If the name Kiyoshi Kurosawa rings a bell to American audiences, there’s likely only a few reasons why. First, it could be for the two films for which he’s most well known: J-horror-contingent classics Cure (1997) and Kairo (2001), the latter of which got the dubious honor of receiving a glossy Hollywood cover version, Pulse, in 2006. It could also be for the run of films he made starting with Cannes Film Festival prizewinner Tokyo Sonata (2008), a period when the filmmaker known for his genre fare pivoted to more critic- and arthouse-friendly work. (The 2016 serial-killer-next-door thriller, Creepy, marking a return to more familiar territory.) Last, maybe they’re just confusing him with that other Kurosawa.
The truth about Kurosawa is a bit more complex. In fact, even the most ardent foreign-film viewers in the U.S. likely haven’t seen the bulk of the Japanese filmmaker’s early work. Kurosawa has been directing since the ’70s, but not until the mid-’90s did his films start to appear stateside. (Even Kairo, surely his most seen film, took four years to arrive on U.S. screens.) His features from this early period are still nearly impossible to view in America via legal means. His more recent work has garnered a modicum of critical acclaim (Cahiers du Cinéma writers being consistent fans), but they’ve nevertheless been spottily distributed outside of Japan.
That work itself is equally difficult to pin down. The most media-literate viewers would be hard pressed to find commonality between the austere and grungy exposed-nerve mise-en-scène of Cure and the widescreen, lush seasides of Journey to the Shore (2015), released nearly two decades later. Over time, Kurosawa has become a crafty filmmaker (possibly due to his prolificacy), with his early erraticism eventually buffed out to a pristine polish. His viscera-splattered late-model genre homecoming Creepy exhibits a notable refinement in composition and structure.
That’s not necessarily a judgment on the Kurosawa oeuvre: There are pleasures to be found from the director working in either mode. Distributor KimStim is proving that point now by releasing both a new restoration of Kurosawa’s 2003 film, Bright Future, and his latest, To the Ends of the Earth, in a kind of double bill. These are boldly different films that, at least on the surface, bear no resemblance to one another. By viewing them together, however, commonalities become apparent, illuminating the yearning for connection and self-actualization consistent throughout the work of Kiyoshi Kurosawa.
Kurosawa’s Bright Future can be thought of as his Cruel Story of Youth (1960), except with a climax featuring an enormous glowing smack of red poisonous jellyfish. Only the ever-idiosyncratic and equally jejune Kurosawa would find the beguiling creature a metaphor for both eros and thanatos in his follow-up to Kairo. Cool guy Mamoru (Tadanobu Asano) has a tight hold on his best friend, the equally listless but less charismatic Yûji (Joe Odagiri). The twentysomethings share a brotherly love that eventually proves itself as toxic as the jellyfish they raise together. Yûji is so enamored with his bad influence that he nearly takes their literal game of follow-the-leader to a disastrous end.
One of the numerous hard-left turns in the narrative leaves Yûji to fend for himself, but Mamoru is nevertheless omnipresent for Yûji and a figure who emerges as the film’s true co-lead, Mamoru’s absentee father, Shin'ichirô (Tatsuya Fuji). With this, Bright Future eventually blossoms into a film about grief and self-actualization.
That’s not before the film’s own identity crises – being a youthful ennui buddy movie, violent crime saga, ghost story, family melodrama, and ecological horror movie – nearly induce whiplash. Kurosawa is so capable in executing each mode that the result isn’t neck-breaking but mostly consistently intriguing. Like the various early digital cameras Kurosawa seemingly deploys at whim in realizing the gritty and grimy aesthetic of Bright Future, many visions of the world can collide and co-exist. It’s a truth that helps Yûji and Shin'ichirô find the possibility to which the film’s title alludes.
Bright Future is now available to rent online through KimStim. Purchase a virtual ticket from Dec. 11-24 and the proceeds will support the Webster University Film Series.
Tashkent, Uzbekistan, is to To the Ends of the Earth as Tokyo, Japan, is to Sofia Coppola's Lost in Translation. The key difference is that, while neither is expressly interested in their backdrops’ culture or people, Kurosawa uses his to point out the roots of xenophobia whereas Coppola’s film itself dips into stereotypes of the Other.
Yoko (Atsuko Maeda) is the host of a travel reality show, finding herself as the sole woman among a crew of men making an episode about Uzbekistan. Microaggressions isolate her from her cohorts – just as Kurosawa’s widescreen frames often do, too – and her solo trips into Uzbek territory on her days off find her increasingly alienated. During one of these aimless sojourns, she identifies with a caged goat, but her quest to free the animal in front of the cameras backfires in a display of cultural ignorance. Yoko, like many of Kurosawa’s protagonists, is so filled with self-pity, self-loathing, and fear that she's detrimentally disconnected from not only her surroundings but also her dreams for the future.
Although this The Passenger (1975)-lite fable unfolds with measured nuance and detail, the director has ultimately never been one for subtleties. His thesis here is baldly stated by an Ubzek police officer: “If we don’t talk to each other, we can’t get to know each other.” However, To the Ends of the Earth does contains his most sophisticated realizations of his preoccupations with group detachment and reconciliation of identity. To that end, Kurosawa takes a few notes from the “travelogues'' of Iranian master Abbas Kiarostami – aside from capturing the gorgeous similarities of terrain between Iran and Uzbekistan – in the camera’s ability to explicate and exponentiate those shared pet themes. However, as the film’s surprising and uplifting coda demonstrates, Kurosawa is still boldly his idiosyncratic self.
To the Ends of the Earth will be available to rent online through KimStim on Dec. 18. Purchase a virtual ticket from Dec. 18-31 and the proceeds will support the Webster University Film Series.