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.

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