Wednesday, July 30, 2008

Hecho Por México: The Films of Gabriel Figueroa—Enamorada (1946)

Introducing Emilio Fernández's Enamorada, PFA curator Steve Seid admitted that the film's English translation "Woman In Love" isn't entirely accurate. Quoting Judy Bloch's PFA capsule, Enamorada speaks more interestingly "about a man in love." Enamorada—which translates more correctly as "Beloved", in the sense of a man's love for his beloved—expresses the love General José Juan Reyes (Pedro Armendáriz) feels for Beatriz Peñafiel (María Félix). But then again, it's not only his love for her as a woman but for the civilizing power of the Catholic faith that she represents. "[W]hat captivates, even mesmerizes, is the film's portrayal of revolution and religion as conjoined elements of the Mexican character," Bloch writes. "The general," she adds, "confuses Beatriz with Jesus."

In his essential study Cinemachismo: Masculinities and Sexuality in Mexican Film (University of Texas Press, 2006), Sergio de la Mora characterizes Emilio Fernández's Enamorada as a classic revolutionary melodrama, wherein narratives are staged that reinforce "the nation's newly secured post-colonial masculinity, especially in the period following the nationalization of the country's natural resources and key industries that significantly altered Mexico's neocolonial status in relation to the United States." (2006:155-156.)

The narrative focus of classic revolutionary melodramas is on "the social transformations ushered in by the armed struggle [and] fight against feudal caciquismo, [and] on the familial divisions caused by cross-class, cross-ethnic, cross-regional romantic alliances." (2006:154). This narrative focus is evident in Enamorada.

"An important narrative trope in many of the revolutionary melodramas from the classic period," de la Mora continues, "is the Revolution's civilizing mission. This theme is especially prevalent in Fernández's films. The civilizing mission takes various forms. …In Enamorada the civilizing mission is about domesticating and 'feminizing' female characters deemed to be too independent, too disobedient, and thus too masculinized, as is the case in most films starring María Félix, dubbed la devoradora de hombres (the man-eater), including the aforementioned film. In Enamorada, famously based on Shakespeare's Taming of the Shrew and on an episode in Don Juan Manuel's Spanish medieval era narrative El conde lucanor, in order for the cross-class lovers to form part of the Revolutionary family, they both must undergo major transformations. The proud, feisty, and arrogant upper-class Beatriz Peñafiel (Félix) needs to be less rebellious and more obedient to the new Revolutionary patriarchal order. General Juan José Reyes (Armendáriz) needs to be less brutish, less macho, and more spiritual and meek. Unconditional love tames the ex-seminarian General Reyes, as does his recovered spirituality, achieved through his gradual respect for the Catholic Church. General Reyes's spiritual rebirth is represented in a stunning sequence filmed in the interior of a baroque church. He must renounce his threat of taking by force the conservative city of Cholula (famous for its 365 churches). Beatriz must surrender her class privileges, renounce her marriage engagement to a U.S. suitor, admit that General Reyes has indeed won her over, and join the Revolution by taking her place behind General Reyes's horse as a soldadera." (2006:155.)

With regard to nationalized masculinities, de la Mora further teases out an insightful characterization of Beatriz's U.S. suitor Eduardo Roberts (Eugenio Rossi): "The codes used to represent gringos continue the conventions used in the classic period. These conventions are stereotypes that fall into two categories: unscrupulous and greedy villains (La perla, Emilio Fernández, 1945) and inoffensive and unmanly objects of ridicule (Enamorada)." As if referencing La perla, the wedding gift Roberts offers Beatriz—a necklace of pearls—comes unstrung at the moment she realizes Roberts is not the man she is meant to marry nor the cause she is meant to support.

In his fascinatingly informative article for the Turner Classic Movies website, Frank Miller states: "Enamorada was in many ways a follow-up to Maria Candelaria, the 1944 historical romance that put Mexican cinema on the map when it won the Grand Prix at the Cannes Film Festival. Director Emilio Fernández, star Pedro Armendáriz and cinematographer Gabriel Figueroa reunited for this tale of a revolutionary general who occupies an enemy town only to fall in love with the local nobleman's headstrong daughter. For the movie, both Fernández and Armendáriz would draw on their memories of the Mexican Revolution, especially the director who had to flee the country during the '20s because of his involvement with the rebels. (While in Hollywood he posed for friend Dolores Del Rio's husband, Cedric Gibbons, when he was designing what would become the Oscar®).

"New to the mix, and a key factor in the film's success, was María Félix, the greatest star the Mexican cinema would produce. Félix had become an overnight sensation with her third film, Dona Barbara (1943), which also gave her the nickname La Doña. La Doña brought her fiery presence to Enamorada, making the romantic duel with Armendáriz—critics have called it the Mexican Taming of the Shrew—a true battle of the titans. Greatly helping was Figueroa's cinematography, which showcased the female star at her most beautiful.

"Enamorada was one of Mexico's biggest film hits of the decade and swept the Ariels (the Mexican Oscars®) with awards for Best Picture, Director, Actress, Screenplay and Cinematography, among others. It also helped Armendáriz win a special Ariel in recognition of his outstanding career. Armendáriz, Fernández and Figueroa had already attracted attention in the U.S., where the film was released to art houses as A Girl in Love. But its release there was cut short when Eagle-Lion bought the rights to remake the film in English. They did so in 1950, as The Torch, and were even wise enough to include Fernández, Armendáriz, Figueroa and co-writer Inigo de Martino in the package. But they made one crucial mistake. Instead of asking Félix to re-create her role, they gave it to fading Hollywood star Paulette Goddard. Shot on a low budget, the re-make scored poor reviews (one critic called Goddard "cheap and coarse," charges that would never have been made against Félix) and faded fast, though it continued to keep Enamorada off U.S. screens for years.

"The failure of The Torch also kept Fernández from pursuing further U.S. work (he had assisted John Ford on the Mexican-shot The Fugitive in 1947). Armendáriz, however, frequently commuted to Hollywood, where he appeared in several other films directed by Ford (Fort Apache, Three Godfathers, both 1948). He learned English so well that he often had to strengthen his accent for his roles in Ford's Westerns. Despite high praise for his work on The Fugitive, Figueroa mostly worked in Spanish-language cinema, eventually becoming the cinematographer of choice for Spanish director Luis Buñuel.

"Hollywood's greatest loss, however, was failing to attract Félix. Repelled by the stereotypical roles offered to countrywomen like Del Rio, La Doña refused all contract offers. She even refused to learn English, though she had no problem learning French when she set her cap on European stardom (the Félix film most often seen in the U.S. is Jean Renoir's French Cancan, 1955). Then again, as the top star of the Spanish-language cinema until her retirement in 1970, she hardly needed Hollywood. She was so influential that a young Puerto Rican named Haraldo Santiago Franceschi Rodriguez Danhakl would model his image on hers when he achieved underground stardom as Holly Woodlawn."

