The Notebook Primer introduces readers to some of the most important figures, films, genres, and movements in film history.
The success of his latest release, Wife of a Spy (2020), has once again positioned Kiyoshi Kurosawa atop the list of international cinema's most celebrated filmmakers. Continuing what has been an exceptional festival circuit reign in recent years, the Kobe-born director's World War II drama was awarded the Silver Lion at the Venice Film Festival, and it is, as Notebook’s Aaron E. Hunt observes, an emblematic feature from Kurosawa, retaining several of the archetypes and tropes he has so often embraced. Indeed, a consistency in distinct systems of narrative and audiovisual expression has been central to Kurosawa's cinema, manifest in films spanning multiple genres and locations and relayed in mutable tones and mesmeric formal motifs. And though it took time to find traction with a global audience, this approach was something he learned to appreciate early on.
While Kurosawa began making 8mm movies in high school, it was his enrolment in Rikkyo University and the subsequent guidance he received from film scholar Shigehiko Hasumi that emboldened and expanded this cinematic assessment. Although he wasn’t officially a film student (he was, in fact, studying sociology), his experience with Hasumi was profound. “What [Hasumi] taught me was how to watch films,” notes Kurosawa, “how to perceive them, not how to make them. … The core of what he taught me is that films aren’t just about entertainment, but films are so vital and exciting that they are worth spending your whole life exploring and examining.” Kurosawa took this inspiration and started directing commercially in the early 1980s. Though constrained by the dictates of Japan’s studio system, and initially relegated to soft-core pinku eiga films and low-budget, direct-to-video Yakuza features, Kurosawa attained valued experience on such titles as Kandagawa inran sensô (1983) and Bumpkin Soup (Do-re-mi-fa-musume no chi wa sawagu, 1985). As his first venture into horror cinema, a genre for which he would become best known, Sweet Home (Sûîto Homu, 1989) was a particularly pivotal release, while his efficiently provocative thrillers Serpent’s Path and Eyes of the Spider, both released in 1998, had similar plotlines of morally ambiguous retribution and formed what Kurosawa considers a “tetralogy” with his earlier The Revenge I: A Visit from Fate (1996) and The Revenge: A Scar That Never Disappears (1997).
Kurosawa’s Cure (1997), about a detective’s investigation into a series of murders committed by individuals who then have no recollection of their actions, is a furtive exploration of murky motivations and introduces a number of other themes distinguishing Kurosawa’s canon, including the isolation of distressed characters within a grand metropolis like Tokyo. With protagonists as unnerved by its unsettling imagery as the viewer, Cure was lauded for the performances of Masato Hagiwara and Kôji Yakusho, the latter a key and recurrent Kurosawa collaborator. Following License to Live (Ningen gôkaku), a 1998 film inspired by Sam Peckinpah’s The Ballad of Cable Hogue (1970), with its emphasis on character, location, and makeshift community, Kurosawa directed Charisma (Karisuma) in 1999, a bewitching mélange of perplexing characters and ambitions based on a screenplay he had written a decade earlier, which had earned him a scholarship to the Sundance Institute.
A cautionary attitude concerning the technology of an advancing 21st century plays a substantial role in Kurosawa’s 2001 horror film Pulse (Kairo), where an apocalyptic series of events, seeming to derive from cryptic online videos, result in several suicides and a remote, indefinite future. Although it is bolstered by a supernatural sense of dread, Kurosawa instills in Pulse a tangible reality that makes the introduced unknown, or “Other,” that much more pronounced. The film’s characters, he observes, “live in a certain kind of world,” but then he injects something foreign, and through that injection into their daily lives they “start to see their lives differently and re-evaluate their realities.” That overall horror, Kurosawa adds, is what holds his films together. Ghosts permeating the lives of ordinary people are also dominant in Séance (Kôrei, 2000), a television drama based on a book by Mark McShane and starring the Charisma team of Yakusho and Jun Fubuki, but with Bright Future (Akarui mirai, 2002), Kurosawa avoids the conventions of any particular genre and instead made what he views as a contemporary Japanese film about wayward teens and their social conditions.
