Close-Up is a column that spotlights films now playing on MUBI. Bright Future is playing May 20 - June 19, 2016 in the United States.
As cinematic monsters go, a jellyfish—luminescent red but home-aquarium-sized—is a perverse choice. Left alone, it floats in a saltwater ecosystem resistant to humans on a large scale; only when poked does it react with precognitive venom. But Bright Future (2003) is another of Kiyoshi "No Relation" Kurosawa's piecemeal apocalypses, where the destructive force presents itself anew to all victims. Unlike the planetary threats of kaiju, alien armies, or environmental collapse, Kurosawa imagines society's end as something closer to mass suicide than massacre. It requires individual complicity. Coming after his definitive J-Horror entry Pulse (2001), for which Kurosawa is probably best known, Bright Future was somewhat off-handedly derided for a category error about objects of fear: small things in aquariums are only as threatening as observers are stupid. However, the ghosts in Pulse worked much the same way, inhabiting red-taped rooms and causing damage only when visited. They still managed to destroy the world.
Part of the difficulty in evaluating Kurosawa as a horror director, or his movies as horror—far from the only mode in which he works, even within single films, but the genre with which he is most closely associated—is that he makes films about the death drive, the desire to not die rather than the desire to live. His films occupy the long moment when that desire turns into dread. From the outside, that looks like a moment of stupidity, which is rarely frightening. Bright Future's scenes of fingers dangling next to a docile sac of venom seem silly—until a viewer remembers that they would likely do the same, maybe just grazing the water instead of plunging into it. The unknown, with death as its ultimate form, is deeply enchanting.
The film embodies this uncanny appeal in Mamoru (Tadanobu Asano), a Tokyo youth about to age out of his Übermensch pretensions. His smirk hides rage that flits between revolting against the bourgeoisie and violently disavowing the middle-aged ambassadors of age and decay. Before murdering their boss, Mamoru convinces his friend and coworker Nimura (Joe Odagiri, convincingly both jittery and driftless) to adopt his poisonous jellyfish and continue acclimating it to fresh water. In jail, Mamoru paces back and forth behind a wire grid, gleeful at Nimura's status reports. The vague possibility that they are creating a bioweapon to release into Tokyo's rivers seems lost on his friend, who wants little more than Mamoru's respect and guidance. When he commits suicide in his cell, Nimura continues with the reluctant help of Mamoru's estranged father, Shin-ichiro (Tatsuya Fuji, returning from a near-absence in film following the scandalous In the Realm of the Senses ), who scavenges for e-waste to repair and struggles with his newfound paternalism. They collaborate on the acclimation project as something closer to life support than a legacy, even as the jellyfish eludes their grasp literally and metaphorically.
"Metaphorically," though, in a broad sense. The jellyfish's slipperiness exceeds a mere logistical problem for its capture. It applies also as a metaphor, both for the characters and the film itself. Unlike horror monsters of years past, Bright Future's jellyfish has no dominant meaning. Often, the jellyfish is not a monster at all. It represents the unknown, dispossessed generations, an apolitical realm far removed from the society's narrow freedoms. Bright Future uses the creature as something like a crisis of metaphor, where each interpretation reconfigures its potential for danger. Nimura and Shin-ichiro adopt the jellyfish as Mamoru's surrogate, but, just as they retain a limited understanding of their deceased friend and son, they seem not to comprehend that the animal is lethal. This is the metaphor in which the jellyfish is a monster, and it culminates in a near-fatal misunderstanding of intimacy.
Strangely, it's when Bright Future most closely approaches apocalyptic visions that it seems least like a monster film. The mise en scène is filled with cnidarian shapes: a white jumpsuit thrown into the air, a kite, a lampshade. Whatever the jellyfish represents, it has already swarmed Tokyo. When a gang of disgruntled school kids sports glowing headsets and moves in formation down alleyways, the visual parallel to the aquatic invasion suggests an imminent uprising, a generational revolt against a society that forces the young to acclimate to Tokyo's inhospitable environment. However, the ensuing rebellion is incoherent and trivial even before the police break it up. The jellyfish moves beyond Mamoru to incorporate the entirety of disaffected urban youth, in the process incorporating all of their pathos and directionless, easily quashed frustration. The rivers teem with shimmering poison, but the school of jellyfish swims away from the city.
It's clear why no one wants to grow old in this vision of Tokyo. Long camera lenses flatten the skyscrapers into a backdrop; the buildings encroach on the characters while looking sort of weightless and empty. The digital video, shot with different cameras but which stays grungy and high-contrast, smears the drab color palette across the frame. The restless camera that follows Nimura tightens on every slack expression and anxious outburst, nerve-ridden and blunt in its movements. Even Shin-ichiro and Nimura's domestic life, supposedly a stable center in a world of flux, is infested with genre markers from midcentury melodrama. The camera locks down and the two move around the frame in meticulously blocked long takes, their confrontations all choreographed impulses and theatrical modulations in voice. Stability calcifies into artifice, raw emotion infused with the bitter knowledge that family is a construction.
That realization leads the genre-skipping Bright Future to dust off the sun-tribe film in its final scenes. Kurosawa's gang of school kids sporting Che Guevara tees under their uniforms (each screen-printed with a slightly different version of Guerrillero Heroico, as though they each independently decided to buy, or make, one) recalls the troublemakers of post-war Japanese film, called the "sun tribe." Emotional archetypes in Crazed Fruit (1956) and political emblems in Cruel Story of Youth (1961), they would be young adults, usually from wealthy families, who reacted to the stifling boredom of their GI-occupied cities with flurries of untargeted violence when they couldn't channel their rage into ANPO protests. Emerging in the 50s and 60s from the global conservative luxury following WWII, the sun-tribe film was the Japanese analog to US delinquent films and the French New Wave's under-supervised children and alienated criminals. Kurosawa draws a parallel to this period when teenagers' adolescent fear of aging and a disgust with the world they were to inherit became coextensive. While Bright Future quotes the crime-as-something-to-do Badlands (1973) with a waltzing chime score, and a poster of La chinoise (1967) appears at a narratively puzzling but thematically consonant moment, Kurosawa's bored revolutionaries are stuck in Japan. By referring back to sun-tribe films, in which school uniforms ironically imply leftist populism (rather than the privilege they often suggest in Western film), and allusively connecting the flowing white fabric with the jellyfish, he politicizes and opens up one of the strangest, richest social metaphors in his filmography. The grim ending makes it difficult to trust Kurosawa's insistence that Bright Future is not an ironic title, but he recuperates an apocalyptic scenario as a collective refusal to engage with a world stacked against humanity. The kids are stuck. So are the jellyfish, within reach but heading out to sea.