Film Micrœview #0: Charisma (1999)

11.12.2014 § Leave a comment

Rating: Dr. Pepper.

On one level, this is a film about a police negotiator suspended from duty for his failure to bring down the hammer in a hostage situation. On another level it plays out the distinctly Japanese struggle between individuality and conformity, and it does so on a traditional Japanese stage: that of the nature spirits — in this case, an unusual tree suspected of poisoning the forest around it.

Being directed by Kurosawa Kiyoshi, though, Charisma has many, many more layers to it, and does not bind itself to genre nor narrative expectations. Kurosawa (not to be confused with the late, more well-known Japanese filmmaker Kurosawa Akira, to whom he is not related) is known as a director of horror. Now when most people think of Japanese horror, they think, “Oh, so much more psychological than Western horror – no guts or sudden shocks – just slow burn moodiness, and seared-into-your-memory unnerving visuals.” You’d be on the right track with Kiyoshi, but he takes psychological horror to the next level, while borrowing extensively from drama, crime, and sci-fi. The sources of fear in his films are beyond the paranormal, beyond the extraterrestrial, and often beyond reason. I tend to feel even more afraid when his films end than I do when I’m watching them. More than perhaps any other filmmaker in my experience, he is able to convey fear itself. So I have no idea quite what this tree has done to my soul, but I am very, very worried about it.

This film is eclectic. The score cycles through cues ranging from minimal space invader blips to terrifying atonal choruses to a dance-y Indian inflected number. There is an impaling on a samurai sword which seemed too forced and out-of-place to be not an ironic dismissal of a horror categorization. It isn’t joyless: it has several hilarious moments, and clearly revels in its superimposition of the thriller genre’s intrigue, deception, and betrayal on top of this scenario involving foresters, ecologists, and incorrigible little sisters. It is rich in allegorical layers: the cancerous tree may have represented humanity’s plight against nature; it may have represented individuality versus the interdependence represented by the forest; it may even have been a means to address the tension between Japan’s historical role on the world stage with its expectations on its own citizens (a burning first incarnation of the tree is framed as self-immolation, and in a surreal montage was compared to a mushroom cloud). The city-slicking ex-cop returns to civilization at the end to find it symbolically in as much ruin as the tree he left behind… he wanted to help the lunatic he failed to deal with as society expected him to as an enforcer of law at the opening; he wanted to, as the lunatic wished, “restore the rules of the world”… if “the will to live is the will to kill,” as he learns in the wilderness, then does that extend to the extreme? Is it his downfall to yet again defer to the wishes of others at the climax, to simply destroy that which demonstrates even zero tolerance for the survival of those around it, rather than to continue championing it, at least defending its right to exist? These questions and more are raised by the film. I continue to be fascinated by Kurosawa’s work.

Also, just to let y’all know, the line that was translated to English in my subtitles as “Do you understand magnificence?” was not all that badly translated; it just meant “do you understand a god/person-of-much-renown-or-wealth”.

(re: #0: Several movies before I started my micrœviews, I began taking notes in a journal. I thought I’d retroactively get some of the ones I cared about into the world)

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