Cross-published on Twitch.


"It's surprising that pulp writer David Goodis never named a novel Cul-de-Sac," ponders Pacific Film Archives curator Steve Seid, "His stories conjure a dead end, littered with the wreckage of lonely losers and lowlifes. An ill fate befalls the typical Goodis fall guy, who often glimpses the high life, however fleetingly, but then through some irascible compulsion or sinister defect must stumble back to the seamy streets. Goodis's own life follows the same pattern: at age thirty, he saw his novel Dark Passage adapted for the screen and parlayed that into a contract at Warner Bros., but his questionable proclivities made him an outcast even in Hollywood. Back in his hometown of Philadelphia, he churned out paperback originals while prowling the seedy saloons with unguarded desire. At age forty-nine, he was dead of cirrhosis. Though Goodis persisted in relative obscurity, his works falling in and out of print, filmmakers mined his shady novels for their criminal content. Jacques Tourneur's Nightfall and Paul Wendkos's The Burglar were grim highlights of the American mid-fifties, while across the pond, cinema's continental ops found his soiled vision most suitable for their noir knockoffs. Truffaut's fanciful but faithful Shoot the Piano Player was the first in a lineup of a half-dozen suspects, all with a French accent. Goodis's pulp is not about plot; it's about the struggles of his beautiful losers to free themselves from sordid obsession and inbred failure. It's also about Goodis's smothering fixation with the fall—from grace, perhaps, or just from the curb to the gutter."

Whereas Steve Seid's curatorial involvement with the Gabriel Figueroa series might have been more administrative than creative, there's no question that the PFA program "Streets of No Return: The Dark Cinema of David Goodis" is Seid's bawling baby, as he revealed when he spoke briefly with me about the upcoming series. For general information on Goodis, check out his IMdb and Wikpedia profiles. Kelly Vance gets on the horn with Elliot Lavine who helps her assess the PFA series for The East Bay Express.

* * *

Seid: The Goodis series; that's strictly me, my interests and my idea and doing the detective work to find the prints. Some of the joy of these series is hunting down prints.

Guillén: Hunting down prints but also exposing audiences to the work. I became excited when I first read about the Goodis program because—though familiar with several of these films—I've never associated his name with these movies. It's a welcome opportunity to finesse individual talents involved. There's been quite a few essays written on how the current preoccupation with vintage Hollywood films, film noir, is somewhat fetishistic on the part of programmers and audiences. Do you agree? Is that how you think of it and how you're playing with it?

Seid: No. I certainly read pulp and so—with Goodis—the film series came from the books first. I happen to like reading Goodis. But I agree with the fetishistic critique. For instance, David Goodis is from Philadelphia and there are some fanatical people in Philadelphia who created Noircon. It's a bi-annual gathering of people who appreciate noir film and literature and these people are interested in a very different thing. Even though it doesn't announce itself in the program notes, I'm interested in what is included and what is left out when they translate novels to film.

Guillén: What filmmaker David Lowery terms "the connective tissue."

Seid: Yeah. Because there's a lot of fetishistic things within Goodis's writing that rarely make it to the screen. It's almost as if they sanitize a certain level of it. Even some of the movies that have a seeming seedy tinge to them are nothing compared to the novels. Goodis was kind of twisted, y'know?

Guillén: How did you develop the idea of amplifying the films by having them introduced by seminal personalities like Barry Gifford, Eddie Muller, Nicholas Kazan, Elliot Lavine and Mike White?

Seid: Barry Gifford, in many ways, has to introduce because Black Lizard revived Goodis at one point. He did so much work reintroducing Jim Thompson and David Goodis and now the books that Black Lizard published are collectible books. He's a fundamental presence in that world. The other people like Eddie Muller and Elliot Lavine, they just know noir. Actually Elliot is one of the few people in the world besides me who likes Moon in the Gutter. [Laughs.]

Guillén: And that counts for somethin'!

Seid: Yeah. Mike White who's coming on the weekend to introduce Shoot the Piano Player, he puts out a pulpy journal about pop films and trashy films and he's very interesting because—though he's fixated on film and the underside—his interests are broad so he doesn't get bogged down in only noir or slasher films. [White's survey of Goodis can be found here.]

Guillén: I imagine the series is going to be popular?

Seid: I hope so. There certainly should be some interest from the press side. I'm also curating a program in the Spring—a miniscule version of the Goodis program—where I'm going to pair up filmic adaptations of different writers. There's going to be two Jim Thompson. Two Charles Willeford. Two Cornell Woolrich. Two Barry Gifford.

Guillén: That's great! Bay Area audiences—having been festival-educated—are becoming increasingly aware of the collaborative efforts of cinematographers, screenwriters, novelists, and want the information to be fleshed out with retrospective biographies.

Seid: And also that (a) the writers are often just forgotten; but, (b) the funny relationship with writers either actively writing the film script—and even that's twisted—or being turned away as only the novel inspiration and having no say in the transformation into film. The last Sam Fuller film—Street of No Return (1989)—is a Goodis adaptation. It was Fuller's very last film and I talked to the distributor in Paris but they wanted phenomenal amounts of money for the film. I mean, it was so high that I didn't even know where to begin negotiating because it was like three times what I would normally pay.

Guillén: And why is that, do you think?

Seid: They're kind of crooks. I hear that his experience with that film is really terrible with the people who controlled the money. It's an unhappy film.

Cross-published on Twitch.

Hecho Por México: The Films of Gabriel Figueroa—The Evening Class Interview With Curator Steve Seid

[We interrupt this blogathon hardly in progress to bring you this important announcement.]

"Figueroa skies." The image conjures the big sky country of the Mexican desert, embraced in high contrast by billowing cumulus clouds enhanced by infrared filters, and limned by the persevering thorn of the impoverished agave and the heartfelt offerings of ubiquitous cala lilies. Beneath these immense skies, Mexicanidad toils the soil, tolls cathedral bells to call the common soul to mass, and tells fiery stories of evolving revolutions.

