Why this might not be so easy

One of the greats of contemporary Japanese cinema, Kiyoshi Kurosawa is one of those rare filmmakers whose work straddles wildly differing genres yet remains bound together by common threads. Winner of the best director award at the Venice Film Festival 2020 for his period espionage drama Wife of a Spy, Kurosawa was known initially as a proponent of the horror genre, his first films coinciding with the turn of the millennium wave of J-horror. Yet even his early work blends and bends genre. Horror and thriller merge into a psychological pastiche, while the supernatural manifests itself in both his horror films and his more arthouse-oriented releases.

The presence of the ghost surfaces throughout his body of work – ghosts of one’s past or inner self or the ghost city. Beneath the surface, Kurosawa is concerned with our innermost fears and anxieties, while also critiquing contemporary Japanese society. From reputation-making films such as Cure (1997) and Pulse (2001) to some of his more recent material, a desolate, bleak industrial topography features strongly, in a perpetual refusal to glorify the vibrant metropolis of Tokyo.

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Recurring motifs are found throughout Kurosawa’s work, which help to bind together his filmography across several decades. He has also repeatedly drawn on returning actors – Teruyuki Kagawa, Masahiro Higashide, Koji Yakusho among others.

The best place to start – Tokyo Sonata

Kurosawa’s 2008 domestic drama Tokyo Sonata signalled a marked departure from the horror films of his early career, taking a leap into the arthouse arena and winning the Un Certain Regard jury prize at Cannes in the process. The film follows the slow disintegration of a family unit after salaryman Ryuhei (Teruyuki Kagawa) loses his job. Seeking to conceal this from his wife Megumi (Kyoko Koizumi) and their 2 sons, Ryuhei heads out each day, seemingly to go to work but in reality whiling away his time on the streets of Tokyo and attending a job centre to look for new employment. 

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Tokyo Sonata (2008)

Tension grows as Ryuhei tries to maintain the pretence, which plays out tortuously over family dinners. His wanderings through Tokyo show a cityscape that’s bleak and far from alluring, mirroring the gloom of a world reeling in the midst of a global financial crisis. Each family member navigates their own journey of realisation and despair as the narrative unfolds through multiple layers of tension. With its pervading sense of disquiet and unease combining with an exploration of the complexity of the human condition, Tokyo Sonata serves as an ideal gateway to Kurosawa’s cinema.

What to watch next

From Kurosawa’s earlier work, 2 films in particular stand out, both having achieved cult status: Cure and Pulse. Both are concerned with a pessimistic vision of a bleak and decaying industrial Tokyo, filmed with a washed-out palette, which parallels an existential crisis within the characters. Cure follows a detective investigating a series of gruesome murders. Using hypnosis, the perpetrator establishes certain triggers to entice his victims to commit murder. Kurosawa subverts the police thriller genre whereby the question of ‘whodunnit’ is replaced by the mystery of why the killers have no memory of the crimes committed and no apparent motives.

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Pulse (2001)

Pulse serves as an interesting companion piece to Cure and prefigures the darker side to the digital age that’s emerged during the 21st century. Two parallel stories – one involving a group of friends, the other a male student and young IT lecturer – unfold against the backdrop of a series of suicides. Tokyo is a site of empty wastelands and derelict buildings, mirroring a growing sense of isolation among young internet users. Digital connectivity doesn’t negate loneliness, while a foreboding sense of doom hangs over the city. Interior spaces heighten the internal fears of the individuals at the heart of the story, exemplified by a ‘forbidden room’ sealed with red tape that they feel compelled to enter. The paranormal invades mobile phones and computers, with the recurring question “Would you like to meet a ghost?” appearing on screen and cries of “Help me” heard down the phone. The distinction between the living and the dead becomes blurred, where isolated individuals almost become ghosts of themselves and Tokyo becomes a phantom city that’s stark and threatening.

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Journey to the Shore (2015)

The blurring between the living and the dead also plays a central role in one of Kurosawa’s more recent films, Journey to the Shore (2015), which won best director in the Un Certain Regard section at Cannes. It’s another Kurosawa film that plays with the boundary between reality and the supernatural, featuring a widow being revisited by the ghost of her dead husband. It’s gentler in tone than Kurosawa’s earlier supernatural work, with the opening scene a nod to the piano-playing younger son in Tokyo Sonata. 

In Creepy (2016), Kurosawa returns to the detective thriller genre in a story about a hunt for a serial killer, while again dissecting the mores of Japanese society through a psychological drama. More recently, To the Ends of the Earth (2019) saw Kurosawa transpose another story of fear and loneliness to the less familiar setting of Uzbekistan. A young television reporter working on a travel programme wanders the streets of Samarkand and Tashkent, at first intrepidly, before going on to experience a series of unsettling encounters. Her mounting anxieties and fear culminate in the news of a large-scale fire in the Tokyo Bay area, reminiscent of the apocalyptic scenes in Pulse of a city in flames.

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To the Ends of the Earth (2019)

Where not to start

Charisma (1999) is often considered to be the most inaccessible and obscure of Kurosawa’s films, and doesn’t fall within any obvious genre template. After a failed hostage negotiation results in the death of the hostage, a detective finds himself in a forest, where he encounters various people in conflict over the future of a unique tree. He’s faced with the dilemma of whether to save the tree or the whole forest, with the tree coming to symbolise both life and death. Charisma is a complex and highly metaphoric work, which can be read almost as a sequel to Cure, so the curious viewer will naturally be led back here. Its closing scenes offer another of Kurosawa’s recurring sequences of conflagration.

Originally published: 22 September 2020