The fantastically original Japanese director Kiyoshi Kurosawa has no Western analogue, though he has professed an admiration for Tobe Hooper — a kindred spirit of deep shivers and darker impulses. Born in 1955 — and no relation to Akira, by blood or sensibility, much less to most of the other, older, more sanctioned Japanese auteurs — Kurosawa has emerged in the last few years as one of his country‘s most important filmmakers, alongside the likes of Takashi Miike and Hideo Nakata. Although they’ve reinvigorated their native cinema critically and commercially (Nakata‘s The Ring helped to spawn the horror craze of the late 1990s), this new generation has remained relatively unknown outside Asia save for a mounting significance on the international festival circuit. From Rotterdam to Venice and Cannes, word is out — which is why it’s about time that Los Angeles receives the news by way of this traveling Kurosawa sampler.
Although he often works in genre, notably the horror film, the 45-year-old is not so much a master of form (or, as is the case with so many of our directors, merely a technician) as an interloper. For Kurosawa, who occasionally also writes his own scripts, genre is less a prison than an asylum in which all bets are off. He has a casual, almost wanton disregard for convention that is matched by a similar inattention to narrative logic — in place of reason and three-act causality, he instead gives us fragmented stories touched by the supernatural and steeped in existential bewilderment. In Cure, his masterfully eerie 1997 policier, a serial killer unnerves his prey by repeatedly asking, ”Who are you?“ In the baffling Barren Illusion, made two years later and set sometime in the near future, a character repeatedly asks, ”Where are we?“
Still, if Kurosawa‘s films don’t often make sense — in his sui generis cop thriller Charisma (1999), the villain is an enormous, gnarled tree — that only makes his films all the more creepy. When terrible stuff happens, and it does, at times unbearably, you get the sense it‘s because Kurosawa has finally just shrugged, Who knows why? This refusal to explain the inexplainable, to rationalize the irrational, can infuse his films with terrific dread, a dread that he routinely amps with nervous-making, low-frequency drones; there’s a washing machine in Cure that‘s as terrifying as any Hollywood hobgoblin. But it’s this surrender to the mysterious — the mystery within as much as without — that can also give his films such unexpected feeling. In one of his excursions outside genre, the beautifully played License To Live (1999), a 24-year-old wakes up from a coma to find that the world he once knew no longer exists. Which provokes the director, in perverse fashion, to beg the painful question: If this man‘s world no longer exists, does he?
In the end, what seems to fascinate Kurosawa, perhaps even to drive him (he’s made 13 features, as many as three in a single year), are not the secrets of some phantom world but those hidden in the here and now. His rejection of the comforts of reason, or even its appearance, can lead to confusion (a few of his films are incomprehensible, albeit entertainingly so) and, worse, sadism; the accidental murder of a young child in Seance (2000) is almost unforgivably exploitative, and a prolonged torture scene in Serpent‘s Path (1997) drove me from the theater. But it’s hard to resist a filmmaker who doesn‘t insist that he knows it all, whose films are, at core, about the riddle of being. The genres Kurosawa often works may be recognizable, but only to a point. It looks like a cop movie, a ghost story, then — Pow! — it all goes to hell. Which is, of course, exactly what it can be like to live in the world as well.