In his introduction to the PFA series celebrating the artistry of Gabriel Figueroa—Hecho Por México—curator Steve Seid writes: "Gabriel Figueroa was more than a cinematographer. A consummate artist, he captured with grandeur a sense of Mexico that would—as the poet Carlos Fuentes affectionately observed—bring us to 'see Figueroa's Mexico and not the one that really existed.' Beginning in the Golden Age of Mexican cinema, Figueroa's rich chiaroscuro embodied Mexico's entrenched contrasts—the monumental faces weathered like the arid land, the expressively lit cathedrals dark against turbulent skies, the timeless agave, stark and prickly. The painters Rivera, Siqueiros, and Orozco were Figueroa's intimates, and their influence can be detected in what Siqueiros called 'murals that travel.' Figueroa was the man who made manifest Luis Buñuel's sardonic surrealism by underscoring mundane but unexpected details. And he will forever be associated with director Emilio 'El Indio' Fernández, who said with remarkable swagger, 'There only exists one Mexico: the one I invented'—but it was Figueroa's highly dramatic feel for the land that engendered this invention. In the mid-thirties, Figueroa apprenticed to Hollywood cinematographer Gregg Toland, and was much admired by American directors such as John Ford and John Huston, who used his signature style to great effect. He cut a dashing figure across the film industry, but his social conscience always preceded him: Gabriel Figueroa's aim was to give back to Mexican culture a dignified image of itself, and this he did, al lo grande."

Though hosting duties during the San Francisco Silent Film Festival precluded my attending the opening doublebill of PFA's Figueroa series—Let's Go With Pancho Villa! (1935) and The Pearl (1943)—I've committed myself to the remainder of the selection. To prepare for the experience, I met up with Steve Seid for a few words on the series.

* * *

Michael Guillén: Steve, tell me a little bit about yourself, your film background, and how you ended up here at the Pacific Film Archives in this coveted position as video and film curator?

Steve Seid: There was no room left at People's Park? [Laughs.] How did I end up here? I was curating previous but mainly with festivals. I had met Edith Kramer and then in the late '80s two things happened. First, Edith was beginning to see that video had become big enough that it was something that had to be reckoned with so PFA bought some equipment: a projector and a couple of monitors. They really bought the equipment, I think, because they wanted to show some of Godard's work, TV mini-series like Six Fois Deux and France/Tour/Detour. Those series were just on the circuit in '86-'87. I had already been curating when I met Edith so in 1987 I was brought in to do a couple of programs as a guest curator and then in 1988 I was hired. 20 years ago!

Guillén: What a run! That's fantastic. With regard to the dozen films in the Figueroa program, what prompted the series?

Seid: I don't want to take credit for curating this program. There was a group of available prints and I added one or two to it.

Guillén: From PFA's library?

Seid: Only Los Olvidados and Victims of Sin are from our collection and I secured two films from regular distributors; but, everything else came from Filmoteca in Mexico City, with which we have a relationship. They wanted to celebrate Gabriel Figuero's 100th anniversary. They produced a body of eight new prints for a traveling program. I took those eight prints and added four more to round it out. There were other films the Filmoteca had that they could have struck new prints—the really famous ones like Maria Candelaria—but, they decided they wanted to do was create a mixed bag; some of the well-known, some of the lesser-known films that Figueroa had been cinematographer for.

Guillén: It's that "mixed bag" that I'm appreciating. I'm glad to be seeing some favorites again but also glad to be seeing several films I've never seen before.

* * *

In my estimation hardly enough that has been written on Gabriel Figueroa is available online; but, for starters there's always the IMdb and Wikipedia profiles and Hal Erickson's capsule for All Movie Guide. The Internet Encyclopedia of Cinematographers has perhaps the most thorough filmography I could find, along with a gallery of production stills, and photographs of Figueroa both solo and in the company of Luis Buñuel and Shirley McClaine. A further sampling of images can be found at Patricia Correia's gallery. In Spanish there are the illustrated profiles from Directores de Cine Mexicano and Maestros de la Luz.

At Bitter Cinema Sean Spillane has an appreciative essay that incorporates a fascinating anecdote by Figueroa's son Gabriel Figueroa Flores Jr. lifted from an interview conducted with Fred Salas for In Motion Magazine; namely: "Whenever my father was invited to one of his exhibits, he would come in and [David Alfaro] Siqueiros would tell him, 'Now you come and see what I stole from you.' And my father would say, 'Oh no. I come to see what I can steal from you.' Composition-wise and theme-wise. ...The only time that my father recognized openly that he took a composition out of a painting, from a muralist, it was [José Clemente] Orozco's. It was a water color that Orozco made of a funeral of Velorio. This water color is called 'The Requiem.' And my father, in a picture called Flor Sylvestre with Dolores del Río, took this very same composition and interpreted it. So it happened that the day that the film was screened for the first time, Dolores del Río invited all her friends, and among her friends was Orozco. It happened that Orozco sat right next to my father. And when the scene came on, Orozco jumped out of his seat. My father said 'Maestro, I am an honest thief. I took that from one of your water colors'. Orozco said 'Of course, the depth and the volume you have in this composition is something that I didn't get in my water color. You must show me how you work so that I can see the magic of this scene.' "

In his profile of Figueroa for the International Dictionary of Films and Filmmakers, John Mraz confirmed: "Figueroa conceived of photography as interpretive, likening it to an actor's rendering of a script. He argued that though the camera ought to be essentially unobtrusive, it must establish a dialogue with the spectators through the vigor, force, and beauty it creates." (Emphasis added.)

"Gabriel Figueroa: Cinefotógrafo"—the largest-ever retrospective of Figueroa's life and work—opened earlier this year at Mexico City's Palacio de Bellas Artes and rumor has it that it will be brought to The Los Angeles County Museum of Art in 2010. Reviewing the retrospective for the L.A. Times, Reed Johnson qualifies that—though many photographers and cinematographers take pictures of countries—only a few "get to invent countries, visually, with the images they create." Figueroa is credited with establishing Mexico's visual heritage and as Sergio de la Mora has opined, "creating the classic Mexican film aesthetic." Reed writes: "Figueroa had as great an influence in shaping modern Mexican identity as the muralists Diego Rivera, José Clemente Orozco and David Alfaro Siqueiros and photographer Manuel Álvarez Bravo, whose images deeply influenced him. He also drew on the idealized landscapes of painter José María Velasco and the satiric drawings of master caricaturist José Guadalupe Posada."

Reed does a fair job, however, of defining the controversies that continue to exist around Figueroa's aesthetics. "[J]ust as [John] Ford used the backdrop of Monument Valley to define the classic American Western, Figueroa invested Mexican landmarks with operatic grandeur. That monumentalizing tendency, yoked to an autocratic government-run industry, has exposed Figueroa to charges that he was as much of a propagandist as an artist. Several prominent Mexican intellectuals and film scholars have criticized Figueroa's approach as overly stylized and inflexible, which they equate with the rigid, government-sanctioned messages of the movies themselves." Film historian and critic Jorge Ayala Blanco has complained that the famous Figueroa style "is a form of petrification, of authoritarianism, of imposing on reality a vision, not of taking a vision from reality," enshrining "a false aesthetic of Mexican-ness." Defenders of Figueroa's aesthetics feel such criticisms miss the mark for failing to appreciate the "extravagant artifice" of Figueroa's "meticulously staged imagery" that revels "in cinema's blatant falseness."

