Beloved internationally as a classy pulp-meister, Kiyoshi Kurosawa has been, I think, largely misread—it may be more accurate and entertaining to consider him a neo-surrealist, the only working filmmaker with a sensibility that concisely echoes the cool, irrational voice of Luis Buñuel. (Could that make Takashi Miike their industry’s Dalí?) Kurosawa’s innovative absurdism has always lurked under the moody J-horror surfaces, as anyone who’s puzzled over Charisma (1999) can tell you, but the two movies he made in 2003, Doppelgänger and Bright Future, drag it into the sunlight. Whereas Doppelgänger is, among other things, a comic mockery of split-psyche thrillers, bookended by a straight-faced genre setup and an irreverent coda overcome with discreet charm, Bright Future is sober and impassioned. Or so it seems—at the center of the film is a glowing, thoroughly poisonous pet jellyfish, the symbolic freight of which goes entrancingly uninterpreted.
The invertebrate’s owner, Mamoru (Tadanobu Asano), is a discontented twentysomething temping in a hand-towel factory with Yuji (Joe Ogadiri), another inexpressive youth with social difficulties. Kurosawa clutters these layabouts’ lives with indecision and stasis; maintaining the jellyfish tank’s transition from salinity to freshwater occupies their thoughts. Only when their mildly aggressive boss (Takashi Sasano) takes an interest in them (enlisting their help to move furniture, giving them raises, barging into their apartment with bags of sushi) are they compelled into action. Mamoru’s offhand murder of the meddling manager and his family, as well as Mamoru’s confession, occur offscreen. From the jailhouse he charges Yuji with the jellyfish’s complete acclimation, but before long Yuji accidentally dumps the tank, and the glutinous creature slips beneath the floorboards, where the baffled punk sometimes glimpses a mysterious body of water under Tokyo, and sometimes finds only a dirt hole. As the lost-yet-ever-present jellyfish takes on a proactive and entirely nonsensical role of its own, Yuji meets up with Mamoru’s grieving father (Tatsuya Fuji), and the two begin to establish a tentative family.
Kurosawa strolls through his narrative with relaxed confidence, suggesting apocalyptic significances without assuring us that he has anything particular on his mind. Still, Bright Future can be off-putting—neither of the two protagonists attempt to engage the camera, and more woe is expended on mourning Mamoru than considering his victims, leaving the transcendental flights of the jellyfish metaphor something less than dazzling. But Kurosawa is certainly not thinking in terms of bourgeois values or character empathy—in the 11th hour, his film diverts its gaze to an odd youth gang outfitted in starched white Che T-shirts rousing themselves from disillusioned torpor, and in a stirring traveling shot, hunting for relevance and confrontation in the streets. As a waving flag of anarchic will, it evokes the codas of Diary of a Chambermaid and Discreet Charm of the Bourgeoisie; as an ending, it leaves you speechless.