Following Bright Future, which competed for the Palme d’Or at the 2003 Cannes Film Festival, Kurosawa directed Doppelganger (Dopperugengâ, 2003), a tonally vacillating merging of scientific ingenuity and personality distortion, while Loft (Rofuto), from 2005, is what Kurosawa calls a “strange love story with many horror elements.” But that film, he notes, was a “hard sell” in the Japanese market—he quips that he “should have made a less unambiguous love story or a more ambiguous horror.” Retribution (Sakebi), released the following year, again posits the anxious progress of those haunted (literally and figuratively) by obsession, fear, and guilt. By comparison, 2008’s Tokyo Sonata, one of Kurosawa’s finest films, was viewed as a significant departure for the director. This riveting family drama, generally mitigated in terms of anomalous presentation and subject matter, garnered Kurosawa the Un Certain Regard jury prize at Cannes. Nothing if not prolific, in 2012 Kurosawa then directed five episodes of the television miniseries Penance (Shokuzai), followed by 2013’s 29-minute action short Beautiful New Bay Area Project, part of an anthology film, and, also in 2013, Seventh Code (Sebunsu kôdo), for which he won the best director award at the Rome Film Festival.
A year after his 2015 fantasy-romance Journey to the Shore (Kishibe no tabi), another Cannes triumph, Kurosawa directed the suspenseful crime procedural Creepy (Kurîpî: Itsuwari no rinjin), based on a novel by Yutaka Maekawa, and he made his French-language debut in 2016, with Daguerrotype (Le secret de la chambre noire), a quintessentially uncanny Kurosawa title hinging on the mediation of technology (19th century photographic techniques in this case), spectral distress, and distorted realities. To the Ends of the Earth (Tabi no Owari Sekai no Hajimari), which critic Leonardo Goi likens to Kurosawa’s Russian-set Seventh Code, takes place in Uzbekistan and, like that 2013 feature, stars singer-turned-actress Atsuko Maeda, here playing a reporter in search of an enigmatic fish. But the film is much more than that, as Goi writes. Of this “gentle-paced, melancholic ride,” he notes how a “failed quest turns into an opportunity to grapple with an unresolved longing, a lingering and all-pervasive solitude.”
While Kurosawa has been predominantly associated with the horror genre, he remains keen on other venues of expression. Even his most haunting films contain understated and sometimes quite brazen humor, so it’s not surprising he counts comedy among the genres he still hopes to explore, along with the musical. A respective film’s genre has indeed been a key aspect of how Kurosawa chooses his next project, and although he contends the easiest to work with has been the gangster film, he considers horror to have been the hardest, which is surprising given his obvious proficiency. Nevertheless, Kurosawa’s brand of horror has been routinely inventive and inimitable. As he tries to “portray the incomprehensible as non-human,” he evokes an otherworldly reality through elusive imagery and composite sounds, which critic Virginie Sélavy says play a crucial role in all of Kurosawa’s work, expressing a concentrated realization of “unsettling soundscapes that combine with the visuals to create a multi-dimensional, immersive world.” Relying on this impressive unease, and largely shunning overt shock techniques and excessive gore, Kurosawa maintains he hasn’t yet “achieved the complete perfection” of the horror genre but believes the form remains ripe for continued explorations of death, a subject “for which no proper answer can be expected to emerge.”
- Cure (1997): Applying the foundational crux of hypnotic conditioning, Kurosawa’s Cure examines an individual’s capacity for change in accordance with the world changing around them, a common refrain in his work. But while he attributes such an interest more to the films he has viewed than to his sociological education, his comments concerning philosophical notions of identity and psychological terror suggest a clearly studied intent, which align with Cure’s essential motivation of mangled minds prompted by external influences.
- Charisma (1999): This allegorical feature, teeming with overtones of portentous cultural reckoning, centers on a confluence of individuals consumed by their fanatical interest in a mysterious tree. The environmental implications are obvious, but also reflected in this multifaceted and consistently chaotic film is the uncertainty of a new millennium. “I was quite conscious of the fact that something was coming to an end,” remarked Kurosawa, who imbues this sometimes humorously puzzling feature with an enthralling unpredictability and opacity.
- Tokyo Sonata (2008): In presenting this tragicomic survey of domestic dismantling and unsteady reconciliation, Kurosawa bestows a subtly disturbing quality to the occasionally drastic actions taken by his protagonists. Yet he also allows for an open ending that is nonetheless hopeful, and prioritizes the exemplary truthfulness he frequently supports. “I do put my characters in trying, even twisted, circumstances,” Kurosawa acknowledges. “But what I’m very carefully trying to do is to create characters who are first and foremost regular people, no different than you or me. Their situations are unusual, sure, but in my movies how the characters deal with pressure in those situations is fundamentally not dissimilar from how you or I deal with our own pressures.”
