Kiyoshi Kurosawa by Jim O’Rourke

BOMB 91 Spring 2005
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Photo of Kiyoshi Kurosawa, director of Bright Future, a Palm Pictures release. All photos courtesy of Palm Pictures LLC, 2004.

In the early ’90s, I had been too busy obsessing over classic Japanese films by Masamura, Oshima, Wakamatsu, Suzuki, and others to pay attention to what was happening in Japanese cinema at the moment. But when Takeshi Kitano moved from his popular role as half of a stand-up comedy team known as “The Two Beats” (he still acts under the moniker Beat Takeshi), to that of film director with Violent Cop (1989), Boiling Point (1990) and Sonatine(1993), I was enthralled. I asked my good friend Atsushi Sasaki, a great Japanese film and music critic, “Who else is doing good work now?” He mentioned his old college roomate Shinji Aoyama, and then, with eyes wide, “Kiyoshi Kurosawa.”

At first Kurosawa’s films were hard for me to find. Pre-1997, most of them had not been translated, but that year I had a revelation when I saw his films Serpent’s Path and Cure. It was as if Kurosawa knew exactly what kind of film I wanted to see—he used free flowing combinations of time scales and shifting sensibilities; for lack of a better phrase, they were existentialist tone poems in the guise of entertainment. 1998’s Eyes of the Spider cemented it for me: Kurosawa was my favorite filmmaker alive. Since then his worldwide stature has grown exponentially, moving out from V-Cinema (direct to video) and film festival screenings to the international commercial film circuit. Last year brought two more incredibly rich and rewarding works, Bright Future (Palm Pictures) and Doppleganger (Tartan Films). His newest film, Loft, premiered in January at the Rotterdam Film Festival.

Jim O’Rourke For the first half or so of your career, you worked firmly within the Japanese studio system.1 Now that you are making your own films, you still find the idea of genre very useful. How do you deal with the structure and language of genre, and do those challenges lead to a greater understanding of why a certain genre communicates in the way that it does?

Kiyoshi Kurosawa For me, the biggest thing that genre defines is that movies have been historically determined to be between 100 and 120 minutes in length. Of course you’re free to make them longer, but in fact I think that’s a length that has been determined by history. So I have to figure out a way to tell what I want to tell within that time frame, and that’s not my strength, so I rely on the power of film as such. And an even more fundamental reason that I operate within genres is that I’ve seen many, many wonderful movies that I consider to be masterpieces that are clearly bound by a certain kind of genre, or they’re old studio-system pictures. And if I watch these masterpieces, hobbled as they are by the lack of freedom that genre is defined by, I realize that still it’s possible to make a masterpiece under those conditions today.

JO’R Do you use the rules as a challenge to learn about the internal operations of a genre and why its language is what it is, as another way to express your ideas?

KK Certainly that is always a challenge that I enjoy, and even when I’m not conscious of genre, what I’m realizing is that the generic influences if you will, just naturally flow from me as a storyteller, and I’m sure that’s true in music, too—that we end up telling the stories based on certain rules. Well, in fact, I wouldn’t say that I always obey the rules of the genre, but I think ironically what I find most compelling is that no matter how accurately I try to follow the rules of the genre, even if I try to stay a hundred percent faithful to it, simply by the accident of the time that I live in or my individual personality there are always shifts and transformations. So no matter how faithful I try to be, my discovery is that it’s impossible.

JO’R Right. I really like how you incorporate a sense of non-linear time into your films. Eyes of the Spider in particular has an incredible power, in part due to its radical structure. The simultaneity of the story’s progression and the non-linear cause and effect open all sorts of new possibilities to reveal the motivations and psychic consequences of the protagonist’s act of revenge. I was wondering what initially inspired you to use non-linear time? Was it other films? Or was it through different mediums?

KK Actually, no one’s ever pointed that out to me before. It’s a very interesting insight, because I’m not actually conscious of defining a non-linear time structure in the abstract before I make a film. However, I think there is something that is organic to film and unique to it as an art form, which is the nature of time and how to portray it in film. And I am interested in that question of, What is time in film? So I would say I’ve grown more interested in that question over time. It’s something I contemplate each time I make a film, but I’m hardly an original thinker in terms of this. Take the very famous example of Akira Kurosawa’s Rashomon, where three different approaches to a similar reality are explored.

My understanding of filmic time is that it’s always moving forward in one clear, linear fashion, and at the end of two hours you come to the end. It’s only in parts of the story that you may periodically dip into the past. I think that if you approach telling a story the way Rashomondoes, what you do is dissolve any factual basis for determining what is true and what is not true. By having all three versions of events moving forward simultaneously, you dissolve the underlying concept of a single truth that’s presumed to be there. And I think that this is probably something very difficult to achieve in any other art form.

But at its essence, film is a collection of chopped-up time. I mean, I guess once in a while you have something that’s actual contiguous time that’s shot almost like a documentary recording of real time, but in general filming occurs over a longer time period: you shoot scenes over different days and then you edit that. Of course, the audience in theory experiences it as a linear story, but for those of us who are creating it, it’s a complete non-linear mishmash of time from the very beginning, and we’ll do brazen things like take a close-up from a scene that didn’t belong in the scene at all and pop it in in the editing.

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Asano Tadanobu stars as Mamoru and Joe Odagiri stars as Yuji in Kiyoshi Kurosawa’s Bright Future, 2004. Courtesy of Palm Pictures.

JO’R Still, I think very few feature filmmakers have dealt with time in the way you have. There are precedents, of course;2 but narrative film generally seems to be considered a representational art form. There’s a non-representational way you examine and reveal the motivations of the characters in your films, though, when time and its juxtapositions lead into an understanding of what cannot be shown. One shot can completely change the context of everything you’ve seen previously, but it isn’t like a trick or a parlor game; it creates a resonance that is unmistakable.

KK I’m delighted that you’re such a conscientious viewer of my films. The truth is that most of that sort of thing is not something that I planned while filming. Or I wasn’t planning on that being the last cut, but in the editing room I’ll go, Oh my gosh, maybe this is the last scene after all. And then I can plop it in there and that’s really why I love to make films. But, and maybe partly because the nature of narrative can be very musical, maybe in music you can also have this kind of playing back and forth with time and freely ad-libbing, but actually underlying it all is a forward, linear trajectory.

JO’R That’s sort of what I was getting at earlier. These larger structures seem to come out of working through the material and letting the material have a say in what’s done with it;3 I wonder if you sometimes feel like you are collaborating with the material.

KK Yes, I would have to say that that is really the fundamental basis of my filmmaking. Whether my material is human beings or landscape or cityscape, each time it winds up either gently undermining the rules of the genre or oddly enough, in unexpected ways making them work.

JO’R When Bright Future was released in the States, there seemed to be a lot of talk about the last shot, in which an aimless gang of teenage boys who have befriended the film’s protaganist walk boldly down a busy street all wearing a uniform of Che Guevara t-shirts. Politics haven’t seemed to be a programmatic concern in your films, but I am wondering if you feel there’s been a shift in the kind of engagement that Japanese youth have with local and global political situations.

KK I’m not interested in the power struggles of politicians, and I wouldn’t say that Japanese youth are either, although I would say that that in itself is dangerous, because it leaves many of us open to manipulation by those very same politicians that we’re not interested in. But that is not all that politics is, and I think that any time people from divergent cultures or societies encounter each other, there’s always a “political” situation at work. It’s this politics of interpersonal relations I’m more interested in incorporating into my films.

JO’R What that scene got me thinking about was whether that group of teens might be part of the first, or maybe the second generation to be almost totally disconnected from an awareness of political protests in the recent past, like the Zengakuren or the AMPO Treaty, and how these spilled over into the arts.4 I wonder if to them this history is a completely abstract commodity, because there may no longer be any physical connection to it.

KK Yes, but I would actually say it’s my generation that was the first to choose not to be involved. The generation directly older than me was very actively involved and was invested in believing in Che Guevara as an activist symbol. In watching them, I always felt that I needed to keep a certain distance from their profound engagement in political movements. The thing about young people today, though, is that they’re not completely cut off, because in fact they are genuinely drawn to the Che Guevara symbol. They don’t really know what it means, but I think some part of them instinctively understands that it’s a symbol of some kind of revolt and somehow vaguely expresses the dissatisfaction that they have with society. Now, obviously, some people make money off that, but I would say that even though they’re not politically conscious as a group, they’re not entirely unconscious, either. But given that it’s been a generation since young people were involved in political struggles, I do wonder what adult society’s been doing these last 20 years.

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Joe Odagiri as Yuji in Kiyoshi Kurosawa’s Bright Future, 2004.

JO’R Many of your films start after what would generally be a film’s climax, and the characters are trying to reestablish some connection to an ambiguous sense of being or belonging, even if that means having to trash whatever they understand communication to be, or reaching beyond what we understand to be “real.” This idea is foregrounded in the film Pulse where internet culture becomes an accelerated medium for alienation and even the apocalypse, but there are also some connections between some of your films, between Seance and Cure, for instance, that I’m really interested in. In Seance there are direct references to electro-voice phenomena and Thomas Edison’s psycho-phone, and in Cure to Mesmer.5 Do you have a special interest in these types of devices, or does your interest lie in the lengths people will go to in order to connect with others?

KK It’s not that I’m specifically interested in the occult, but I think inevitably the fundamental question that we wind up being obsessed with throughout our lives is what happens to us when we die. It’s something we’re constantly grappling with subconsciously, but in our daily lives, certainly living in the relatively peaceful cities we do, we’re quite removed from death. Obviously that’s not the case on a battlefield. But once you start to make a story, and very often in films, you have death; the death of a main character or a side character. The truth is, I’m no clearer about what death is than I was as a child. So the childlike questions remain: What happens when you die? Is it all over? Is it just nothing? Is there some way to communicate with those who have died? And I think my use of ghosts or communication with the other world is part of my obsession with those same questions.

JO’R Your films always make me investigate these things as well. I mean, I didn’t know about Edison’s psycho-phone until I heard it mentioned in Seance, and it compelled me to spend three days investigating it. Each new viewing rewards the work put into it.

KK I guess that’s why filmmaking is so compelling. I made something in Japan, and here people in America are entranced by it. Of course, I’m not making films alone. Fundamentally it’s a collective enterprise where I have my crew and my actors, and then you have the landscape. Each scene, each film really, is a one-time combination that’s being recorded and expressed, and of course in that sense, we have no idea how it will be responded to abroad. That’s part of what keeps it so interesting.


1 Until the early 1970s, the Japanese studio system worked much like mid-century Hollywood, where one rose from journeyman status through various jobs until finally appointed director, usually all within one studio. Any room for personal expression was limited to how one worked within the genre films they were assigned to make. This is true of Kurosawa’s early career. He moved from “roman porno” (an equivalent to the nudie film, and a usual first stop for any filmmaker in Japan) and V-Cinema (direct-to-video filmmaking, much more prevalent than in the West. Popular directors such as Takashi Miike began their careers the same way) through the prevalent genres of the ’90s: Yakuza (gangster), horror and suspense.

2 Films best compared to Kurosawa’s in terms of their use of time, especially his Eyes of the Spider and its companion Serpent’s Path, are Nicolas Roeg’s Bad Timing, Nicolas Roeg and Donald Cammell’s Performance and John Boorman’s Point Blank. They all share a psychological level that is expressed in part by revealing the “inner” out of sync with linear “outer.”

3 When asked by Karlheinz Stockhausen how he “did it,” Morton Feldman replied, “I don’t push the sounds around.”

4 Increasing domestic opposition to Japan’s continuing dependence on America in the post-World War II era was symbolized by the US Japan Security Treaty (AMPO), signed in 1951, which gave the US the right to maintain unlimited military bases and station 100,000 troops in Japan. As the Cold War escalated and Japan’s economy was beginning to recuperate, an increasingly robust and vocal domestic opposition rejected the inherent power imbalance in US-Japan relations codified by the treaty. Massive demonstrations were organized by a coaliton of labor unions, students, artists, intellectuals and socialists leading up to the treaty’s re-ratification vote in May 1960. Despite massive protests that turned violent and a full-scale opposition boycott, the treaty was re-ratified as essentially the same document Japan had reluctantly signed in 1951. The struggle was the defining event of postwar Japan. In film, the outcry felt by the opposition coalition was strongest in the work of Nagisa Oshima, initially a contract director, who broke off into independent production after the studio suppression of his film Night and Fog in Japan, a scathing dissection of the many facets of the student movements of the ’50s and ’60s and the dynamic between them. This led to an important group of independent filmmakers in the late ’60s who worked as “auteurs” but also as genre filmmakers, and who injected their films (usually “roman porno”) with polemics. Along with Oshima, Shohei Imamura (another studio director who went independent), Adachi Masao (a galvanizing political force in the film community, and maybe its best screenwriter), Kinji Fukasaku (who made explosive gangster films grounded in political rage for the Toei studio), Yoshishinge Yoshida and Koji Wakamatsu, among others, created a completely new environment for protest in Japanese film.

5 The psychophone, an invention pursued by Thomas Edison in the late 19th century to convey communication from the dead to the living, is now studied mainly in paranormal and occultist societies. Its main principles however, were in line with most mainstream motivations behind early audio recording technology, whose initial goal was to preserve the voice of the speaker after death.

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Originally published in

BOMB 91, Spring 2005

Featuring interviews with Constant Nieuwenhuys and Linda Boersma, Julie Mehretu, Alexi Worth, Pearl Abraham and Aryeh Lev Stollman, Robert Antoni and Lawrence Scott, Kiyoshi Kurosawa and Jim O’Rourke, Roscoe Mitchell and Anthony Coleman, Brad Cloepfil and Stuart Horodner, and Bruce Mau and Kathryn Simon.

Read the issue
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