Kiyoshi Kurosawa

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feihong
Joined: Thu Nov 04, 2004 12:20 pm

Re: Kiyoshi Kurosawa

#126 Post by feihong » Sat Jul 04, 2020 4:26 am

I didn't think to mention it at the time, but a little while ago I saw Kurosawa's latest, or next-to-latest picture, To the Ends of the Earth. It is by far my favorite of his film since he abandoned horror for respectability (the cutoff as I see it is Retribution/Tokyo Sonata). I think it's the best of these movies––though I haven't seen Daguerrotype yet. I should say that of these later movies the only one I like was Journey to the Shore, and then I only really like it if I can make myself forget the sequence where the other ghost screams at the cave in the forest or whatever––that scene was a tedium). Before We Vanish and Creepy were wretched, Real put a gun to its own head midway through and finished itself off. I found Tokyo Sonata both dull and preposterous at times, and I did not feel as if it was worth it. I didn't even try to see Kurosawa's bizarre immediate remake of Before We Vanish, but that seemed almost like an admission of failure on the previous movie. Mostly I feel that Kurosawa the would-be international filmmaker has a hard time balancing his preference for surrealism with the thematic and aesthetic challenges of his current work. Working more squarely in genre allowed him to explore interesting themes by transgressing genre elements. Without genre, he has no backstop, and things often get very imbalanced, or just plain out-of-control. The actors he works with these days are often just not as good as Yakusho, as well. There have been some good actresses, but sometimes Kurosawa doesn't seem to know what he wants to do with them, and often the women are only tangential to the point of the film (Journey to the Shore is the clear exception in this case).

To the Ends of the Earth isn't subject to any of the wayward sense Kurosawa has generated in recent projects. It is very grounded, wearing its slight surrealism very lightly, and as such, it makes the most productive use of Kurosawa's fastidious precision of any of his recent movies. It is also a kind of stripped-down, unshowy musical (there are only 2 or 3 songs, don't get your hopes up too much), which makes it more unique still in Kurosawa's oeuvre. Most productively, it is a travelogue film, shot entirely, I believe, in Uzbekistan, and at times it verges on being a documentary––this gives it a far greater sense of freedom, of looseness, than Kurosawa normally allows. Creepy sucked so hard partly because it felt so suffocatingly controlled. To the Ends of the Earth feels risky and strange. It's often hard to tell what will come of any given scene, what the heroine will discover around the next corner. It's hard to know how she will react to whatever she sees. It is on the one hand a very sedate movie––though easily Kurosawa's most beautiful film, ever, period––but there is an undercurrent of menace throughout the picture, and you feel that something might happen at any moment. Most especially, in spite of how ordinary everything seems to be within the story, you feel like the heroine might snap, anyway.

