film has more than a few "what the fuck is he doing now?" moments - it's one of the most ambitious, most serious-minded, and most disturbing horror films I've seen from any country, and perhaps my favourite Japanese horror film (unless we call Battle Royale a horror film; I'm very fond of that movie, though it's a very different animal indeed from Kairo). (A more detailed review of the film can be read here).

Convinced I'd found proof that Kurosawa - Kiyoshi, not Akira; there's no relation - was a major figure in Japanese cinema, I rushed out to find the next film of his I could get my hands on; it turned out to be 2003's Doppleganger, an incoherent SF/comedy - I think - involving a scientist, his double, a woman, a robotic chair, and a roadtrip. My feeling at the time was that it was an empty mess of a film of no interest to any serious cinephile; I have no desire to revisit it to elaborate further on that judgment. I didn't make it through 1999's Charisma, my next attempt to take on Kurosawa's cinema - another apocalyptic SF film, I'm told, revolving around a symbolically significant tree - but, though it wasn't to my taste, it seemed at least far richer in its ideas and more coherent than Doppleganger. (Presumably the fact that the tree has symbolic weight is why some dumbfuck mentioned on Wikipedia compares Kiyoshi Kurosawa to Tarkovsky, thinking, I guess, of The Sacrifice; this is by far the stupidest Tarkovsky comparison I've seen -- and there are some doozies out there. Kurosawa's films, while carefully lit and shot and often featuring very striking compositions, look like nothing so much as very good mainstream commercial Japanese cinema, tho' we gather he cites American cinema of the 1970's as an influence). I resolved to hold back on exploring the rest of Kurosawa's films unless I had some assurance, on a film-by-film basis, that they were worth watching.

Good news for me, then (and for y'all, too): I've been told that of his horror films, 1997's Cure, like Kairo, is one to see, and there will be 11PM screenings of that film at the Vancity on Friday and Saturday, and one at 8:45 PM Saturday. The program guide, City Reels, says the subtext of the film is the Aum Shinrikyo nerve gas attacks on the Tokyo subways, and given that - and the fact that, like Kairo, it's one of the films his reputation among horror buffs is founded on - it's likely to be a very interesting film indeed (and wow, the Vancity scored a 35mm print for us to see - for a mere three screenings! There's some generosity of spirit at hand here). It's kind of odd that it's likened in City Reels to both Seven and The X-Files - reference points I find rather dissimilar; I wonder how it yokes them together? (This review, with a few spoilers, appears to suggest the answer, but I don't want to read it too carefully).

I'd also been told that Tokyo Sonata, Kurosawa's new film, starting tomorrow at the Vancity Theatre - was very good (it was called "delightful" in this Cannes review on Cinematical, say). It's not a horror film, but a look at Japanese family life. People interested in Japan or Japanese cinema will find at least some things to like about it, to be sure; I found it a mixed bag. I quite liked the first hour, which presents as a rather dry comedy about the desperate state of the modern Japanese salaryman. When Sasaki - played perfectly by Teruyuki Kagawa, whose hang-dog face you might recognize from Bong Joon Ho's segment of Tokyo! or Miike's recent Sukiyaki Western Django - is fired from his job, he ends up disguising his unemployment from his family and milling about the city, where he runs into another recently shitcanned office worker, who has set his cell phone to call him five times an hour so he can pretend he's still employed and thus convince himself and those around him of his continued importance. Backgrounds for their discussions of their plight include oil can fires, an amusing signifier of poverty lifted more from images of hoboes gathered in trainyards during the US depression than the blue-tarp tent cities of the homeless in Tokyo's parks (I sure didn't see any oil can fires in the three years I lived there, though I saw a lot of poor people). The humour of these moments is appealing indeed, and when, during a job interview, the helpless Sasaki responds to a query about his skills that he's really good at karaoke, I laughed aloud. A sad but true observation, and very funny -- less cruel and over-the-top than Miike's jabs at his salaryman/ father figure in Visitor Q, but equally apt. After a time, his wife and children begin to suspect that there are problems, and tensions rise in the family, as he takes out his frustrations on them; so far so good (though one scene where he hits his insubordinate youngest son, who wants to play piano against his father's wishes, is somewhat shocking in its violence; it looks like the kid really gets roughed up a bit).
Teruyuki Kagawa as Sasaki in Tokyo Sonata