This ongoing debate replicates much of the pro and con obituary arguments at the time of Figueroa's death in April 1997. Julia Preston's informative obituary for The New York Times is available online.

The opening photograph of Figueroa filming on the set of La Perla is courtesy of George Hoynigen-Hune. Cross-published on Twitch.

Saturday, July 26, 2008

KIYOSHI KUROSAWA BLOGATHON—The Scintillating Jellyfish of Bright Future

In Jungian psychology there is a term, scintilla, which alludes to a spark of light in the depths of dark water, which references a glimmer of consciousness shining forth from the darkest space or the darkest recesses of the unconscious. Renaissance images of the Christ Child born in the dark depths of a cave correspond to this image. Among Tibetan Buddhists there is also the meditative practice of learning how to generate light in darkness or—thought of alternately—creating opportunity out of adversity. This practice of engendering light in darkness stems from a pan-Shamanic substratum which links back to Siberian and Native American practices of similar intent. It is, as if to say, or as Jung referenced Heraclitus, enantiodromia—that great reversal—happens as much in the human psyche as it does in nature, because they are in gist one and the same. We know through aquatic biology that in the black depths of the sea there exist aquatic creatures who create light out of themselves. (As a smiling aside, I think of Dory in Finding Nemo who responds to a mesmerizing bit of light by saying: "I want to touch it.")

All of this is to say that Kiyoshi Kurosawa's depiction of glowing jellyfish let loose in the canals of Tokyo in Akarui mirai (Bright Future, 2003) was for me a brilliant and thrilling testament of eternal hope. Even in apocalyptic obfuscation, there is always this speck of light, this bright future, wavering beneath the dark surface of things. The scene where Shin'ichirô (the father, Tatsuya Fuji), watches the multiplied glowing jellyfish floating out to sea even as the Tokyo skyline looms in the distance underscored for me this true play of light: artificial light contrasted against scintillic light.

Without question, the Japanese have their finger on the pulse of the ghost. They render ghosts in genuinely creepy ways. Whether wet-haired girls sliding along floors or climbing out of televisions, or—in Bright Future—the spectral appearance of Mamoru (Tadanobu Asano), emanating as if from within the dream of his up-until-then dream-deprived friend Yuji (Joe Odagiri), the central valence is simply presence. The ghost of Mamoru walks over and stands beside his grieving father Shin'ichirô who, sensing his presence, looks over his shoulder at the sleeping Yuji. The ghost of his son then short circuits the machinery Yuji has set up to feed the escaped jellyfish. I love the notion that an electrical spark can be the point of intersection where the ghost world and the physical world cross paths; where cause and affect kiss.

I also loved Yuji's dream, where he is fighting against wind, draped in long sheets of paper or plastic. Am I the only one who sees that he is being configured as a jellyfish with its trailing tendrils?

The final scene where the gang of disaffected youth amble through contemporary Tokyo—alleged noncomformists who all wear the same Che Guevara t-shirt like a uniform, kicking boxes, killing time—they, too, visually replicate the freed jellyfish heading back to sea. Even when we do not know how to resolve the darknesses that encompass us, something within us lights the way.

Online Resources

As with most of his films, Kiyoshi Kurosawa's Bright Future has been voluminously reviewed. The "External Reviews" at IMdb offer quite a bit to chew on; but, here are a few that caught my eye.

I mention Nippon Cinema's "review" because it sufficiently distills Bright Future's theme of generational rift while—qualifying that "actual plot details and dialogue are rendered completely secondary to maintaining overall tone"—nonetheless shapes itself by way of a glorified plot synopsis (as if recounting a confusing text in full detail will illuminate and induce understanding). Several reviews of Bright Future—let alone most of Kurosawa's films—take this tack. Frankly, I'm not sure Kurosawa's films are served by being "understood" too neatly, though I certainly empathize with the temptation to do so; it's hard to sit with supernatural confusion and illogical alterity and metaphors that seduce the freight of meaning. As laid out more thoroughly further below, James Crawford's Reverse Shot essay speaks to how the film—and Asano's character in particular—serves as a "synecdoche for the futility of attempting to interpret symbols." Crawford proposes "it's possible (and even advisable) to appreciate the enrapturing visuals of a resplendently red, undulating armada floating its way down inky canals—without scrabbling desperately to find Meaning." Jonathan Marlow, dispatching to The Greencine Daily, fesses up from the get-go that "the deceptively simple plot is difficult to describe", cuts to the chase and describes Bright Future as "an unexplainable murder in the midst of a mysterious migration of jellyfish into Japanese waters."

At Strictly Film School, Acquarello finds Bright Future a "hauntingly enigmatic, poetic, and understated portrait of rootlessness, apathy, and disconnection" that captures "dreamlike, temporal (and existential) ambiguity within a realistic, verite-styled camerawork (the film was shot exclusively in digital video) through alternating point-of-views, narrative ellipses, and surreal encounters." Acquarello credits Kurosawa with creating a "visual incongruence that innately reflect[s] the adrift young protagonists' dissociation from their oppressively mundane (and self-induced) reality" and interprets Kurosawa's recurring split-screen view of the passenger compartment of Mamoru's father Shin'ichirô's truck as a thematic repetition of Shin'ichirô's "physically distanced, polite conversations with his estranged children"; an illustration of fractured familial relationships that underscore the spatial distance—and emotional isolation—of the characters. Like myself, Acquarello visually aligns the film's jellyfish with Japanese urban youth. "As the red jellyfish navigates through its new and unfamiliar environment, its plight reflects the uncertain and treacherous path of the film's young antiheroes, foundering in the impersonality of technology, instinctually searching—not for transitory escape—but for a way home."

At Japan Times, Mark Schilling characterizes the dilemma of Bright Future's younger generation as "a rage they cannot articulate or control" and notes that this theme of disaffected urban youth "blowing up at the slightest provocation, with fatal consequences" has been tackled "from various angles, with results that range from the blackly comic (Jun Ichikawa's Tadon to Chikuwa) to the brutally grotesque (Takashi Miike's Ichi the Killer)." What Kurosawa brings to the equation is "a blank wall of incomprehension" that demarcates the generational rift. Schilling notes further that Kurosawa "sets his inquiry in a world several degrees removed from ours", which only contributes to its seemingly impenetrable though befuddling allure and which, I propose, is an essential context by which to understand the violence in his films.

