In common with national cinemas all over the world, the Japanese film industry has seemed fairly nebulous the past few years — at least from the American perspective. Faced with stiff competition in the marketplace from imported Hollywood blockbusters, Japan appears at first glance to have traded its rich film heritage for a mixed bag of fanciful-but-empty animé productions, redundant made-for-TV samurai dramas and gangster pics, the occasional tongue-in-cheek super-monsters sequel, and a relatively scant supply of offbeat indie items.
The biggest Japanese crossover movie to hit US art houses in the past five years was Masayuki Suo’s 1996 Shall We Dance?, a sweet and harmless romantic comedy about lonely people finding love at a ballroom dance studio. On the mass-market side, the only recent Japanese film to make much of a dent here was Takao Okawara’s self-consciously parodic monster mash, Gojira Ni-Sen Mireniamu (1999) aka Godzilla 2000. Clearly, Kurosawa has long since left the house.
Akira Kurosawa, that is. The revered Japanese international master died in 1998, but there’s another Kurosawa making a bid for overseas respectability these days: Kiyoshi Kurosawa, a 46-year-old filmmaker prominently featured in the “Neo-Eiga: New Japanese Cinema” mini-series now underway at the Pacific Film Archive. Cosponsored by the Consulate General of Japan and the Japan Foundation as part of the 50th anniversary celebration of the US-Japan peace treaty, the concise nine-film traveling series spotlights works by directors Naoto Takenaka, Kunitoshi Manda, Akihiro Suzuki, Yutaka Tsuchiya, Tomoyuki Furuyama, and Toshiaki Toyoda, but Kurosawa (no relation to AK) gets the lion’s share of the attention — and he deserves it.
Kurosawa is touted as a genre-manipulator who works fast, cranking out two or more films per year. His biggest impact so far has been in horror films, exemplified by the 1998 crime thriller Cure (which will play for a week at the Shattuck starting Friday, September 21), and in such yakuza updates as The Revenge: A Visit from Fate and The Revenge: The Scar That Never Fades (both from 1996). The latter two were made as a linked pair, as were the two the PFA will screen Friday night: Eyes of the Spider and Serpent’s Path (1998), both nominally yakuza dramas, but both outfitted with Kurosawa’s spooky, unsettling touch.
The two films star actor Sho (also called Show) Aikawa, a stoic tough guy with a face like an Easter Island monolith — if the monolith wore black shades. Both films describe the aftermath of the same horrific crime: the kidnapping, rape, and murder of an eight-year-old girl, whose ordeal was evidently videotaped by the gangsters who later buried her. In Serpent’s Path, Aikawa plays a deceptively quiet math professor named Nijima who helps the dead girl’s father, a low-level hood named Miyashita (Teruyuki Kagawa), gain revenge by grabbing first one, then a string of yakuza, chaining each one to a wall in an abandoned factory, and then starving/beating a confession out of him — all in vain, as it turns out. Eyes of the Spider turns the tables by casting actor Aikawa as the murdered girl’s father, taking revenge on the yakuza by joining a rival gang and whacking his tormentors in the approved gangland-assassination manner.
Film-school quotes and odd grace notes run through both films: the Goodfellas-style thump in the car trunk in Serpent’s Path; that film’s comic golf-course snatch, and the dead-eyed female bodyguard known as The Cripple; the little girl math prodigy in Nijima’s classroom; the vision of Mitsuko’s ghost in Eyes of the Spider; and the misfired country-road hit on Kinsei the crime boss. An icy, deadpan mood dominates both movies, along with a strong undercurrent of sadomasochism and a sickening whiff of child-molestation fantasy. The everyday mechanics of gangster life — throat slittings, Frisbee and golf games, an eccentric boss who goes on paleontology digs as a hobby — take a backseat to Kurosawa’s dark meditations on culpability. As if in answer to the blunt posturings of “Beat” Takeshi Kitano’s popular cops and thugs, Kurosawa’s guys seem driven by unseen spirits. Everyone has a buried secret.
