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. A relative snail’s crawl up the mountain of recognition, the actuality of the Japanese filmmaker’s career trajectory—at least to those on this side of the Atlantic— belies erroneous comparisons shoehorning Kurosawa in with both J-Horror marquees and the more obvious art-house favorites; the only intrinsic quality he shares with Hideo Nakata or Takashi Miike is nationality. One of the most striking differences, especially for those of us who began watching his work before the millennium and the occasional concomitant festival appearance, is that unlike those filmmakers, Kurosawa’s work just wasn’t available; that is, unless you knew where to look. Most stories of Kurosawa fandom begin the same way: with a bootlegged copy of one his films from the mid to late Nineties. Works for television like The Serpent’s Path or Eyes of the Spider did the trick for some; Charisma or Cure most often guaranteed a cinephile’s addiction and return trips to the section boasting scratched CD-Rs and home-computer-printed sleeves with a video-store clerk’s zealous synopsis bleeding onto the spine. A personal memory: Eyeing those titles for the first time, I thought, “If they’ve gone to all the trouble of getting these, there must be something worth watching.” Right they were.
Somehow over the last decade, an American fan base has grown out of the drop-in-a-pond presence Kurosawa once was. 2001’s touring retrospective no doubt fueled interest in his formidable canon from both distributors and audiences alike. In time, films like Cure (1997), Charisma (1999), Séance (2000), Doppelganger (2003) and Bright Future (2003) secured distribution in the rental markets, while first and last even saw short theatrical runs courtesy of Cowboy and Palm Pictures, respectively. The most telling sign his work has found prominence: It’s now not uncommon to hear “which Kurosawa?” in response to overheard ruminations on “the films of Kurosawa.” That question speaks the greatest praise anyone could give the filmmaker. Most remarkably—and in contrast to many it-auteurs cropping up in droves from the shores of Asia—it’s also a comment well deserved.
It’s been a long time coming, but Kiyoshi Kurosawa is finally getting the respect and representation from the U.S. industry that he’s always warranted, and upon the theatrical release of 2001’s Pulse, audiences will get to see one of the great works of horror, period. For fans, the occasion is particularly sweet, as the release marks the end of a dirty industry secret: Pulse has been rotting in the catacombs at Miramax since the studio purchased domestic rights to the film at Cannes ’01. Since the dissolve of a Weinstein-owned Miramax, the film has moved into the hands of art-house distributor Magnolia Pictures, though Miramax is in production on a Wes Craven remake with Christina Milian. The parting, as a result, takes on a somewhat somber tone. As much excitement as the release of Pulse inspires, one can’t help but think the original is being robbed of its soul after being kidnapped for four years. That may be effusive cinephilia speaking (or just plain stupidity—as if it’s really a surprise the studio is remaking the film), but Kurosawa’s work has thus far been so underplayed it was easy to believe it would be rescued unscathed and spared the mistreatment of J-Horror captives on U.S. mainland.
I had the opportunity to sit down with Kiyoshi Kurosawa on the occasion of a pre-release presentation of Pulse at the Japanese Society of New York. With his wife at his side and the Japanese Society’s Senior Film Curator, Linda Hoaglund, as translator, the interview took on a unique form. Kurosawa, who speaks virtually no English, relied almost entirely on Hoaglund’s translation of both question and answer, making it difficult to maintain any kind of conversational pattern. The atmosphere translation imposes isn’t easily stomached: the slow process eats up time, one wonders how both parties are being represented, and the emotional distance between interviewer and interviewee can seem as wide across as the oceans dividing their respective nations. Still, I couldn’t help but feel my frustrations were, in the end, fitting. I was, after all, speaking with one of the most thoughtful, enigmatic, and misunderstood filmmakers of my time.
Reverse Shot: Pulse was released in Japan in 2001, bought by Miramax at Cannes that year, and now it’s being released by Magnolia Pictures. Can you talk a little bit about the life of the completed product and why it is just now getting a stateside release?
Kiyoshi Kurosawa: Well, I was delighted at first when Miramax picked up the distribution rights, but then time passed, and it never was released, and I heard that there was a sort of sense—it wasn’t my personal outrage—that people were asking why they would buy the rights to a film if they were not going to distribute it. But it’s not every day that Japanese movies get picked up for distribution in the United States, and I figured I’d just wait and see what happened. Now, due to reasons that I am not aware of, it has been passed into Magnolia’s hands and is being released...so I don’t really know.
RS: Miramax has long been reviled among some in the film community for doing things like this—Pulse is a classic example: fans of your work have been waiting for its release for some time. What kind of relationship did you have with Miramax? Did they tell you what was going on with your film?
KK: No, I’ve never met anybody from Miramax. I don’t have any rights to the movie in Japan—the studio has all the rights so it’s up to them to do with it what they will but conversely because I’ve never met anybody from Miramax I don’t have any hatred for them either. But now I’m starting to get pissed off. [laughs] Everybody’s telling me that they’re pissed off about it so I think it’s time that I get pissed off.