Schilling's description of a "blank wall of incomprehension" is eruditely pursued by Jared Rapfogel for his April 2004 Senses of Cinema essay " 'Do I Exist?': The Unbearable Blankness of Being in Kiyoshi Kurosawa's Bright Future." Tracking with James Crawford's Reverse Shot essay, Rapfogel admits that—as the "reigning symbol" of Kurosawa's film—the jellyfish is "a truly remarkable subject, beautiful, graceful, amorphous—alive but distinctly remote and unreachable" and an embodiment of enigmatic quality characteristic of Kurosawa's films. "Too self-sufficient and formless to be assigned a single significance, the jellyfish nevertheless reflects (or absorbs) both of the central characters … as well as embodying the relationship between them."

Along with Schilling's examples of recent Asian cinematic representation of "lost, aimless, alienated young men and women, usually hostile or at least indifferent to the adult world", Rapfogel adds Jia Zhangke's Platform (2000) and Unknown Pleasures (2002), Hou Hsiao-hsien's Goodbye South Goodbye (1996) and Millennium Mambo (2001), Edward Yang's A Brighter Summer Day (1991), and (from Central Asia) Serik Aprimov's The Last Stop (1989). Kurosawa's imaginative if often inexplicable take on the theme is a suggestion that his youthful characters have no "sense of self-definition or engagement with the world, a feeling of existential out-of-placeness." The titular question of Rapfogel's essay—"Do I Exist?"—becomes the presiding concern of Bright Future's protagonist and Rapfogel initiates his essay with an exchange between Mamoru (Asano) and his friend Yuji (Odagiri). Entrusted with Mamoru's "pet" jellyfish, Yuji expresses his concern, "It never reacts at all" to which Mamoru calmly replies, "That's just its nature. I'm sure you two will get along fine."

At Sarudama, Scott David Foutz situates this youthful anomie in its exact social context as he lays out the cultural phenomenon of "parasite singles" in Japan. He likewise pays extended tribute to actor Fuji Tatsuya (who plays the father Shin'ichirô), recalling "his amazing self-sacrifice and utter selflessness in accepting the role of Kichizo in Realm of the Senses (1976) and thereby earning the status of the first actor in Japanese film to receive actual, shall we say, oral bliss on film."

At Midnight Eye, Michael Arnold admits to not quite understanding the film and—via a strategic double negative—suggests, "Maybe I should just put the Bright Future on hold until I'm ready to not understand what it means." He adds: "It's clear the director intended to make a movie that's hard to get a grip on, but I have to wonder if the audience will get anything at all or if they'll only feel a little sting as it slips through their fingers." One detects a palpable frustration with Kurosawa's stylistic obfuscations. "Kurosawa himself has said that the sarcasm-tinted katakana of the title (Akarui Mirai) is in fact not sarcastic at all. He really is trying to show us a bright future, albeit bright from the point of view of the younger generation, not the adults."

"There are, after all, few filmmakers," Manohla Dargis writes for The New York Times "who could take a jellyfish out of a home aquarium and turn it into a metaphor worthy of Godzilla." She finds Bright Future to be a "quietly creepy story with a hint of politics and a wealth of shivers" that deploys Kurosawa's signature "spell by drawing out the horror of everyday existence bit by bit, and then tossing in some otherworldly weirdness" or—as she states alternately—"As in so many of Mr. Kurosawa's films, the banality of quotidian existence and its horror is at once overwhelming and thoroughly unsettling." Accurately describing the film's characters Mamoru (Asano) as wearing a mysterious, beatific smile while Yuji (Ogadiri) "with his droopy posture and dead eyes, just looks blank, unplugged from the human race … as harmless (and animated) as a houseplant", Dargis praises how Bright Future's "dreamlike plot winds this way and that, as luxuriantly unhurried as that jellyfish" and adds: "One of the pleasures of Mr. Kurosawa's films is how casually he tosses in ideas about contemporary life, the state of the family, the place of technology, all while steadily shredding your nerves."

Back in the Summer of 2005, Reverse Shot provided an online symposium "East Meets West", which included critical essays on several of Kurosawa's films, including James Crawford's evaluation of Bright Future: "Driven to Distraction" [link above]. Crawford suggests that Kurosawa's characterization of "the preternaturally calm and detached Arita (Tadanobu Asano)" aligns with Samuel Taylor Coleridge's famously-quoted "motiveless malignity" ascribed to the character of Iago in Shakepeare's Othello. "Kurosawa has always explored metropolitan anomie to chilling and profound effect," Crawford assesses, "and in Bright Future he may have hit upon a perfect synecdoche of its manifestations." I very much enjoyed his analysis that the jellyfish in Tokyo are an environmental allegory, "this time speaking to the incompatibilities of natural and artificial environments", as this (to me) furthered the discrepancy between artificial light and scintillic light that I noted in my viewing of the film. "Sealed off from one another, the sea creatures and the city pose no mutual threat, but commingled, the effects are disastrous, with a spate of civilian attacks making the nightly news. The message is that the modern metropolis has become so inorganic and rigidly structured and directed, so inured to the potentials and pitfalls of natural life, that when foreign organisms are introduced—especially a jellyfish, whose undulations are the very epitome of random organic movement—catastrophe will ensue. Like a body that has forgotten its immunity to diseases, the city succumbs because it has forgotten its innate defenses." Replicating Rapfogel's perspective above, Crawford writes: "Kurosawa repeatedly puts the jellyfish out there as a grand signifier just waiting to be explained, but never follows through, thus allowing for any number of interpretations."

Offline Resources

An earlier 2004 Reverse Shot essay on Bright Future by Alex Chung—"Brighter Younger Things"—is, unfortunately, no longer available online. Respectful of Kurosawa's earlier display of "remarkable genre mastery" where "his mise-en-scène and cutting surprise and often transcend the stylistics of his historic exemplars", Chung criticizes Bright Future for evincing "a more derivative shaky aesthetic." Chung acknowledges, however, Bright Future's affirmation of "the phenomenological position that a person's identity is shaped not so much by what one has done but rather by what one hopes to become. And when an individual cannot see who he will be, or worse, is reluctant to even imagine a future self positively or negatively, then he is, in the deepest sense, nothing. Kurosawa obviously sees this as a problem that condemns the individual and the collective to oblivion, a terrible, existential understanding of being." He likewise acknowledges that Kurosawa gets it right: "when an individual sees the future as the temporal state that gives one meaning and begins to take the steps necessary to actualize it, there are going to be growing pains. Fucking up is evidence of one's engagement with the world, as Yuji proves when he and a group of Che Guevara-shirt-wearing misfits—one of the film's many stunning images—decide to loot his sister's office. As a political act, it's a poor choice, but as a social one, it shows that Yuji has only just begun to participate in the world."

