Hard to believe I haven’t seen a new Kiyoshi Kurosawa movie since the great Tokyo Sonata. Starting to catch up, but I hope that’s worth doing. I enjoy a slow-boil movie, but this one just kinda stayed lukewarm. Interesting stylistic choices for a 2013 ghost movie – from a director who has sometimes over-relied on horrid digital effects, this uses none. Ghosts appear as regular people, no indications of who is living or dead, and their appearances or other otherworldly happenings are signaled by slow lighting changes.

Lonely piano teacher Mizuki (Eri Fukatsu of Atlanta Boogie) is visited by her long-missing husband Yûsuke (Tadanobu Asano of Bright Future and Last Life in the Universe) who explains that he drowned at sea three years ago. He says it was a long trip back to her, and people helped him along the way, and he’d like them to revisit those people together.

At Shimakage’s house, pre-collapse:

Yûsuke in teacher mode:

First is Mr. Shimakage, who is dead and does not realize this. Yûsuke’s visit with Mizuki brings back memories of his wife, which allow him to let go and disappear, his house becoming decrepit overnight. Next, the Jinnai family, who are alive but have a sad ghostly relative psychically tied to their piano. Then Mizuki meets Tomoko, with whom Yûsuke was having an affair while alive. Then at a village where Yûsuke had been a teacher, Mizuki briefly meets her dead father, and their host Kaoru briefly meets her dead husband (who was flown in from a darker, more interesting movie).

Mizuki and the Dead Father:

I’m pleased that a shy Japanese piano teacher would listen to Sonic Youth:

M. D’Angelo:

I’d planned to write at least a few words about Kiyoshi Kurosawa’s almost surreally boring Journey to the Shore, which multiple critics here have dubbed Journey to the Snore. Trouble is, just thinking about the film makes me nod off, making it difficult to formulate any thoughts.

A middling haunted-house movie, with none of Kiyoshi Kurosawa’s post-Cure style of evil lurking in the offscreen space. Some inspired moments, and some cinematic plot points (living shadows, a slide melting under a projector bulb, an actor melting in much the same way). Apparently the movie is most famous for having spawned a “survival horror” Nintendo game which inspired the Resident Evil series. Also the last time Juzo Itami (Japanese New Wave actor, more recently in Grass Labyrinth) appeared as an actor, having already turned to directing with Tampopo and a few others. I assumed that he played Old Man Exposition, the local crank who helps out at the end, but no that was Tsutomu Yamazaki, an actor in Tampopo, so I don’t know where Itami showed up.

not Juzo Itami:

A TV production talks their way into the long-abandoned mansion of a dead artist to document the murals he’d painted on his walls. Widower Kazuo (Shingo Yamashiro of some Kinji Fukasaku movies) is the show’s producer. He brings along his daughter Emi (pop singer Nokko – in her mid-20’s, but I bought her performance as a middle-schooler) and show director Akiko (Nobuko Miyamoto, also of Tampopo) – our family-unit heroes, which leaves the other two (driver/cameraman/comic relief Taguchi and melodramatic on-air personality Asuka) to be murdered by ghosts.

L-R: Asuka, Taguchi, surrogate mom, actual dad, “child”:

And murdered they are, with surprisingly good, goopy gore effects. First Asuka turns into a ghost, yelling “give me back my baby” then digging up an actual baby coffin. Then the shadows come to life, so they all have to hide in patches of light. Taguchi doesn’t make it, gets burned clean in half and Asuka finishes him with a wrench shortly before an axe falls on her head.

Akiko vs. furnace:

Old Man Exposition comes to the house and walks into the furnace to rescue Emi, kidnapped by ghosts. But either he fails or she’s kidnapped again, and her dad gives up, leaving Akiko to rescue the girl, proving herself a worthy wife/mother figure. I did like the evil-mother monster who fights her with lightning there at the end.

