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Past Article

A Struggle Against Various Limitations: Cornering Kiyoshi Kurosawa
By Jonathan Marlow
March 3, 2004 - 8:02 AM PST

"I try to imagine a very straightforward, simple, basic conflict."

For a brief introduction to the work of Kiyoshi Kurosawa, please see Jonathan Marlow's overview, an "Eclection" written last July. The following conversation, something of a continuation of the talk between Marlow and the filmmaker a few years ago in Seattle, took place in Rotterdam during the 2004 film festival and was transcribed by Hannah Eaves.

Jonathan Marlow: You were able to complete three films in 1998, two in 1999 and another two this year. It seems as if you're always working. Do you have time for anything other than filmmaking (or coming to festivals to speak about your work)?

Kurosawa Kiyoshi: In the past few years I have been able to make films at a fairly good clip but, prior to 1995, I wasn't so blessed. I would often have to take work making a television commercial or a dramatic television series. Sometimes, I would simply be unemployed.

JM: With Eyes of the Spider and Serpent's Path, you used the same pair of actors. For six films you've used Yakusho Koji. In Doppelgänger, you're working with the idea of a double and yet you've mentioned that one aspect of "the double" is "the actor" and "the real person behind the actor." In a sense, is Koji your double in this sextet of films?

KK: [laughs] Yakusho and I are essentially the same age [Kurosawa was born on July 19, 1955; Koji on January 1, 1956]. In conversation I find myself basically holding very similar values to him. Every few films I seem to have a story in which I am very strongly reflected in the protagonist, kind of a loser middle-aged man. In that case, I call on Yakusho. I've worked with him now in many of my films and for Doppelgänger I tried to come up with a role for him. I really couldn't decide whether to make him the victim or the aggressor in the film. I finally thought, "You know what? I'll just make him play both parts." Any time you see an actor on the screen, you're actually seeing two people. You're seeing the actor himself, in his physical reality, and you're seeing the part that he's playing. In a way, it's not such a big step to ask the audience to imagine that the same actor can play two different characters.

JM: He's an exceptional talent. You allow him the freedom in Doppelgänger to show his true range, from meek to maniacal.

KK: I certainly couldn't have made the film without him. Although in this film, it's really the split-off of the same person that he's playing. In films other than mine, career-wise and age-wise, he's such a top star now he tends to get cast in positions of great authority - playing the mayor of Tokyo, the police chief or whatever. I'm personally quite opposed to this. I mean, he's much more attractive and charming as kind of a basic loser, just like myself. In that sense, although I have him play two opposing roles, neither of them are characters of great authority.

JM: Is Kimishima [played by Yusuke Santamaria] also a double of sorts? He seems to know the secrets of how to do away with doubles and he's brought in by the double. I wasn't quite sure if there was some secret behind him.

KK: He's not necessarily a double as such, but inevitably, the characters in my films show a duality, maybe showing one side of their personality and suddenly they'll up and reveal a completely different side. I mean, you could say the same of the woman [television star Nagasaku Hiromi, making her film debut] in Doppelgänger as well. Suddenly she shows a very different side. With Hayasaki, once they've split off to Hayasaki and his double, each of them starts to show internally contradictory elements. My films have always featured characters who reveal not just a single aspect of their persona but at least one or two additional contradictory elements in their personality. Occasionally people become confused by these very ambiguous characters. I finally decided, "What the hell, I'll just split the guy in two and give him two distinct personalities."

JM: You shot Dopplegänger completely in high definition and Bright Future was shot on a combination of high definition and mini-DV. With Doppelgänger, you've disguised the video and gave it a very filmic quality; in Bright Future, you're pushing the video out very clearly. Considering Bright Future, were you always thinking of it as having a visual quality that was very different than your other films?

KK: Although I've shot lots of stuff on video that wound up on video, this is the first time I shot on video and then transferred to film. I wanted to show just how different film looks compared to when you shoot video and then transfer it to film. In addition [in Bright Future], I printed without color timing so you really see the raw sense. Additionally, I'd wanted to use the split screen effects for thirty years now, since I was a high school student [used briefly in Bright Future and extensively, to great effect, in Dopplegänger]. At the time, it was in the 1970s. You may remember some films, particularly American movies starting in the late 1960s, with split screen images. Since these films were shot on video and edited on a computer, I was finally able to afford a split screen. If you try it with standard 35mm film, it is terribly expensive. I mean, film has always been a struggle against various limitations. The limitations of money, of time, of technology, and of course, of my own skill. Kaïro/Pulse, Bright Future and Doppelgänger were really all made possible by the emergence of video technology.

JM: That was part of the concept of Bright Future from the beginning?

KK: It wasn't necessarily the first initial concept but I did want to try the video-to-film transfer method. In Bright Future, I did a lot of camera tests to see what it would look like and it was sort of an answer that I stumbled on, the look.