The film follows Yoko, played by the singer Atsuko Maeda, of AKB48. She is a newscaster working with a small crew on an Uzbekistan-set travel documentary for the Japanese audience. Yoko is an interesting character, especially because she seems so inward and repressed. She looks very mousy, behaves very awkwardly, and as the film goes on it becomes very obvious that Yoko is having a terrible time in Uzbekistan. The documentary crew is searching for unusual sights in Uzbekistan, and they are having a hard time finding them. Nothing is working out. Yoko feels it is her job to give the viewers something interesting to see, and it becomes clear she feels she is failing t it. At one point Yoko is put in rusted a tilt-a-whirl that pitches her up and down riotously. Because the crew wants coverage, Yoko continues to ride the device until she screams and vomits. She eats food that hasn't been properly cooked because they need it for a shot. Kurosawa often depicts her struggling to change her costume in the back of a van, gently emphasizing the frustration and humiliation she endures as the host of this program. She stands in a lake looking for a rare fish, only to be told the fish isn't appearing because she's a woman, and the fish steers clear of them. But Yoko is a little weirder than is let on at first, and expertly, after showing Yoko enduring all these humiliations and hardships, Kurosawa starts a passage of the film showing us the very strange person Yoko actually is. She wanders the streets at night, leaning away from passersby, nearly scraping against buildings to try and melt into the city backalleys. She is fascinated by fenced-off areas she is told not to enter. She sees a goat tied up in someone's back patio and schemes to free it. There is something so painfully inward and overwrought about Yoko; she is not one's normal protagonist. She isn't very sympathetic, especially because Uzbekistan looks gorgeous and inviting, and Yoko is astringent and angry and resolutely armed against the country's charms. Ultimately we learn that she is doing this job in order to eventually do what she loves, which is singing. She sings several times for us, only when she feels she is alone––and each time a full orchestra rises to meet her voice. The last song seems to me a deliberate parody of The Sound of Music, with the camera craning up away from her head to fill the frame with the pastoral landscape. There is also Adiz Rajabov, a wonderful Uzbeki actor, who plays Temur, the documentary crew's translator. He is an extraordinary figure in the film, gentle and self-effacing, enthusiastic about both Japanese culture and his own. Temur is the only true-believer in the film, the only one who knows about the history between Uzebkistan and Japan. He is the only character who is happy that the film crew is there; the Uzbeki's look at them with justified suspicion––since they are really just doing a gonzo doc on weird stuff to find in the country––and the Japanese crew is mostly nonplussed by the stunning beauty and absorbing history of Uzbekistan. Kurosawa seems to be delivering a harsh jab at Japanese television and perhaps a sort of provincial Japanese attitude, making his documentary crew members unresponsive in the face of really moving views, ideas, etc. In a place bursting with potential interest, they are there to shoot crap, and a very specific kind of crap. When confronted late in the film by Temur with the story of the local opera house––which was built by Japanese prisoners after WWII, the craftsmanship of which astonished the Uzbekis supervising the construction––and while told by Temur how this inspired him to study Japanese culture, the crew decides such footage wouldn't sell, and instead films Yoko acting cute and personable (this is something she can turn on for the camera, but which she never expresses when the camera is off) while touring a grungy local food bazaar.

The film is gorgeous––I think this is the third time I'm saying that––and in addition to local music and the songs Maeda sings, there is an arresting dirge played by trombones and french horns that emerges shyly throughout the film. It has a little bit of the feeling of an Angelopoulos movie. And all of Kurosawa's expert effects he has developed since Tokyo Sonata are used here with greater effect and purpose. There is a scene in the film where the light in a room dims palpably, very much like a similar effect in Creepy. But here the effect has meaning and emotional quality to it. The drama of bringing Yoko out of her shell is always the centerpiece, and it's to Maeda's credit that she manages to make this singularly unattractive figure (she has gone out of her way to deglamorize Yoko, and the costuming and hair contributes to this very sedated, mutely defensive look) so relentlessly compelling. Yoko is unreceptive to engaging in Uzbekistan's culture, its people, its space or light or customs––but she is a prisoner here, genuinely miserable, with her personality repressed, her wants and drives frustrated. Contrasted against the striking landscape, and you have the most Antonioni-ish of Kurosawa's pictures. And when the singing started, I was overwhelmed. I think it's a genuinely great movie, and one of Kurosawa's absolute best. There is such freedom and generosity on display in this picture––more than in any other film of this very controlled and controlling director.


Then, the same night, I saw The Excitement of the Do-Re-Mi-Fa Girls, Kurosawa's second feature film. It's a pink film, but a pink film in name, mostly. What it really is up to is more akin to a Godardian campus novel, written by the Three Stooges. There's the hot-take! It's fun, and intermittently very funny. Juzo Itami is one of the stars. It's very clear from the film that Godard is a huge inspiration for early Kurosawa––his comedies are very Godardian in spirit. I had a great time watching the movie, partly because of how clumsy and indie it looked and felt. It had the sense of a lack of complexity you feel in many indie filmmakers debuts. I actually prefer his previous film, Kandagawa River Pervert Wars, which has a more mobile and active camera, some genuine eroticism (which this film almost completely lacks), and some livelier performances.

I'm not sure whether I can look forward to whatever Kurosawa does next. Wife of a Spy does sound interesting, but I'm a little suspicious that the move outside of Japan was what made To the Ends of the Earth feel so fresh and necessary. Hopefully he's been inspired afresh, and the next one will end up worth seeing. To the Ends of the Earth was very worth it.