Shot by the cinematographer of Loft and Retribution. Classy, austere-looking locked-down long shots hiding behind shelves and banisters made me think this is Kurosawa’s prestige pic, hence the jury prize at Cannes and the great reviews. Closest in tone to his Bright Future, which is also the last movie of Kurosawa’s which played here theatrically, but with no sign of the crazy left turns, the never-answered questions that make his other films so maddeningly mysterious. One thing that makes this easily fit in with the rest of his movies, though, is the theme of people not connecting or communicating, not really knowing each other or themselves, as Japan crumbles around them. Kurosawa doesn’t seem like a very happy guy – but this film has a happy ending, probably his most hopeful one ever.

I recognized star Teruyuki Kagawa but couldn’t think which of K.K.’s movies he’d been in – turns out he’s the main dude in the earthquake/agoraphobia section of Tokyo! and the sheriff in Sukiyaki Western Django. Sasaki-san is a middle manager type, and when the company is reorganizing with layoffs, his boss asks him what skills he has, so he can be used elsewhere in the company. He gets up and starts packing. Much of the movie manages this balance between deadpan humor and realistic tragi-drama.

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Back home to older son Takashi (Yû Koyanagi of Crows Zero), an absentee teen fuckup who decides to join the U.S. military, younger son Kenji who only wants to take piano lessons, and wife/mother Megumi who quietly tolerates all of this (and suspects her husband’s job problems) without getting any breaks or chances to express herself. Dad forbids Kenji from learning piano and gets increasingly obstinate about it, fearing a breakdown of his parental authority, so the boy takes lessons in secret. Sasaki waits in line regularly at the employment agency, hangs out at the mall, and eats lunch from a homeless/unemployed trailer every day with his laid-off buddy who has become an expert at living off his severance pay and lying to his wife.

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As time passes, the movie gets harsher. Megumi has nightmares of her oldest son returning home shellshocked (the only dream/fantasy scene in the film), Sasaki takes a demeaning job as a janitor and when he finds out about Kenji’s piano lessons he knocks the kid down the stairs sending him to the hospital. One day K.K.’s favorite actor Kôji Yakusho (star of Charisma, Cure, Doppelganger, Retribution), a depressed ex-locksmith who decides crime is the answer to his life problems, breaks into their home and kidnaps Megumi. He’s a crappy kidnapper, but he offers her a temporary escape – she meets her husband and learns about the janitor job, then spends the rest of the day enjoying her freedom from family with the kidnapper.

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In the morning it looks like he’s drowned himself. Returning home are the wife (who slept in a shack on the beach), her husband (who slept in the gutter, knocked down by a car while running from the mall) and Kenji (who slept in jail). Flash-forward, dad seems content at his job, mom is getting letters from Takashi, and Kenji rocks his piano recital. And thank god, because I was going to be angry at the movie if it had ended ten minutes earlier.

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Good ones from Cinema Scope: “The outline of Kurosawa’s design is as powerful as some of the particulars within are slightly uncertain.” and on the ending as the parents proudly walk Kenji away from the piano, “Years from now, when someone goes looking for the cinematic moment that most fully embodied this troubled stretch of history, they will undoubtedly settle on this forcefully ambiguous gesture.”

Greencine: “Kurosawa’s framing is always a bit cluttered and claustrophobic, and his willingness to sit and watch for a little too long makes it seem like violent disaster is always just on the verge of breaking out. And then suddenly it does and all hell breaks out.”

Tom Mes, who should know:

Anyone familiar with Kurosawa’s body of work will know that it is often the very real ills of society and its people that give his films their power and their chill: the balding middle-aged man muttering to himself while waiting for his dry-cleaning in Cure, the lack of eye contact in dialogue scenes in Pulse, or the way a husband and wife brush reason aside in Séance. … Tokyo Sonata contains many examples of simple, mundane incidents – family dinners, job interviews, scenes from a mall and walks in the park – but they are charged with a power to distress that is unparalleled even in Kurosawa’s oeuvre. … The world has finally caught up with the films of Kiyoshi Kurosawa, and it’s a horrifying, frightening sight to behold. Tokyo Sonata would be unbearable if it weren’t the director’s masterpiece.