As imaginatively disturbing as those two films are, they pale beside Kurosawa’s Séance, a psychological tale of abhorrent ambition (screenplay by Kurosawa and Tetsuya Onishi, loosely based on the novel Séance on a Wet Afternoon by Mark McShane, which also inspired Bryan Forbes’ 1964 British thriller of the same name) that screens Saturday night. Kurosawa piles on the pedigrees; there are hints of Ingmar Bergman and Alfred Hitchcock as well as of traditional Japanese ghost stories. Katsuhiko Sato (Koji Yakusho from Shall We Dance? and Dora-Heita) is a mild-mannered sound engineer who records natural sound effects, such as wind whistling through trees. He has a tense, anti-communicative relationship with his wife Junco (Jun Fubuki) in their isolated house outside town. Junco fancies herself a spiritualist, especially after she sees a woman-shaped wraith following a customer out of the restaurant where she waits tables. She quits waitressing right away and devotes herself to holding séances, but her career as a psychic needs a push.
Coincidental with the Satos’ strained domestic situation, we witness a young girl in a bright green dress being approached in a city playground by the sort of creepy man from whom anyone would instinctively recoil. He tells her that her mother is in the hospital, and that she must come with him. She complies — and after an agonizing digression we crosscut back to little Yoko in her green dress running in a panic through a forest, with the creepy man not far behind. In a clearing, Yoko spies a large trunk-like chest on the ground, climbs inside, and closes the lid, trying to hide. In the next shot, a pair of man’s hands is locking the lid. It turns out to be Katsuhiko, packing up after a day of recording in the woods, unknowingly carrying the kidnapped girl home among his equipment. Things deteriorate from there.
In the classic Japanese style of Onibaba or Ugetsu Monogatari, Séance is a story of guilty people being haunted by ghosts. Jun Fubuki’s Junco suffers from Lady Macbeth syndrome with a 21st-century careerist twist: Her ambition is strictly for herself, and she’ll kill to satisfy it, quickly and coldly. Her husband Katsuhiko, like the disheartened avengers of Serpent’s Eye, is overwhelmed by events but undeniably complicitous. A Shinto priest, called in to purify the house, admonishes them, saying “You can’t fear being ordinary” — good advice, but they’re beyond that. While the wind moans through the house and shadows play tricks on the eye, Junco asks, “That’s all there is to my life?” and the world is reduced to two miserable, half-bright people waiting to be tripped up by the police.
Séance is every bit as elegant as Dominik Moll’s With a Friend Like Harry — and just as gut-level misanthropic, with the appropriate nods to Hitchcock. On the basis of the three PFA films, Kurosawa’s genre subversion takes ordinary yakuza and household horror scenarios into uncomfortable territory — cruelty to children, marital desolation, etc. — and leaves us, the audience, to find our way out alone. Which is as it should be.
Another prolific Japanese director of genre inversions is making a splash stateside these days — Takashi Miike, whose Dead or Alive (Hanzaisha) stomps into the Parkway on Friday, September 28. Where director Kurosawa’s depravity is cool and disconnected, the 41-year-old Miike smears his sex and violence with a big, broad brush.
Dead or Alive (1999) opens with a montage sequence seemingly lifted from an old Miami Vice episode opener, only raunchier. While a stripper writhes in a Tokyo nightclub, hoods invade the place and ventilate some rivals. This is intercut with a scene of another thug sodomizing a guy in a men’s room just before the thug gets his throat cut. Other startling images include a bestiality-porn shoot, a drugged hooker drowned in a tub of shit, a bloody massacre in a Chinatown restaurant (the movie is set in Tokyo’s Shinjuku district, but deals with conflict between the Chinese mafia and local yakuza), a family blown up by a car bomb, and for a change of pace, a bunch of hoods happily eating bananas as they cruise Tokyo Bay in a tugboat. Wild and wacky as all that is, Miike’s big climax tops everything before it. Best of all, nobody — including actors Show (as he’s billed here) Aikawa and rock star Riki Takeuchi as the cop and the criminal — takes the flick very seriously. So neither should you. .