Though a broken link at the IMdb External Reviews, Michael Atkinson's 11/10/04 review of Bright Future for The Village Voice can be obtained via subscription to the Highbeam Research Library. His is an interesting response because he conjectures that—instead of defining Kurosawa as "a classy pulpmeister"—it might be more appropriate to think of him as a neo-surrealist and, thus, our modern-day equivalent to Luis Buñuel. Atkinson notes—as others have previously quoted—that Bright Future's central metaphor of the glowing, thoroughly poisonous pet jellyfish carries a "symbolic freight … which goes entrancingly uninterpreted." His comparison of Kurosawa to Buñuel is strongest when describing the film's final sequence: "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."

Also available at Highbeam is Ty Burr's 01/14/05 review for The Boston Globe, wherein he describes Bright Future as "a meditation on a country whose youth is spiritually destitute in the aftermath of the bursting of the economic bubble and the 1995 sarin gas attacks by the Aum Shinrikyo cult." Though these events are not referenced directly in Bright Future, Burr is astute to point out their significance to Bright Future's subtext. In tandem with Kurosawa's essay "What Is Horror?" mentioned elsewhere, is an accompanying essay by Abe Kashô translated by Kendall Heitzman—"Horror Films After Aum: Kurosawa Kiyoshi's Cure" (in PDF format)—which more fully draws this out.

Burr writes that Bright Future "exerts a gnawing dread that slowly turns to something faintly like hope" and states that "[f]or a film about apocalyptic generational rebellion, Bright Future is perversely quiet." Notwithstanding, he admits Bright Future has "a curious and cumulative power. The film never seems to be going anywhere in particular but then suddenly arrives at a point where all the surreal elements converge and march toward the future. You don't have to follow, the director hints, but there'll be hell to pay if you don't."

Cross-published on Twitch.

Friday, July 25, 2008

KIYOSHI KUROSAWA BLOGATHON—Cure: Confusion and Sophistication

This entry is a transcription (with interpretative commentary) taken from a video interview conducted in Toronto in 2003 included on the DVD release of Cure.

Ordinary Demons

Kurosawa sourced his inspiration for Cure to nearly a decade ago while watching television reportage of a captured murderer. Neighbors were interviewed and they all commented upon how surprised they were by the murders, that the murderer had always been such a "normal" person and that they were at a loss to understand how he could have committed these horrific acts. The reporter explained that this dangerous murderer had been "hiding" within the persona of an ordinary, normal person, that he was "pretending" to be normal, but Kurosawa was skeptical of this interpretation. He thought: what if this dangerous murderer had actually been an ordinary, normal person who—somehow triggered—had become dangerous? What could trigger such a criminal potential within an individual?

Self & Other

Although the term "identity" has become a part of Japanese vernacular, Kurosawa isn't sure of its true meaning. He wonders if identity, as we have come to think of it, even exists? He concedes that a person should have an identity, but remains skeptical if anyone truly has an established identity. Can an individual say he is this one single being, which nothing will alter, no matter what? The main character of Cure, for example, is a police detective. But is he the same person at home that he is at work? When he goes home from work and is a good husband to his wife, is he the same person he was at work? Physically he is, of course. And so is his soul. But Kurosawa doesn't think he's exactly the same person, and this slight discrepancy he considers natural in the human being. When something happens to us, Kurosawa explains, we change little by little. We also change a little depending upon who we are with. Without realizing it, for example, as time passes, you'll be a slightly different person tomorrow compared to today. At each point in time you believe that person is who you are, your identity. But there's an inconsistency when you compare who this person is at different points in time. You would see many different aspects of yourself that you weren't aware of. Nevertheless, you consider all of them as one person. We all live that way, Kurosawa ventures, that's what society is. This explains why the characters in Cure, including the main character, display different personas as situations change. He suggests his characters are unlike the characters usually seen in other films because they don’t have clear-cut identities or easily-discernible personalities. From his point of view, however, this is more indicative and natural of human beings.

From a Jungian perspective, this rings true. Jungian theorist James Hillman has made a point of specifying that the deific forces that lie repressed within us emerge as contemporary pathologies. The god or goddess we ignore becomes our disease. Further, Hillman has emphasized that we are not talking about one deity, one god or goddess, but several. What occurs within the psyche is inter-actional, one might say intra-actional, pantheonic. The fixation on a specific identity then borders on the pathological, whereas the comprehension that our persona is formed by a complex inter-action/intra-action of informing forces would be more biological, more natural. The monotheism endorsed by our American president, one might say, borders on sheer madness.

Within the context of Cure it is the notion of association altering identity—one might say guilt by association—that is brilliantly endeavored and achieved through the metaphor of mesmerism; with the main association being specifically that between the detective and the mesmerist.

Another way that the identity-altering aspect of association is depicted in Kurosawa's films is through the institution of marriage. In Cure the detective and his wife represent this association, but, the theme is often portrayed in Kurosawa's other films. This is because a human being doesn't live all by himself in the world. As we live, we enter into relationships with others. And as the most basic and simple unit to show this relationality with others, and as the most easily comprehensible unit, Kurosawa often uses a married couple in his films.

A married couple lives together. They try to be with each other as much as possible. They try to understand each other. And they are in love. But it's impossible to understand each other completely. One day—although they believe they're sharing the same space and time—something might happen to upset that belief. One suddenly thinks the other is someone who is completely unknowable, a stranger. Kurosawa believes there are definitely moments when such thoughts can occur even though in the next moment that may change and you deny everything you've just thought. He thinks we live with such shifting thoughts. A married couple represents the simplest form of such relationships. Because they love each other, that kind of tension exists. In Cure he tried to show this shifting anxiety in its most typical sense.

Again, from a Jungian perspective, this is the contrasexual aspect of anima/animus projection. What Jung called the slipping of the mask. We project onto our partners. We think them to be who we want them to be. We are attracted and drawn to them because of who we think they are. And suddenly something happens to alter that perception, the mask they are wearing slips just a little, and we perceive another person underneath who we are not familiar with, a real person, with whom we have to learn how to interact and live with. Kurosawa, although stylistically different, is as strong as Ingmar Bergman in depicting these persona shifts. Bergman's Persona and Scenes from a Marriage spring to mind to confirm the theorem.