The film starts to err in its second half, though, as Kurosawa expands his focus to the rest of the family; I found myself anticipating exactly where the film would go next, as Kurosawa gives each of his characters the opportunity to escape from the constrictions of their life together and test their creativity and endurance outside it, to see if anything better can be found. Much that happens is clearly "supposed" to be surprising, so I was irritated to find myself one step ahead of the film, feeling myself increasingly struggling against Kurosawa's attempt to work us around to some sort of formulaic closure. (Spoilers abound for the rest of this paragraph; proceed as you will). The housewife is abducted by a desperate but helpless knife-wielding stranger (another familiar face, Kôji Yakusho, from many of Kurosawa's other films, including Cure, as well as Bounce Ko Gals, Shall We Dance, and The Eel) who (can you see it coming?) wins her sympathy and takes her on an adventure that includes sex by the sea in a deserted shack. At one point, she cries out about wanting to escape her life, in case the thematic weight of any of this is lost on the audience. The youngest son, who dreams of being a pianist, gets to run away from home and be tested in an ordeal that sees him implausibly sent to prison for a short time, even though he appears to be about ten years old. The older son - even more ridiculously - runs off to join the US military, as if such a thing were possible (a rather immature plot device that allows Kurosawa to VERY briefly target Japan's involvement with the US in Iraq, but which bizarrely writes Japan's "unofficial army," the jeitai, out of the equation, situating Kurosawa's critique in a let's-pretend realm instead of, um, that of REALITY; it's a strange move indeed, since the jeitai have been very much involved in the American Iraq misadventure. Why he is so indirect in dealing with this issue I cannot say). And finally, Sasaki himself - reduced to a menial cleanup job at a mall - finds a packet of money in a toilet stall, runs off with it, is hit by a truck, and cries a bit in the gutter about the impossibility of starting over - again, Kurosawa practically holding the theme up on flash cards. Sasaki decides, apparently as a result of being nearly killed, that the money is a bad thing, so - the dream of starting over abandoned - he drops it into a lost and found slot (!) and returns home, where he finds his wife and younger child waiting for him, having also given up their own fantasies of escape.

All of this seems a bit silly to me; it takes the material for a good dry comedy and turns it into an unfunny, cliched, and rather predictable farce. Worse, the film then resolves all the action with a sentimental happy ending that reunites the family around the youngest son's now-realized dreams of playing the piano; it's a sickly sweet soporific that pretty much negates everything I liked about the first half of the film, attempting to wash away the problems with Japanese society and family relations that the film had previously pinpointed with one hollow feelgood stroke. I had thought, half an hour previously, "God, I hope this doesn't all climax in a piano recital; anything but that." Sometimes being right isn't satisfying at all.

But, I mean, that's just me; I'm a negative creep, difficult to please, and tend to prefer cinema that sets out to eviscerate the Japanese family unit than test it and reaffirm its inevitablity and endurance, which is what Kurosawa's newest film ultimately seems to do. Compared to Tokyo Sonata, I much preferred the sarcasm of Miike's "happy ending" to Visitor Q - the family sucking the lactation from the breasts of their mother, having been brought together by the act of dismembering and burying some dead bodies. Now that's a family film I can get behind!
...but maybe the average Vancity attendee has a higher tolerance for sentimentality than I do? Tokyo Sonata is not a terrible film, and Kurosawa is an interesting filmmaker, who probably has one or two other stunningly good films to his canon that I have yet to encounter. Here's hoping Cure is one of them!


Anonymous said...

Hey Allan, CURE also shows at 8.45 Saturday night, so it's three shows in all.

John said...

And extremely concise video-essay regarding Kurosawa's "Cure", which works to limit and elaborate on the startling ambiguity of the film.