After his girlfriend (Haruka Ayase) attempts suicide and enters a coma state for over a year, Koichi (Takeru Satô) tries to bring her back by entering her mind using neurological technology.
there’s a fundamental disconnect here between the director and his material
Once the hardest-working man in Japanese showbusiness—between 1997 and 1999, he churned out eight feature films, including his masterpiece, Cure—writer-director Kiyoshi Kurosawa’s output has slowed in recent years to a near-crawl. It’s been five years since his last theatrical feature, the muted, melancholy Tokyo Sonata, and while he earned strong reviews for his excellent five-part TV series Penance (made last year for Japan’s WOWOW network), anticipation was especially high for this return to the big screen.
Frustratingly, though, it’s almost but not quite good. Kurosawa fans will be relieved to find most of his trademark stylistic tics intact—that restless, prowling camera; the scenes which play out in a single, nearly meditative shot. Likewise, his fascination with damaged domesticity—and polite, banal exchanges that seem intended to conceal as much as they reveal. It’s an art of subtraction, emptying the meaning out of things to expose something else, and few filmmakers are so adept at evoking a sense of profound unease—the incipient chaos and terror that lies, humming gently, just beneath the placid surface of things.
But such effects often come at the expense of detailed psychology. In films like Licence to Live (1998) and Charisma (1999), his characters drift through the frame like apparitions—blank slates, drained of all personality and will. Which can be powerful when the theme is one of alienation, or absence—ordinary people effectively haunting their own lives—but not, as here, where real emotions are at stake, and an actual redemption is sought.
In near-future Tokyo, manga artist Atsumi has become so consumed by her series 'Roomi’—in which a psychopath commits a string of extraordinarily inventive and gruesome murders—that she succumbs to depression and attempts suicide. That bid fails, but she slips into a coma for months, prompting her boyfriend Koichi to attempt to reach her by entering her mind, via an experimental process known as 'sensing’, conducted under the supervision of a coolly distant researcher, Dr. Aihara.
Based on a novel by Rokuro Inui, this set-up closely resembles a recent Lithuanian sci-fi film, Kristina Buozyte’s Vanishing Waves. That work, more baroque than this, offered a series of tableaux drawn from Jungian archetypes of sex and death, the old Eros-Thanatos dialectic—through which the hero, another young man, wandered impassively, pausing every so often to have bouts of weirdly clinical group-sex.
But Kurosawa is uncomfortable with displays of sexuality, and his tastes incline more to horror (albeit of a refined variety) than to science-fiction. Thus, Koichi’s wanderings through his girlfriend’s subconscious begin to resemble a kind of ghost-train, overlaying a handful of remembered locations (the apartment they shared, the street outside their building, the island where Atsumi grew up) with a few ominous signifiers: blurred figures glimpsed in stairwells and corridors (clumsily described by Dr. Aihara as 'philosophical zombies’), an outside world that seems permanently shrouded in yellow fog. And inevitably—this being a J-horror flick—a spooky child, who seems to turn up everywhere, staring impassively"¦
Let it be acknowledged that the craftsmanship here is immaculate. Atsumi’s dream-world, all desaturated colours and decentred compositions, is subtly unnerving; and Takeshi Shimizu’s production design manages the difficult feat of seeming at once intensely realistic, and at the same time, somehow ever-so-slightly 'off’. You get the distinct sense that, were you to look, every book on their shelves would be filled only with blank pages, and every drawer, every cupboard, would be empty. That their lives are a performance of which they themselves are unaware.
Even the director’s borrowings display excellent taste: when Atsumi returns (in her dream) to her family home, she finds her father, mother and older sister living there calmly, unaware that they are, in fact, dead—and the pancake makeup they wear recalls the housebound phantoms from Jacques Rivette’s classic Celine and Julie Go Boating. (Just as a subsequent shot—of a rocky stretch of coastline—recalls yet another Rivette: 1976’s Noroit.) Only Kei Haneoka’s music seems excessive, its bland orchestrations—either syrupy or vaguely ominous—too reminiscent of too many other, sound-alike scores.
Yet there’s a fundamental disconnect here—though not between Atsumi and Koichi, as the script suggests, but between the director and his material. Kurosawa’s forté is the implied, the unseen: direct representation unnerves him. So to present (as here) a trio of zombies appearing suddenly out of nowhere—faces decaying, eye-sockets shadowed—is a major mistake, since it only serves to tip the action into unintentional comedy. (Not helped by some decidedly second-rate makeup; these supposedly terrifying monsters look more like some neighbourhood teens come to Trick or Treat.)
Likewise the big twist which occurs 85 minutes in, which turns the story on its head for no good reason, except to signal the moment at which the tone shifts from Arthouse to Popcorn, and events finally become ludicrous. Suddenly all personality, as well as every hint of menace, seeps out of the picture; by the time we reach the climax—the melodrama of which is further hobbled by some notably unconvincing digital FX—every trace of Kurosawa has vanished; these scenes could as easily have been shot by anyone.
The result, while not quite as risible as Hideo Nakata’s The Complex, nevertheless invites the question: what happened to this generation of Japanese directors? How did they forget how to scare the crap out of us? And when did their (formidable) technique calcify into a set of mere genre conventions?
One can only assume that financial pressures are at work. There are clear hints of studio interference here—not least, the fact that virtually every actor here is a good decade or so too young for their role. (Japan, like South Korea, having long since embraced the American tendency of casting-down in an attempt to lure young audiences to the cinema.) Thus, we get Michael Jackson-lookalike Takeru Sato as our lead, a young man of, shall we say, limited dramatic ability—though ironically, his blankness would have made him a perfect fit for one of Kurosawa’s sparser earlier works.
Kurosawa is at his best when working with silence and suggestion, and commonplace things: the suppressed, barely-perceptible terrors of the ordinary family home, the typical marriage. (His default tone might be described as 'domestic apocalyptic’.) His world is one where the hum of a refrigerator can be terrifying. Leave the monsters and the glowing-eyed kids to the hacks. He’s altogether too good for the material he’s being given.