Kurosawa:

This film will portray a very ordinary family in modern Japan. I start from a point where lies, suspicion and a complete breakdown of communication have already established themselves within the family. Without a doubt, this is ‘modern’ and this is also ‘Japan.’ However, I would like to show a glimmer of hope in the end. Can I do that? Even if I could do so, would that be something that can save a conventional family? I just do not know. Since I do not know, I have a strong desire to make this film.

I had to interrupt this movie the first night I watched it, and I finished it the next night. In between, I was at Acapella and picked up the book on K.K. by Jerry White and flipped to the back, where he calls this movie an utter failure of storytelling. I didn’t read any more, wanted no spoilers, but I hope White at least found something to like about this one, if not the story, because I liked it quite a lot, and thought it was better than Kurosawa’s follow-up Retribution.

Starring Miki Nakatani of the Ring series and Chaos, title star of Memories of Matsuko
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It’s similar to Retribution… a ghost-revenge story with only a few characters set in old, run-down buildings with sudden shocks and supernatural occurrences in broad daylight. Atmosphere and cinematography (by the same guy as Retribution) are ace. Movie is horror, but it doesn’t seem to know that it’s horror. As with all of Kurosawa’s movies, the genre cliches aren’t there, the music and camera and lighting and characters don’t do what you’d expect. They do get panicked and frightened, but they’ll also walk knowingly into danger and stare at the ghosts, looking slightly sad or tired, not necessarily afraid. Very cool movie, not one of Kurosawa’s very best but it’s got me looking forward to Tokyo Sonata again.

At right, Reiko’s book editor Hidetoshi Nishijima, star of License to Live, Bug House and Kitano’s Dolls
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The story is a little baffling, but KK also wrote Charisma, so baffling ain’t unusual. Reiko’s editor gets her a quiet place in the country where she can write her next book. She meets her neighbor Yoshioka, a university professor with a 1000-year-old mummy (which moves by itself occasionally) in his room. The professor isn’t sure if this is the same mummy that was dug up 80 years ago, but he watches a time-lapse film of that previous mummy just to confuse us a little more. We’re not sure if he’s dangerous or just a crappy professor, but he seems nice enough to Reiko.

The anthropologist is Etsushi Toyokawa of The Great Yokai War and Boiling Point
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Besides the mummy moving about, Reiko is being haunted by the ghost of a young girl. Graves are dug, bodies are carried around, a foggy pier is discovered, Reiko is vomiting black mud (this was happening before she even moved into the house) and somehow Reiko gets her book written. Her editor shows up and terrorizes her for no clear purpose until it turns out he rented the same place to a previous writer (the young ghost-girl) and murdered her. Reiko would be next but the cops bust him just in time. She burns her book and Yoshioka burns the mummy. Then they go for a walk to the foggy pier, where the ghost knocks Yoshioka into the swampy water for some reason!

Spooky loft
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The ghost/girl isn’t in every scene, she’s just somehow in all of my captures
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Don’t know why I’m frustrated by this, but the movie seems VERY Kiyoshi Kurosawa in themes, plot, pacing and look. It’s nice to see auteurist consistency, but Kurosawa’s not injecting his personality subtly into a studio picture, he’s writing all his own films, so maybe he could stick these themes somewhere else than another supernatural detective story. Those complaints aside, going through the screenshots I was struck again by what a nice looking movie it is… probably superior to the rest of the now decaying J-horror genre, which is again why I wish he’d break out of that genre for good instead of coming back to ghost stories after showing his depth with Bright Future and Charisma. Although, maybe Kurosawa was requested to write this kind of picture by his producers, who have done a whole ton of J-Horror, including the Ring and Grudge series, Reincarnation and Cross Fire… yeah, I’ll go with that.

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Kurosawa fave Kôji Yakusho plays Noboru, an unremarkable detective with a cute girlfriend he sees off and on. A murder is committed, a woman in a red dress drowned in salt water, and the clues point to Noboru. His partner Miyagi suspects him and he begins to suspect himself, but soon there are two other murders to distract them. A high-school kid and an office worker are also found drowned in salt water, but Noboru, playing on a ghostly intuition, quickly finds the murderers: the boy’s father Dr. Takagi, upset at the boy’s out of control behavior, and the man’s secretary with whom he was cheating on his wife.