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ex-cowboy
Joined: Fri Nov 01, 2013 9:27 am

Re: Kiyoshi Kurosawa

#127 Post by ex-cowboy » Thu Jul 09, 2020 12:46 pm

Been meaning to ask this for a while - the original title of Kurosawa's mid-90's video series Suit Yourself or Shoot Yourself is 'Katte ni Shiyagare!!' (which basically translates to 'do whatever the hell you want') which also happens to be the title (minus the exclamation marks) of Godard's Breathless. Having not seen the series, is there any link - even tangentially - or is it purely a coincidence or a simple name drop (the phrase isn't exactly an obscure one, so could be a coincidence)?

I know the series is mentioned in the Midnight Eye Guide, but not having access to my copy currently, can't check whether there is any reference to this point.

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The Fanciful Norwegian
Joined: Tue Nov 02, 2004 2:24 pm
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Re: Kiyoshi Kurosawa

#128 Post by The Fanciful Norwegian » Thu Jul 09, 2020 1:15 pm

feihong wrote:
Sat Jul 04, 2020 4:26 am
Then, the same night, I saw The Excitement of the Do-Re-Mi-Fa Girls, Kurosawa's second feature film. It's a pink film, but a pink film in name, mostly. What it really is up to is more akin to a Godardian campus novel, written by the Three Stooges. There's the hot-take! It's fun, and intermittently very funny. Juzo Itami is one of the stars. It's very clear from the film that Godard is a huge inspiration for early Kurosawa––his comedies are very Godardian in spirit. I had a great time watching the movie, partly because of how clumsy and indie it looked and felt. It had the sense of a lack of complexity you feel in many indie filmmakers debuts. I actually prefer his previous film, Kandagawa River Pervert Wars, which has a more mobile and active camera, some genuine eroticism (which this film almost completely lacks), and some livelier performances.
Supposedly the original cut of The Excitement of the Do-Re-Mi-Fa Girl (the one rejected by Nikkatsu) was a lot more "pink," the studio's objections being about the lack of romance rather than the lack of sex and nudity. Kurosawa and some supporters within the film community raised the funds to buy the movie from Nikkatsu, a result of which was that Kurosawa was able to recut it with no consideration for a studio and dropped much of the eroticism. (As though to underline this, he also changed the title from College Girl: Shameful Seminar.)

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feihong
Joined: Thu Nov 04, 2004 12:20 pm

Re: Kiyoshi Kurosawa

#129 Post by feihong » Thu Jul 09, 2020 7:28 pm

ex-cowboy wrote:
Thu Jul 09, 2020 12:46 pm
Been meaning to ask this for a while - the original title of Kurosawa's mid-90's video series Suit Yourself or Shoot Yourself is 'Katte ni Shiyagare!!' (which basically translates to 'do whatever the hell you want') which also happens to be the title (minus the exclamation marks) of Godard's Breathless. Having not seen the series, is there any link - even tangentially - or is it purely a coincidence or a simple name drop (the phrase isn't exactly an obscure one, so could be a coincidence)?
I don't see anything in the Midnight Eye book about that reference, specifically. I haven't seen the film. I do have a copy of it somewhere...it's part of a long list of movies I plan to get to...eventually. The Midnight Eye book does say that the 5th entry in the series references Le Doulos. I'm sure there's a very good chance that Kurosawa intended the association.
The Fanciful Norwegian wrote:
Thu Jul 09, 2020 1:15 pm
Supposedly the original cut of The Excitement of the Do-Re-Mi-Fa Girl (the one rejected by Nikkatsu) was a lot more "pink," the studio's objections being about the lack of romance rather than the lack of sex and nudity. Kurosawa and some supporters within the film community raised the funds to buy the movie from Nikkatsu, a result of which was that Kurosawa was able to recut it with no consideration for a studio and dropped much of the eroticism. (As though to underline this, he also changed the title from College Girl: Shameful Seminar.)
That's really interesting. I would say there is some romance in the final cut––mostly between the lead girl and the professor––which is played like a scene from James Whale's Frankenstein. It's easy to imagine there being more softcore scenes originally. There do seem to be erotic sequences which are cut down to just a single post-coital shot, where I can imagine they filmed a lot more material.

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