Kiyoshi Kurosawa Begins at the End

Out of the Woods

"I know it's not possible in reality," says Cure director Kiyoshi Kurosawa, sitting in an otherwise empty movie theater on Hollywood Boulevard, "but in my dreams, I like to meditate on the possibilities of reducing everything to zero, and of starting the world anew. In a number of my films, you see cities destroyed, and perhaps even hints that the end of civilization is near. Many people construe those images and ideas as negative and despairing, but I actually see them as just the opposite—as starting again with nothing, and as the beginning of hope."

Talk about apocalypse—and resurrection—now. Though hardly a spring chicken, the 46-year-old Kurosawa ("no relation," he's quick to point out, "but I'm flattered you asked") has, in a short period of time, become the highest-profile new Japanese filmmaker since the ascendance of Takeshi Kitano, and starting from zero had nothing to do with it. Cure, his mesmerizing 1997 policier about pseudoscience, investigative anomie, and modern hopelessness, is actually his 15th feature. (It opens August 3 at the Screening Room.)

Well-accustomed to cranking out two or three films a year for Japan's voracious home video market, Kurosawa was ready to be discovered by the time Cure turned up in the Toronto film festival in 1998. A year later, back at the fest for a career retrospective, the director refused to simply bask in the backlight of his previously unseen oldies and brought a trio of new features with him as well. At least one of them, Charisma—a magic-mushroom-enhanced genre-blend of horror tropes, blackened satire, and eco-thriller intrigue that's centered around a scrawny but ultralethal tree—turned out to be a kind of modern masterpiece. But Kurosawa now finds himself in the same position as his newfound fans: catching up with his past. He's currently touring the U.S. with a mini-retrospective of his movies (also at the Screening Room, July 27 through August 2) that includes a pair of grim yakuza flicks (Eyes of the Spider, Serpent's Path), a spooky spiritualism-and-sound-effects thriller (Seance), and the paradoxically sui generis family melodrama License to Live, along with Charisma. (His most recent film, Pulse—an unnerving riff on the Ring cycle's "media saturation = social termination" motif—debuted at Cannes this year but awaits a U.S. release.)

Blood relations be damned, there is something about Charisma's deep-in-the-woods setting and metaphysical concern with the relativities of human perspective that seems to bear a subterranean similarity to another internationally acclaimed tree in the Japanese forest, Rashomon. "Really?" exclaims the pleasantly skeptical Kurosawa when confronted with the notion. "I can't say that I've thought of it in that way before. Actually, I should confess that my personal relationship with Japanese filmmakers of the past is a distant one, though Seijun Suzuki, who's quite a bit older but still quite active, is someone who I feel I share an era with, and I love him very much.

"In fact," he continues, "in large part due to my former professor Shigehiko Hasumi [a film historian and theorist and the current dean of Tokyo University], my interactions with film history have been heavily influenced by American cinema and by Jean-Luc Godard. Hasumi's idea was that, just as equally in a Robert Aldrich picture as in a Godard picture, you could find clues to the questions 'What is a film?' and 'What is its history?' Hasumi also taught me that filmmaking doesn't have to be a tool or a means through which a theme or a message gets communicated to an audience, but rather that the act of filmmaking itself, in the pursuit of defining film and cinematic history, is reason enough to be making films."

Despite his successes on the American art-house circuit, it's unlikely that the denizens and demigods of Hollywood Boulevard will truly take a shine to the director and his philosophical genre flicks anytime soon, even though Kurosawa could certainly teach Hollywood something about itself. "The central idea in Charisma—two opposing forces fighting over a single tree—is a classic trope from an Aldrich film," says Kurosawa, after emphasizing his admiration for Cassavetes and his devotion to Sam Peckinpah's Ballad of Cable Hogue. "It's strange for me to sit here and say this, and I really don't mean to be fresh, but I wonder: Haven't the new Hollywood filmmakers watched the important Hollywood films of the past? And if they have, how can they possibly watch the films that Hollywood makes today?"

 
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