JM: I don't know if you're familiar with Takashi Miike's Zebraman, or if you've had a chance to see it, but there are quotes from several contemporary Japanese horror films scattered throughout the film. Clearly Ringu, but there's a shot in the beginning of the film that seems to reference Bright Future, where there's this migration of seals up a river, which is the same as the jellyfish migration in your film. There is also a sequence in the alien invasion where they're putting red tape to tape off doorways, identical to Kaïro. It seems as if allusions to your films are popping up in different places. I believe that Kaïro hasn't played in the US outside of film festivals. Is someone remaking Kaïro?

KK: I haven't seen Zebraman yet. I had no idea! Well, I guess Dimension, a subsidiary of Miramax, has the rights [to Kaïro] technically. I really don't know if they're really working on it or what the deal is. It's really out of my hands.

JM: Ideally people will finally get a chance to see it.

KK: It would be nice. Even a small release would be nice.

JM: Fortunately, Palm Pictures is releasing Bright Future later this year. Horror films are quite popular in the United States at the moment but there is something remarkable happening in Japan, both in your work and in the films of other directors working in the country. The original versions are considerably, predictably better than the Hollywood film adaptations of the same, like Ringu Japan versus The Ring, the US version.

KK: It is very gratifying to hear that. I think it's easy for those of us who live outside the United States to hold the stereotypical notion that the United States is uniquely isolated by a vision of themselves. It's nice to hear that there are Americans that want to be exposed to other experiences.

JM: The Sundance Institute awarded you a scholarship for the script that became Charisma. Can you talk a little bit about the origin of this unusual story [involving a tree that controls the fate of the world]?

KK: I believe that I started thinking about the idea in the very late 1980s when environmental issues began to be focused on. I think that we began to hear protests about deforestation and, you know, sort of the call to stop cutting down trees in the forest; it was a very clearly articulated position that was getting a lot of play. On the other hand, of course, there were those people who felt that the workers who made a living chopping down trees would lose their income and their livelihood. The more I thought about who was right and who was wrong, the more this simple question turned into kind of a Gordian knot and I realized this idea could form the foundation for a film.

JM: Storytellers rely on certain types of conflict to tell a story, whether it be "man versus man," "man versus nature" (or "technology") or "man versus himself." You're the only filmmaker I am aware of that consistently tries to incorporate all three in essentially every film. There is the internal conflict. There's the conflict against the outsider. There is always conflict with the surroundings, whether it be nature or technology or the supernatural. Your efforts take these stories in directions that are much more complex than other filmmakers' work. Is there a deep rooted interest in trying to bring things into, I hate to say a "spiritual" realm, but something that's definitely more involved than a traditional narrative?

KK: When I start to make a film, I try to imagine a very straightforward, simple, basic conflict. Two hours is a relatively limited amount of time in which to tell the story of a life, so we start with a very basic conflict. It's a very efficient way to tell a story. I identify this conflict and then I begin to study and ponder and think about it. The more that I think about it, the more that I realize it's not so simple at all and the more complex it becomes, and the more I realize that there is certainly no simple conclusion. The best I can do is finish the film with whatever lack of conclusion I wind up with and that may leave us with a very ambivalent conclusion, the results of which are that I always have grown as a person and I have learned something. That's my approach to filmmaking.

JM: When you made Séance for Japanese television, were you familiar with the Bryan Forbes film? Had you seen his film, Séance on a Wet Afternoon, or were you only familiar with the book?

KK: Actually, no, I hadn't seen the film. Recently I saw it on a DVD, though without Japanese subtitles, so I'm not quite sure what was going on in the movie.

JM: It is one of the rare occasions where a remake brings out qualities in the story that are missing from the original, perhaps because of the difficulty in dealing with the subject matter when Forbes first made the film. There is a greater complexity in the relationship between the man and the woman, an issue that is made quite clear when they find the child and deal with keeping her hidden for a long period of time.

KK: My sense is that the [original] film is quite loyal to the book. Both were created more or less in the early-1960s. Forty years ago, marriage and kidnapping - and just sort of the nature of life - were quite different. When I read the novel, I realized that it felt quite outdated for a contemporary audience, so I adapted it quite freely. I think it's quite different from the original. Probably my adaptation, forty years on, feels more contemporary and appropriate to contemporary life.

JM: If I'm not mistaken, all your films are shot in Japan. The exceptional Cure was your first film to receive wide distribution in the United States. Seemingly the opportunity now exists to produce your work elsewhere. Would you be interested in making a film outside of Japan?

KK: Yes, of course I'd love to, given the opportunity. But where? Which country, which city, what kind of people? This is something that I really would need to research quite carefully. I'm so familiar with the people of Tokyo that it's quite straightforward for me to portray them. I'd really have to familiarize myself with people living in other countries. But I really do love a challenge so I hope to someday. For now, I have just about completed the screenplay for the next film I am planning to make. If all goes according to plan, it's possible that it will turn into a tragic horror story. Of course, it's possible that by the time I'm done, a tragic horror story may have morphed into a comedy!

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"I try to imagine a very straightforward, simple, basic conflict."

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Jonathan Marlow
In addition to his persistence in acquiring obscure films for GreenCine, Marlow is a writer, filmmaker, curator and occasional critic. Not necessarily in that order. He is also a dedicated skeptic.

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