RS: With regard to strategy, is it much different working with American distributors than working with those in Japan?
KK: Mmm…The truth is that I don’t think anybody in Japan can understand that well what’s going on in terms of distribution strategies in America, but in Japan the idea is that you release a film after you make it so that you don’t lose momentum. You make a film, and then you distribute it. I guess because it’s a foreign film in the United States the release can take place a little more out of context. But I would think that part of it is that when Miramax bought this film no one ever imagined the incredible success The Grudge and The Ring would find here. That was unexpected.
RS: And now it seems there is even more interest in Pulse as a result of those successes. What do you think the interest in J-Horror is in America? What does it have to offer that American horror films don’t?
KK: I think one of the clear reasons for its popularity is that in J-Horror ghosts are simply a foreign presence. They don’t attack, they don’t kill, they don’t threaten human life; they are just there. And they show up in your daily life rather nonchalantly. They don’t make a terrifying entrance. I think that that’s not a phenomenon prevalent in western horror mythology or the horror cycle, and I think horror that doesn’t attack and doesn’t kill is unique.
RS: And there’s a strong connection there to classical Japanese storytelling practices and the old Kaidan films…
KK: Well there are the old Kaidan films which are Japanese ghost stories that really began a long time ago with Kabuki and then were adapted in many different films throughout the Fifties and Sixties, and it kind of stopped in the Seventies. But they are not violent ghosts—the ghosts just show up and sit in the corner of the room to tell you how vengeful they feel, but they don’t act on that; they just want to tell you that they’re vengeful, and then they just sit there. So it is an updating of that. It’s a modernized version of something that existed in Japanese storytelling cycles a long time ago. But it never occurred to me that Americans would take to it so well.
RS: Do you find that kind of horror more frightening than what is portrayed in American horror films?
KK: I find ghosts in Japanese horror much more terrifying. In the standard American Horror cannon, because a ghost violently attacks you or comes after you, at least you have the chance to fight back. And what you’re fighting for is the idea that you can beat the bad thing and go back to the good old days when you were peaceful and happy and there weren’t any ghosts hanging around. But if they don’t attack you then the best you can do is figure out a way to co-exist with them. I find the idea that one just has to live with this thing much more terrifying. You have no chances of running away or fighting it; you’re stuck with it forever.
RS: So many of your films are terrifying in different ways. In Charisma you manage to create an incredible atmosphere of dread around a tree. People often talk about the tree as pure allegory, but what I remember most was the atmosphere surrounding it. Cure is another film which is outright terrifying at moments. Do you differentiate between Pulse and those films, for example? Do you see Pulse as the most “horror” of your films?
KK: I think what I did in Pulse was to really get down and explore the ghosts—what can I do to show what I think a ghost is? But what the film has in common with all my other films—as you said, around a single tree in Charisma, or say the jellyfish inBright Future—is that I take reality and characters who live in a certain kind of world and then I inject something that’s foreign. Through the injection of that foreignness into their daily lives, they start to see their lives differently and re-evaluate their realities. That’s the overall horror that holds my films together.
RS: Another link is your use of genre as a starting point. So often you combine standard genre tropes with ideas and methods which aren’t commonly explored or applied in a classical genre film. What is your interest in exploring the genre?
KK: The way I approach commercial filmmaking is that with genre film you have to tell your story within about a hundred minutes—that’s the basic template. It can be a little longer and a little shorter, but if you rely on the conventions of genre it’s an effective way of telling what might be a complex story in a more abbreviated format. For instance if a policeman shows up, because of the policier genre we know that all we have to do is say this is a cop and he’s investigating a crime and he captures criminals. You don’t have to delve into a lot of back story, it telegraphs that and helps you to abbreviate and make your narrative much more compact.
RS: In terms of genre, one could say that Pulse is a horror film, but that seems reductive. There is so much going on; the “bad guy,” more than the ghosts, is technology and isolation…
KK: At the time I wrote this film the internet was just starting to become popularized. It was before anybody really had a full idea of what effect it was going to have on our daily lives. Through the power of marketing it just spreads all over—in the case of Japan, to just so many households, I think at the time it was just kind of this unknown force that was spreading like a virus throughout the country and had that kind of ominous and menacing feel to it. Five years later, clearly the internet, and its use in our lives, has kind of stabilized as part of the infrastructure. But I think you could talk about the threat of technology in terms of nuclear power. Before we have a handle on what it really means we are seduced by its potential power, and it very quickly can spread beyond our ability to contain it. I think technology presents that kind of problem.
RS: Interesting that you should bring up nuclear power, as both Pulse and Charisma have apocalyptic endings.
KK: Charisma came out in ’99, Pulse was 2000, and I think the vague idea I had at the time was that we were really on the cusp of a new century. The idea was to abandon, by destroying everything from the 20th century in order to head into a good, new future. It wasn’t that the apocalyptic vision was negative or despairing, it was positive, a way to get rid of old baggage.
Photo by David LaSpina