Friday, July 25, 2008


Certain colleagues of mine suggest that I lack critical rigor for relying on the words of filmmakers to describe their own films. One associate in particular—I name no names—actually said filmmakers could not be trusted to talk about their own movies! As far as so-called objective criticism goes, that may hold true—I'm not convinced—but, then again, I don't consider myself a film critic. I'm a film enthusiast and I enjoy hearing what filmmakers say about their own films, whether they know what the heck they're talking about or not. That's why the interview format has become one of my favorite ways of addressing a film. I may lack critical rigor but I'm blessed with a gift for gab!

I've not had the opportunity to interview Kiyoshi Kurosawa, though I did get to meet him at the San Francisco International Film Festival some years back when he accompanied Doppelganger. At that time I wasn't writing about film and simply wanted him to autograph some DVD covers and—through the services of a friend who could speak Japanese—I achieved same. Since then, I have doted on his every word. Or at least those I could find. This entry serves as a survey of interviews available online where Kurosawa—in his own words—discusses his films, his career, his concerns.

To start with, I heartily recommend a 2005 profile in PDF format prepared by Richard Suchenski which credits the seminal influence of giallo masters Mario Bava and Gorgio Ferroni on the elementary school psyche of Kurosawa, convincing him to become a filmmaker. Suchenski's piece includes a filmography that runs up to Loft, but—which more interestingly—includes Kendall Heitzman's translation of an essay written by Kiyoshi Kurosawa entitled "What Is Horror Cinema?" In trying to answer a question that he—almost more than anyone—seems poised to answer, Kurosawa admittedly arrives at a "reckless conclusion" inspired by being "trapped in the maze of genre", which unflinchingly denies that Ridley Scott's Alien (1979) is a horror film, let alone Alfred Hitchcock's Psycho (1960), Charles Laughton's The Night of the Hunter (1955), Jonathan Demme's Silence of the Lambs (1991), George Romero's zombie movies, David Cronenberg's body perversities, or any kind of flick that has alien invaders ravaging terra firma. Why? Because resolution is possible in any of those films. Because the scariness of these scenarios can—in one way or the other—be theoretically conquered. Kurosawa differentiates: "I just want to give the generic name 'horror films' to that family of films that take as their subject matter the fear that follows one throughout one's life." (Original italics.) It appears Kurosawa is referencing a mortal fear as he likewise insists that a horror film must have "the smell of death" that changes one's life forever. That being the case, Kurosawa wryly quips, "Now that I think about it, since there are no works that have failed to change my life even a little bit, all films are horror films." More wit than definition, his essay remains an enjoyable read.

The texture of an interview is largely determined by when it was conducted and with which film—either through theatrical release or DVD distribution—it comes attached. Employing that temporal aesthetic, here are some of my favorite interviews with Kiyoshi Kurosawa chronologically arranged.

Aware that Kurosawa studied sociology in college, Spence D. explores the sociological underpinnings of Cure in parts one and two of his interview with Kurosawa for IGN.Com. Kurosawa discounts the influence of his sociology classes and defers to the sociology observed in the films of others. Admitting to being frightened at the prospect of being hypnotized, Kurosawa expounds: "Terror, I think, has many different levels. Changing into something different isn't that scary. Well, maybe a little bit. But I think what's scarier than that is not changing at all. Becoming the same forever, without any transformation whatsoever, I think that is truly terrifying. And if you add to that, the condition in which you are the same forever without any alteration, I think the condition that most clearly embodies that is death itself."

Of further interest is his formalistic aversion of the close-up as a means of furthering narrative and his avoidance of musical cues to telegraph emotion. Asked to clarify the film's cryptic ending, Kurosawa responds: "I don't believe that a film is limited to the beginning and the end of that piece. There's a world before and after that, all over it. And I feel that a film is simply a little window cut out with a little chunk right through it. What I tried to accomplish with Cure was to leave it very open and to indicate that there is a world before and after that and I hope that people get the sense or maybe the terror at the end that there may be something else. So it's left open [on purpose]."

In her interview for, Pam Grady seeks to understand Kurosawa's elliptical narratives and determines that he is not so much into metaphysics as simply suspicious of surface realities. Kurosawa tells her that criminality is used in the film as a means for the individual to escape the oppressive confines of society and outlines the efficacy of genre's time limits: "[F]ilm has a timeline. It can't be too short; it can't be too long. At the outset, it's not the story or the concept that matter, it's the framework of the time. You may have a story that you want to tell in five minutes or maybe 10 hours, but that isn't really a film in the conventional sense. What I learned is that film is 90 minutes to 120 minutes long. These days it seems to me that they may go a little bit longer than that, but that is generally the framework in which you work, and how you use that time, how much you can tell becomes the real question."

In Robin Gatto's interview for the Locarno International Film Festival, Kurosawa interestingly traces his influence on Hideo Nakata's Ringu, especially with regard to how the ghosts should be configured. "To be truly frightening," he told Nakata, "they have to be natural, like in documentaries."