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The two (three?) are unlikely people to be murderers, but they are all apparently driven to kill by the ghost of the red dress lady, who has been haunting our detective. I think she was either a former inmate at a black asylum on the river or a passer-by who got lost there. The ferry used to pass that building a decade ago, and our hero would see her in the window. The killings are her revenge for being ignored and left behind. “I died, so everyone else should die too”. She’s the collective conscience of the ferry riders, or the guilt of a civilization.

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I’m not sure if our detective killed the woman in red, but he is revealed to have killed his girlfriend. In the end, he alternates between seeing her (ghost) and being able to hold her, and seeing her dead decayed body on the floor, drowned in a pan of salt water. He goes to the black building and confronts the woman in red, who is grateful to be recognized, but carries on her quest to drown everyone in salt water. The final scene is our man wandering the empty city streets, once again (as in Pulse) the survivor of a ghostly apocalypse brought on by loneliness and neglect (and revenge [let’s not forget the title of the film], another of Kurosawa’s very favorite topics).

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Kurosawa reveals the ghost in different ways. Sometimes the detective is haunted in his dark apartment (the usual way to be haunted by a ghost), but sometimes he sees her in broad daylight, disturbingly composited into the shot to give her an otherworldly appearance, and sometimes (as in a great long-shot interrogation scene with Dr. Takagi) she’s in the room with a group of people, but only visible to one (and not to the audience).

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The movie is not too scary as horror (just a few jumpy moments), and it’s only okay as a detective story or a parable about society, but Kurosawa brings his usual mastery to the plotting and camera work, making it the most worthwhile movie I watched this week anyway. It’s not nearly as complicated / incomprehensible as reviews seem to indicate… jeez, are these people playing video games during the movie that they can’t ever follow a story, or am I some sort of narrative expert that I can? The movie portrays Tokyo as a crumbling metropolis besieged by earthquakes, and scenes are set in decayed abandoned buildings and over landfills.

H. Stewart at Film School Rejects writes:

Retribution’s greatest defiance of horror convention is that despite the identical M.O.s of the murders, there is no serial killer afoot, as the police suspect; Kurosawa’s cultural commentary, vaguely similar to that found in Mario Bava’s Bay of Blood, hints that the sorry state of our global society is not the result of one bad individual, one rampaging murderer of the Michael Meyers variety, but as a result of all of our combined actions; nearly everyone in the film is a killer, implying that we are all collectively culpable, not only for the things we do but for the things we don’t do that nevertheless manage to have a pernicious effect on others, even though we might not be conscious of it. … Retribution, coming in the era of the Iraq War, serves to show the devastating result of an unquenchable need for vengeance, and how we’re all responsible.

Our guy and his partner:
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Interestingly, the working title for Rob Zombie’s new remake was Halloween: Retribution, so I just saw two movies in a row named Retribution.

The cinematographer previously worked on K. Kurosawa’s Loft as well as Fatherfucker and Splatter: Naked Blood. Dr. Takagi starred in Princess Raccoon and Kurosawa’s Bright Future. The woman in red starred in Parasite Eve. Detective Toru Miyaji (above, right) was the horse-riding Baron in Letters From Iwo Jima and starred in the first of the 90’s Gamera movies. Harue starred in Udon, which I just missed at Emory last week. Kôji Yakusho (our star Noboru) starred in Cure, Charisma, Doppelganger, Seance, Eureka, The Eel, Shall We Dance, Babel, Memoirs of a Geisha, and appears at the end of Pulse.

One article on this film refers to Loft as a “ghost story/mummy film”. Can’t wait.

Renji (the guy from Dolls) may be psychologically torturing his wife, or they may have a normal, boring life. The wife may be hiding in the attic pretending she’s a spider, or she may not. Depends who you ask.

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She meets a guy I don’t remember where, and talks to him about her horrible husband… one day they are caught talking or possibly he wants to hug her or something at the house and she retreats to the attic and becomes a series of bugs eventually a giant spider that comes down the stairs and is about to eat the husband then she turns back into the girl with a scissors in her hands and he hugs her and it’s all over I think then they’re packing and maybe moving out.

An okay movie, whatever.

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