Outside the Frame

Regarding how he deals with space in film, Kurosawa feels this applies as much to Cure as to his other films: In a movie a director fits space into a rectangular frame and the audience only sees the space the director has captured. But, of course, space exists outside of that frame as well. This is obvious. So when Kurosawa captures space in a frame of film, he always tries to convey a sense that space continues outside the frame. In other words, what's visible is definite but the invisible part of space outside the frame should have some effect on the visible part captured in the frame. It may be very subtle or very strong; it can vary. But the invisible part of space outside the frame must be affecting the visible part in some way. Kurosawa always has that in mind when he clips space to fit into a frame.

Regarding his set designer on Cure, Maruo, he recalls that his first meeting with Maruo was purely accidental. The first time Kurosawa worked with Maruo, it was not on a film project, but for what the Japanese call a V-cinema. V-cinemas are very similar to movies but they're not shown in movie theaters. They are only released on video. They're very low-budget gangster movies. So Kurosawa met Maruo through a producer on a V-cinema project. At that time Kurosawa considered Maruo brilliant for the following reasons: first, in Japan, when you're making a movie, it's very hard to build a set, given film budgets. So a filmmaker has to use existing buildings. Small inventive changes are made to them to make something out of them that is closer to the filmmaker's vision. This is where the skill of art direction comes into play. When you're shooting in Tokyo, it's very hard to find a good location for filming. Everything looks superficial. Everything seems somewhat new. If you choose to use a brand-new building, then that can work as it is. But slightly dilapidated buildings, older buildings everyone's forgotten about, are what Kurosawa wants for his film projects. Maruo happens to like those kinds of buildings himself. Buildings that might be torn down unless they're caught on film right now. Buildings that have fallen into ruin. Maruo knew of many such buildings and told Kurosawa where they were within the vicinity of Tokyo. Since Kurosawa loves these kinds of buildings, being able to shoot in such places was really fun for both of them. They made many gangster movies together and then later—after they had made eight such movies—the opportunity arose to work together on Cure. They carried over their preference for older buildings to Cure. In these older buildings that may end up torn down or in ruins, Maruo would make small changes such as placing beds and chairs in such a way that these slight alterations would transform a room into a hospital room or someone's bedroom. Kurosawa was always impressed with Maruo's accomplished skill in art direction. Although they were filming a fictional story, Maruo would come to the shoot with set design ideas as though they were filming a documentary about the location. Kurosawa admires this in Maruo's work.


By chance Kôji Yakusho, the detective in Cure, is the same age as Kurosawa. When Kurosawa talks with Yakusho, he feels they are of the same generation. The generation before them is called the "Zenkyoto" generation. They have very clear ideas about their political views and their position in society. At least, Kurosawa quips, they had definite ideas when they were young. The generation younger than Kurosawa and Yakusho aren't interested in political matters but have very definite ideas about their hobbies and preferences. They're very protective of what they like and they have faith in that. The generation he and Yakusho belong to is sandwiched inbetween these two.

His generation's position in society and their political stances and points of view are vague, unclear, as are their hobbies and preferences. Everything about his generation, Kurosawa feels, is uncertain and indefinite. So when he talks with Yakusho, Kurosawa notes they have similar views on things. That's why when Kurosawa has a story in mind and if its main character is somewhat like him or is a strong reflection of himself, he tends to ask Yakusho to play the part. Such a character has an ambiguous sense of values and is an ordinary man. He tries to live quietly and without drawing attention to himself. Such a main character is a reflection of Kurosawa himself. For such a character, Yakusho is the first actor that Kurosawa usually thinks of to play the role. Yakusho understands that's how human beings basically are. They are ambiguous and resigned to accept everything. Although they are hesitant, they manage to live according to the environment they're in. When Kurosawa has a main character with these characteristics, he doesn't need to explain it to Yakusho. Yakusho understands such characters without much direction.

Kurosawa decided on Cure as the title for the movie after filming had been completed. He decided on it after lengthy consideration. Cure wasn't the movie's original title. Kurosawa considered what the film's main character, played by Yakusho, had gone through in the course of the film. The detective undergoes a very harrowing experience. But when you think of what that experience means for him in the end, he finds real peace of mind. But in exchange for that peace, he probably becomes a criminal, perhaps even a social outcast. Though causing trouble for society, he gains peace of mind. So he finds solace through his harrowing experience. If seen that way, we could say the detective has been "cured."

Perhaps due to his age, or his generation, Kurosawa first found himself being most obsessed with movies just before he became interested in making films. He saw any and every movie he could. This was around the first half towards the middle of the 1970s, his highschool and college years. At that time in Japan, American entertainment movies were the most popular films. Back then, American entertainment movies were right after what the Japanese called the New American Cinema Movement and just before Steven Spielberg directed Jaws. Right inbetween. So, in a way, Kurosawa doesn't consider himself that knowledgable about American films because the films he was watching were essentially an inbetween period for American cinema; but that just happened to be the period when Kurosawa saw the most movies. Even when he sees the same films now, he thinks many of the films of that period are wonderful; films by such famous directors as Sam Peckinpah, Robert Aldrich, Richard Fleischer, and Don Siegel. But Kurosawa specifies that these American directors didn't begin their film careers during that period, they had actually begun making films long before in the 1950s. They were veteran filmmakers who were making films within specific genres. In the period after the end of the New American Cinema and before Spielberg's arrival, in a time of confusion when Hollywood didn't know what movies it should make, various subjects and stories were explored. They were made by using very orthodox and sophisticated film techniques from the 1950s or before. Kurosawa opines this is what happened in that period and that this is why these movies have such complex themes and characters. They can't be described in a single word. The stories told in these movies are quite different from those typically found in genre films. But style-wise they are splendid westerns or wonderful cop movies, and so forth. So there was this mixture of confusion and sophistication in the American films of that period. Since Kurosawa was young when he viewed these movies, they influenced him greatly. Even now when he sees these movies, he still firmly believes that many great American films were made during this period. They're not easy to emulate, but Kurosawa would like to make films in which confusion and sophistication exist and acknowledges this desire as a direct influence of those old films.

Cross-published on Twitch.


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.


Welcome to the Kiyoshi Kurosawa Blogathon! Enthusiastic after the Val Lewton Blogathon, I announced this roundelay and then began to have immediate misgivings, partly because I have not had the opportunity to view much of Kurosawa's early work and—sadly—not had the opportunity to view his most recent (Loft and Retribution never made festival nor theatrical Bayside appearances). I started wondering if I shouldn't wait until these opportunities presented themselves? I debated whether the blogathon shouldn't be postponed until after I caught Tokyo Sonata at the Toronto International? But then while reading an essay on Loft written by author Jerry White for his volume The Films of Kiyoshi Kurosawa: Master of Fear—which Girish Shambu so kindly forwarded to my attention—I was struck by a comment Kurosawa made regarding that poorly-received project: "I had to do something that was a horror film; but, at the same time, I wanted to destroy horror films." (2007:201, emphasis added.) From the little I've read about Tokyo Sonata, it appears Kurosawa has achieved an ambition that has preoccupied him these last few years: to work past what his audiences have come to expect of him by escaping the stranglehold of J-Horror with which he has become restrictively associated. That being said, I felt this blogathon should address Kurosawa's career up to but not including Tokyo Sonata, which seems to indeed mark a significant departure from his existing oeuvre. So this blogathon will proceed in a retrospective mood with Tokyo Sonata signifying the advent of a separate phase of Kurosawa's auteurism.