- Creepy (2016): The overlapping mysteries of Creepy—one revolving around the cold case disappearance of an entire family, save for one girl, and the other involving a former detective’s (Hidetoshi Nishijima) disquieting new neighbor—are set against a familiar Kurosawa backdrop of atmospheric and scenic impermanence. Linked to this integration of inscrutable settings is Kurosawa’s parallel interest in passive characters with a blank slate sensibility, which eventually coheres to their shifting milieu.
- Before We Vanish (2017): This peculiar science fiction film may ostensibly concern the journey of three aliens who travel to Earth and takes possession of unwitting hosts in preparation for an ensuing invasion, but as is often the case with Kurosawa, the picture goes beyond what its basic genre implies. Seeking out native guides, the aliens spark a prescient appraisal of strained and heartened relationships, dissecting fundamental human concepts of freedom, work, and love and testing their means of linguistic understanding.
- “Into the Forbidden Zone with Kiyoshi Kurosawa,” by Virginie Sélavy: This exceptional 2008 essay by Virginie Sélavy methodically surveys many aspects of Kurosawa’s filmography, from his weaving of “multi-layered metaphors, elliptical narratives and beautifully textured visual and aural landscapes,” to the restrained treatment of horror conventions that reinforce Kurosawa’s approach toward filmic technique generally. “Kurosawa films his characters from a distance,” Sélavy writes. “Rather than sticking the camera on the character’s shoulder and startling the audience when the bogeyman suddenly appears in the frame, Kurosawa observes the events from afar, putting us in a position from which we are able to see shadows move and shapes appear in the background, from which we can see everything, the living as well as the dead around them.”
- “Kiyoshi Kurosawa exhumes the heart of a Japanese family in Tokyo Sonata,” by Terry Keefe: Keefe’s piece is perhaps most notable for its analysis of Kurosawa’s meticulous direction, writing, for example, that the shot compositions of Tokyo Sonata “are so precise and seemingly fine-tuned, that it was a surprise to find out that Kurosawa works fairly loose on the set and doesn’t even storyboard, nor has he really ever used storyboards.” Similarly, Kurosawa’s commitment to allowing his actors a productive degree of freedom and flexibility have resulted in performances, especially in Tokyo Sonata, that somehow “feel as precise as his shot selection.”
- “Two Weeks in Another Town: Kiyoshi Kurosawa Discusses To the Ends of the Earth,” by Lawrence Garcia: Garcia primarily looks at Kurosawa’s 2019 feature and the significance of its Uzbekistan setting, particularly the way it “incorporates a number of the landlocked nation’s various tourist landmarks.” But, he adds, “the film is also an auteurist work par excellence, one that demonstrates—perhaps more so than any of Kurosawa’s work this decade—the director’s casual control of disparate genres, tones, and moods.” For his part, Kurosawa declares in the interview his aim of not making something particular to Uzbekistan, “but something that could happen anywhere, to anybody—myself included—somebody who doesn’t know anything about the country that she or he goes into, and struggles mightily at small clashes between cultures.”
- “Land of the Dead: An Interview with Kiyoshi Kurosawa,” by Paul Matthews: “The cinema of Kiyoshi Kurosawa has thus far managed to assert itself without much fanfare,” Matthews remarks in this 2005 interview, but that has surely changed in the intervening years. One reason, as noted here, is Kurosawa’s variety of horror, which, while it may derive from the traditional Kaidan ghost stories endemic in Japanese culture, also banks on the contemporary depiction of ghosts in Japanese cinema, which are, for Kurosawa, “simply a foreign presence.” “They don’t attack, they don’t kill, they don’t threaten human life; they are just there,” the directors states. “And they show up in your daily life rather nonchalantly.”
- “Interview: Kiyoshi Kurosawa,” by Violet Lucca: Conducting this conversation between Kurosawa and Daguerrotype star Tahar Rahim, Lucca discusses “the tension between the photographic ‘truth’ of what the daguerreotype is, and then the subjective truth of what’s going on in [the film’s characters’] minds.” Kurosawa says he wanted to “touch upon the blurred distinction between reality and imagination,” a process similar to filmmaking itself. “We don’t really know what is fiction and what is reality,” he argues. To this end, Rahim stresses the importance of understanding Kurosawa idiosyncratic universe and his world: “That’s the most important. Because if you don’t understand that, it’s hard to portray someone and find the truth in any character.”