In his first Midnight Eye interview with Tom Mes, Kurosawsa talks budgets, casting against type, and the methodology of starting with and working through genre: "I think that film for me is a medium point between a fictional story and reality. You start with the genre, which is fiction, and gradually move towards reality. Somewhere in between you find film." As for themes, he notes, "I'm interested in the values that the individual has come to embrace. For the individual to re-assess those values and understand the way in which those values that he has come to embrace are in fact the forces that have come to oppress him, not something from the outside."

In their follow-up Midnight Eye conversation around the release of Bright Future, Mes amplifies their earlier discussion, picking up threads, and inviting appreciation of the specific wealth of the follow-up interview. Mes teases out Kurosawa's revolutionary touches—Che Guevara t-shirts and La Chinoise poster art—as hopeful signifiers of change even though Kurosawa qualifies they were more chance than choice. Discussing the companion documentary Ambivalent Future to the DVD release of Bright Future, Kurosawa discerns their oppositional aesthetics: "Documentarists shoot elements of reality, and after that in post-production they try to turn it into a lie as much as possible. Directors like me who make fiction—and I've never made a documentary—we deal with fictional elements such as the script, but after that we try to make them as close to reality as possible, and try not to lie as much [as] possible." Kurosawa likewise posits the interesting assertion: "[T]he answer to 'What is cinema?' is decided by the audience."

For DVDTalk, James Emanuel Shapiro discusses Séance, Charisma, Cure and Pulse. In their conversation Kurosawa offers the intriguing gendered observation that "the reason why ghosts tend to be female is that—oppressed in life—they are more powerful in death, so they are able to avenge themselves once they are dead."

Charisma won Kurosawa a trip to the Sundance Workshop where he learned to differentiate Asian cinema from American cinema. "My understanding of American cinema," he explains, "is that the protagonist must be taking actions towards a clearly defined goal"; in contrast to his protagonists who passively exist without goals or his frequently inactive ghosts. In his conversation with Shapiro, Kurosawa praised Shigehiko Hasumi, former President of the University of Tokyo and one of Japan's leading film scholars, as teaching him that "films aren't just about entertainment" but are "so vital and exciting that they are worth spending your whole life exploring and examining." He discusses his early work as persona-non-grata working outside of the Japanese studio system, the theme of evil technology, the rejuvenative properties of apocalypse, and the impossibility of fusing Japanese sensibility with Hollywood remakes.

In his conversation with Kurosawa for the San Francisco Bay Guardian, Johnny Ray Huston eerily accentuated the fact that Kaïro (Pulse)—with its "bleak climax of … an image of a doomed plane spewing black exhaust as it hurtled toward a cityscape"—screened at the Toronto International Film Festival on September 10, 2001. He asked Kurosawa what he felt the day after? "What I think I learned after Sept. 11 was that if you are just true to yourself, it's possible to be entirely overwhelmed and impotent in the face of a much more overpowering force with a stratagem or design of its own. Somehow, maybe at least at the end of my films, I need to stake a claim to a direction, if not a solution." Huston's conversation with Kurosawa likewise positions actor fetiche Koji Yakusho alongside Bright Future's Tadanobu Asano and explores Kurosawa's increasing need to morph the horror genre to his own ends.

Reverse Shot offered an online symposium on Kurosawa's work that included essays written in the Summer and Autumn of 2005, including Paul Matthews' interview with Kurosawa, notable for its discussion on the delayed distribution of Pulse and the difference between Japanese and American ghosts, expanding on Kurosawa's notions of what constitutes horror: "I find ghosts in Japanese horror much more terrifying. In the standard American Horror canon, because a ghost violently attacks you or comes after you, at least you have the chance to fight back. And what you're fighting for is the idea that you can beat the bad thing and go back to the good old days when you were peaceful and happy and there weren't any ghosts hanging around. But if they don't attack you then the best you can do is figure out a way to co-exist with them. I find the idea that one just has to live with this thing much more terrifying. You have no chances of running away or fighting it; you're stuck with it forever."

Adding to the critical fanfare surrounding Pulse, Daniel Robert Epstein's interview with Kurosawa for Suicide Girls addresses, coincidentally enough, death by suicide. Kurosawa explains suicide as "the other great theme of Pulse, which is that death actually is very close by. We tend to live in complete denial about how close death can be. It's actually very simple, very nearby and not so difficult to accomplish very much like it is on the battlefield of war."

Finally, for the Malaysian Star Allan Koay conversed with Kurosawa regarding Retribution where the vengeful ghosts loosed by Kurosawa "are not the usual kind that hide behind corners. They have a tendency to lean into the camera in extreme close-ups, their steely gaze cutting through you with an incisive chill." In their conversation, Kurosawa reiterates that "[t]he attraction of the horror genre is that it allows you to treat 'death'—a phenomenon that is interesting and mysterious to everyone—as the central theme of a story as well as show it as concrete visual representations. The fact that death is such a complex notion is, at the same time, the reason why the genre becomes so obscure."

Cross-published on Twitch.

No comments: