PRINT October 2006


Kiyoshi Kurosawa

I DISCOVERED Kiyoshi Kurosawa’s film Cure (1997) while working on Pariah, a film about Ulrike Meinhof that deals with the “spell” cast by leaders over followers and with the conditions that promote violent solutions to social problems. Meinhof, a widely respected journalist and social critic, had not only depicted these conditions in a fictional girls’ reformatory in the television film Bambule (from which my film takes extensive footage), but turned to violence herself, under the ideological influence of Andreas Baader and Gudrun Ensslin. On May 14, 1970, Meinhof literally leaped (with Baader, from the window of a prison library) out of her country’s intellectual elite into a new status as outlaw and terrorist. The broadcast of Bambule scheduled to air ten days later was canceled, and Meinhof’s film wouldn’t appear on German television until 1994.

What is it that impels someone to abandon a comfortable middle-class existence and the privilege of exercising a highly audible public voice to become an enemy of society? One hypothetical answer is an unbearably haunting guilt over the past, or, to put it another way, the insupportable persistence of the past in the present. In Buenos Aires, I have met people psychologically crippled by the sight of their former torturers, now respectable businessmen, walking along the same sidewalks. These people are haunted by the ghosts of disappeared friends and relatives and guilt-ridden over their own victimization: Some forms of trauma can never be healed or resolved, because their causes persist in the person’s everyday environment.

Similarly, the leftists who joined the Red Army Faction were tormented by the knowledge that the Federal Republic of Germany and its institutions were run by former Nazis, that the fascist-minded conservatism of the Springer press infected the public mentality, and that the “economic miracle” from which their own comfortable lives derived constituted what the RAF denounced as the “Raspberry Reich.” The tactics of the RAF were intended to peel away the society’s mask of tolerance and liberality—in effect, to expose its dirty secrets by forcing it to become more repressive and violent.

When I saw Kurosawa’s Cure, it seemed a kind of Japanese looking-glass image of the political convulsions in Germany decades earlier. Cure’s antihero is a strangely charismatic yet nearly catatonic youth who purports to have amnesia. He has, we eventually learn, studied Anton Mesmer’s writings and techniques for a year in secret, and is able to induce trance in his victims with the flame of a cigarette lighter, a lit cigarette, or tap water that behaves mysteriously in his presence. Under his spell, his subjects act out violent, unconscious desires.

“Who are you?” the hypnotist asks those who try to help him: a high school teacher, a policeman, a doctor, and finally the detective who has hunted him. Even coming from the mouth of a psychopath, the question makes the viewer focus on the social roles of these normally harmless people, on their function as pieces of a seemingly rational social order.

Yet this system itself must produce insanity, since the hypnotist is able to draw even these authorized enforcers of social, legal, behavioral, and psychological norms into violently acting out their unacknowledged resentments and bitterness—even rage—over lives of banal conformity. And of course these lives unfold in a society whose placid, affluent surface, like that of West Germany in the ’50s and ’60s, can be affirmed only through the hysterical denial of the traumatic past.

Themes of hypnosis and posthypnotic suggestion constitute an almost invariable presence in a whole strain of recent Asian detective/horror/spiritualist/serial killer films. Metaphorically akin to early films such as Fritz Lang’s Testament of Dr. Mabuse (1933), these movies take for granted that a spell can be cast over whole societies dominated by media images, computers, the “virtual” connectedness of physically unconnected people. This is hardly a novel idea, but the new Asian cinema, exhibiting a psychic grasp of contemporary anxieties reminiscent of the great European art films of the 1960s, has given it new life. In Lang’s day the telephone, telegraph, cinema, and radio were comparatively primitive vectors of suggestion. In the new Asian cinema, the cell phone, the Internet, the car radio, television, and malefic modern architectures “infect” their users, invoking a supermodernity in which human beings are literally soft machines, some able to turn others into homicidal or suicidal sleepwalkers with the flick of a Bic.

Cure has the structural porosity characteristic of its genre—if the mélange of plot devices and extensive borrowings of tropes from one film to another by one director from another can be called a distinct genre. When I asked film critic Amy Taubin what she thought this effulgence of pastiche “horror” movies is about, she answered without missing a beat: “Contagion.” Of course, she is absolutely right. Not only are the characters in the films of Takashi Miike, Shinya Tsukamoto, Yoo Sang-gon, Lee Jong-hyuk, and Park Chan-wook, Kurosawa, and many others menaced or infected by the malignant work of hypnotists, ghosts, phantom siblings, evil surgeons, and sexual maniacs who leave plastic bags of body parts in elevators and on basketball courts, but the films themselves “infect” one another, collectively depicting an implacable, apocalyptic tendency of the electronic utopia.

These recent Asian genre films do not end happily, for the most part, and they flutter only a thin tissue of narrative cohesion—but these are two of their most salient virtues. Even when they seem to echo Hollywood plots and feature such Western staples as the “serial killer,” they turn all the predictable twists and outcomes of such films around 180 degrees.

Consider, for example, the alterations Kurosawa makes, in Séance (2000), to the Kim Stanley–Richard Attenborough classic Séance on a Wet Afternoon. In the 1964 original, the psychic, Myra, decides to boost her reputation as a medium by “locating” a little girl after her husband, Billy, kidnaps the kid from her school. Myra’s ethereal insanity and Billy’s dropsical ineptitude clash in Conradian style. At the end of this guignol, Billy places the “body” of the still-living child where it will be found by a Boy Scout troop. In Séance, Kurosawa’s signature star, Koji Yakusho, plays Sato, a sound engineer taping woodland nature. Sato has no idea that a kidnapped girl, having escaped her captors, has taken refuge in his trunk of audio equipment. Junko, Sato’s psychic wife, is riven with self-doubt and skeptical of her special gifts, yet senses the child in the couple’s garage and thus saves her from suffocation. But the film plays out very differently from the original: A far more innocent-seeming plan to use this unanticipated involvement in a crime—not so much to “prove” Junko’s powers as to exculpate the couple from a kidnapping they had nothing to do with in the first place—takes on an uncontrollable, lethal logic of its own. By attempting to establish their innocence, they become guilty.

This is precisely analogous to the predicament of leftist German youth in the ’60s, who had nothing to do with the Hitler regime, and of the Japanese youth who had nothing to do with the Tojo dictatorship. In both countries, the extreme expression of this innocence—the RAF in Germany, the Red Army in Japan—created literal guilt out of psychological anguish.

Kurosawa and the other Japanese and Korean directors I have cited flaunt a liberating disregard for Hollywood convention and take highly experimental approaches to material that, if given the Hollywood treatment, would seem stale as a month-old Krispy Kreme. Something larger and more loaded with social implications than auteurism is taking place in films like Lee Jong-hyuk’s H (2002), which pinches plenty of cues from The Silence of the Lambs but is an infinitely less formulaic, cliché-ridden film, and Old Boy (2003), Park Chan-wook’s diabolically wrought story of revenge by hypnosis, which, in its suggestions of infinitely malleable human consciousness, seems, like Kurosawa’s films, a reflection of the inorganic, technological colonization of societies formerly based on animistic religion and rigidly traditional family life. The hilarious/horrifying unfolding of Takashi Miike’s Audition (1999), to cite just one further example, owes its fatal momentum precisely to its protagonist’s wish to marry a “traditional,” self-effacing Japanese woman, in a culture where relaxed sexual mores turn out to be a far less gruesome option.

Kurosawa’s films are usually standouts in this burgeoning academy of freaky moviemaking. Pulse (2001) begins with a haunting suicide, the replication of which spreads all over the Internet, its viral psychosis eventually leaving the charred residue of most of Tokyo’s inhabitants sticking to dark walls, empty streets full of smoldering vehicles, and a residue of vague hope when a handful of survivors escape by ship, an ending reminiscent of both On the Beach and Joseph Losey’s These Are the Damned.

Bright Future (2003), like Pulse, concerns itself with disaffected youth who haven’t much brightness to look forward to. Two friends work in a commercial laundry; Mamoru is obsessed with acclimating a jellyfish to freshwater, Yuji addicted to arcade games and, with passing similarity to Cure’s hypnotist, “lost.” Both of Bright Future’s young men have an overpowering urge to kill their employer, an obnoxious man but not an abusive boss, a regular family guy who likes to reminisce about his wild youth and pretends to be “with it” by borrowing a CD. Neither youth speaks of it to the other, and until the murder happens, its inevitability is hidden from the viewer. Mamoru kills the boss and his family. Yuji goes to their house with the intention of doing the same thing, only to find that his friend has beaten him to it.

In other films such as Doppelgänger (2003) and Charisma (1999), Kurosawa addresses in different ways an irresistible compulsion for ordinary people to transform themselves into more violent, ruthless, and determined beings. The result is not invariably that they become “evil,” but the toxins of the society are revealed through their decisions and their impulses, and we’re confronted with the contagion of technology and the infected consciousness of living in an intolerable world. The fact that it is an intolerable world is paradoxically emphasized by its utter normality: the way people eat and work and carry on with social life—uninflected, routinized, “modern” yet thoroughly conditioned by traditional structures.

These films reveal systemic social problems: There is, otherwise, no obvious reason why the disaster and mayhem featured in them should occur. Cure’s hypnotist was a gifted psychology student. The victims in Pulse are ordinary young people highly trained on computers and seemingly well acclimated to the complexities of the hypercities of the present day. The protagonist of Doppelgänger is a brilliant cybernetics inventor. Kurosawa’s characters don’t typically live in poverty or inhabit slums. They drive nice cars, dwell in well-ordered houses, and work at jobs that, even when dissatisfying, pay well.

Something in this smoothly functioning world drives them over the edge. Something in it even demands its annihilation. This may be the past inhabiting the present and poisoning the future. It may be the hubris of a species that has worn out its welcome on the earth. It may be the apprehension that Thanatos is much, much more powerful than Eros. Near the end of Bright Future, we see that not only has the iridescent jellyfish survived its accidental release into an expanse of freshwater, it has multiplied: A flotilla of its kind, brightly lit from within, makes its way along a freshwater river that courses through Tokyo. The father of the killer, a sympathetic scrap-iron dealer who is spellbound by the beauty of the bloblike creatures, wades into the river to observe them and is promptly stung to death.

Gary Indiana is currently in postproduction on Pariah, a film about Ulrike Meinhof, and Soap, based on the prose poem by Francis Ponge.