Kiyoshi Kurosawa hardly needs introduction. To that purpose, I refer readers to his general IMdb and Wikipedia profiles (with more online resources to follow). For starters, however, French critic Mathieu Ravier's appreciative overview of Kurosawa's career written for this year's Sydney International Film Festival suffices nicely, drawing some fascinating comparisons with the films of Michael Haneke. "Like Haneke," Ravier writes, "Kurosawa is able to charge even the most banal scene of domestic life with a sense of dread. Elaborate sound design and counter-intuitive framing conspire to create an atmosphere rich with possibility. From the smallest of disruptions, a tiny tear in the social fabric, everything can unravel." Though not available online, Kent Jones' recent career purview for the current issue of Cinema Scope likewise addresses the mature breadth of Kurosawa's evolving oeuvre and is a strongly-recommended read.

This entry will serve as the shell for incoming contributions and—during the course of the week—I will post separate entries regarding my focused interests.


Noel Vera revived a February 2003 appraisal of Kurosawa's films originally written for Businessworld at his site Critic After Dark and timed it so it would link in with the blogathon. In his piece—"Zen and the Art of Horror Filmmaking"—he wrote that what distinguishes Cure from more traditional police procedurals is that "the killings don't have a pattern, they have a principle." Vera ventures that the philosophical principle defining Cure "is only vaguely glimpsed", parenthetically opining that such vague glimpses provide horror's "most unforgettable images", but he specifies that—however vague—the philosophy informing Cure "seems to consist of an awareness of the utter void at the center of existence, and of reacting to that void appropriately. Kiyoshi's achievement is not in attaching this philosophy to a horror story but in showing us the horror of the philosophy, in a story."

Proposing that Charisma may be "the first film ever to treat the act of tree poisoning as an existential process", Vera finds Charisma less "fine-tuned" than Cure, as if Kurosawa has lost control of his tonal segues. Notwithstanding, he praises Kurosawa's "talent for unsettling closures."

With Ningen Gokaku (License to Live, 1999), Vera observes that Kurosawa "approaches tragedy from an oblique angle, looking at the target with sidelong glances; you never hear him coming until he's right behind you, ready to blindside you with a single, overwhelming blow." He wonders if Kurosawa isn't "in love with death, or more to the point, with the nothingness that seems to lie beyond death"?

Additionally, Vera in his Senses of Cinema article on Kairo (Pulse, 2001) outlines the ex cathedra stances of the film's characters; a film wherein Kurosawa provides "two hells (isolation and the apocalypse) for the price of one." As Joseph B. details at It'samadmadblog, Pulse is one of the 15 scariest movies of all time, marking the end of the world in "hushed tones" and a "fragile sense of dread."

Although his initial intention was to create a video podcast essay to contribute to the Kiyoshi Kurosawa Blogathon, Matt Zoller Seitz ran out of time and, instead, reprinted his November 2005 New York Press review of Kurosawa's Pulse at The House Next Door. Any contribution by Matt is a welcome honor and we look forward to when time affords his video essay. Matt's Pulse review impressed me for describing so presciently Kurosawa's own definition of horror as a "roiling emotional undercurrent: the dread that comes from contemplating death." Matt explains: "Pulse chills us to the marrow by daring us to admit the unspeakable truth: that despite thousands of years' worth of religious and philosophical assurances, we still don't know if being dead is better than, equal to or worse than being alive, and we will never know until we're dead ourselves."

Offering up a piece he wrote earlier this year on Charisma for The Kinetoscope Parlor (with the admitted help of "several tasty bottles of Guinness"), Keith seeks to wrestle Kurosawa away from the grip of J-Horror assignations and, instead, traces literary resemblances to Kurosawa's alterities in the work of Japanese novelist Haruki Murakami.

Though not specifically tailored for the blogathon, Francis "Oggs" Cruz has generously offered two reviews previously written for his site Lessons From the School of Inattention. The first is a response to an early film of Kurosawa's—Jigoku no keibîn (The Guard From the Underground, 1992)—and the second from the more recent Sakebi (Retribution, 2006).

Oggs observes the purposeful illogic of the alternate universe of The Guard From the Underground. Much is left unaccounted for in the "visual allure" of the film's alterity. Less invested in his characters than in the sheer delight of filmmaking, Oggs discerns that Kurosawa is emulating Tobe Hooper's The Texas Chainsaw Massacre (1974), which makes the cut in Kurosawa's essay "What Is Horror?" "Somehow," Kurosawa writes of The Texas Chainsaw Massacre, "it's horror." For a "Kurosawa completist" like Oggs, The Guard From the Underground is "watchable fare."

In Retribution, Kurosawa's actor fetiche Kôji Yakusho returns as Detective Yoshioka, once again investigating a series of murders that become increasingly more mysterious and supernatural. Oggs compares Kurosawa's trademark dilapidated architectural surroundings as demonstrative of Yoshioka's own internal combustion. "[Y]ou sense," he writes, "a tremendous fatigue both in his body and in his soul as if every ill memory of the past and the pressures of the present are conspiring to force him to decompose along with his surroundings." Proposing that society's primary sin is that of quiet indifference, Oggs finds it intriguingly ironic "that the punishment for the living's ineptitude for the basic requirements of humanity is dealt with by the dead; and quite sarcastically, it is the dead which is most capable of boundless amounts of compassion and care."

At The Listening Ear, WeepingSam—that "old fart at play"—likewise comments on Retribution, appreciating the "characteristic intense sadness" that Kurosawa brings "to his apocalypses." Via screenshot analysis, WeepingSam notates Kurosawa's stylistic device of compositional shots incorporating background lighting effects that suggestively silhouette—indeed "haunt"—his foreground characters.

Dread—as the registered response to an awareness of death—has prevailed throughout the entries offered to this blogathon and Bob Turnbull at Eternal Sunshine of the Logical Mind has turned a discerning ear to the sound of dread in Kurosawa's films. Noted for their rumbling resemblances to the scores of David Lynch, Bob offers choice samplings from Pulse, Séance and Retribution.

Cross-published on Twitch.