Kiyoshi Kurosawa has directed movies at an extraordinary pace: some forty-two since 1973, averaging, in recent years, two or three a year. This number doesn’t include the “pink,” or erotic films in which he made a start, but it does include films ranging across genres as diverse as horror, revenge thrillers, and yakuza gangster comedy. In the US, he’s primarily known for his horror films –– Cure (1997) and Pulse (2001) — as well as an odd, fantastic meditation on suicide and loss titled Bright Future (2003).
His latest, Tokyo Sonata, is a much more straightforward film and gets attention as much for the timeliness of its subject matter as for the quality of the filmmaking — the protagonist loses his job in the very first scene, and when he returns home, finds himself overcome with shame and unable to tell his family. Instead, he dresses up for work each morning and leaves the house as if nothing has happened at all. With such dark starting material, the movie could easily come across as hopeless; instead, Kurosawa shapes his material with a lighter touch (see the full Rumpus review).
We caught up with Kiyoshi Kurosawa when he was in town for the San Francisco International Asian American Film Festival.
The Rumpus: I’ve got a bit of a strange question to begin with, and that’s about cardboard boxes. I’ve noticed quite a few of them in your movies: Eyes of the Spider opens with a Sho Aikawa’s character taking out his aggression on the man he believes is his daughter’s killer by beating him over the head, ineffectually, with cardboard, not quite ready to do full physical harm but nonetheless overcome with rage; Bright Future ends with a long shot of schoolboys kicking a pile of boxes down the street all the way through the credits, suggesting a broader generational malaise. Where did that interest begin?
Kiyoshi Kurosawa: Okay, you’re right, that’s a pretty odd question. Well, there’s not any particular thematic reason I use them. The reason is much more practical — there are times when I decide in the middle of shooting a scene that I need a quick outburst of emotion on the part of a character. Often, it’s an urge toward violence, a desire to strike out in some way. I haven’t written the moment into the script, but now I want the character to lose it a little. Items like cardboard boxes and bags of trash are easy; on a practical level, they’re easy to stage, their presence makes sense in any number of locations like the street or in a warehouse, and using them is safe for the actors. Furthermore, I love the sound of a pile of cardboard boxes being kicked in or thrown about, and stuff goes everywhere so it’s also very visual.
Rumpus: You’ve had a fascination with working in different genres, ranging from horror to yakuza to revenge films. Were you conscious of working with any particular genre while making Tokyo Sonata?
Kurosawa: I didn’t think of it as being as directly in a genre like, say, a horror film, but it was nonetheless very much inspired by the domestic dramas that are common on Japanese television, where the kitchen table becomes the dramatic center of the story. The kitchen, after all, is the one place where all the members of a family gather together every night, where there are disagreements and reconciliations, where secrets come out into the open. So that was where I deliberately located the center of my film.
Rumpus: While at first glance, the film seems like the story of a man who loses his job, by the end of the film I actually thought the most important character in the film might be the story of the mother. She’s the one who tries to hold the family together.
Kurosawa: Actually, I wanted to give the stories of all four members in the family equal weight. During the first half, structurally speaking, the salaryman’s story is at the center. The mother’s story (played by Kyoko Koizumi) doesn’t really come to the forefront until the latter half of the film. I did this purposefully. The other three members of the family — the father and the two sons — have stories that are, literally, located externally, out of the house and out in the world. For Kyoko Koizumi’s character, the conflict is an internal one. Her world lies primarily within herself and in the house, and she simultaneously discovers that what she thought existed both within herself and in her home are lacking. She starts to question who she is, and in order to find the answer she needs to be outside the home. Since this happens in the second half of the story, it’s possible that she came across as more of the center of the film.
Rumpus: You also fill the narrative with wonderful tragicomic details about how the Teruyuki Kagawa character conceals his unemployed life — he sets his cell phone to ring every so often, for example, on its own. How much research did you do into lives of secretly unemployed workers?
Kurosawa: I did do a bit of research for this film. The particular detail you just mentioned about programming a cell phone I owe to Sachiko Tanaka, who helped cowrite the script and whose thought it was. But more generally the phenomenon of the unemployed leaving the house and pretending to go to work every day is, of course, established and real, so I did some research and then built up my story imaginatively around that fact.
Rumpus: You regularly place your characters under severe psychological stress that causes them to do some unusual things. This is pretty much a feature of every one of your movies, but one example that comes to mind is Sho Aikawa’s character in The Serpent’s Path, who in helping a man avenge his daughter’s murder deliberately frames a number of innocent people, for reasons we only find out about at the end. How do you approach these kinds of characters?
Kurosawa: Well, I do put my characters in trying, even twisted, circumstances. But what I’m very carefully trying to do is to create characters who are first and foremost regular people, no different than you or me. Their situations are unusual, sure, but in my movies how the characters deal with pressure in those situations is fundamentally not dissimilar from how you or I deal with our own pressures. The difference may primarily be described as one of scale. What I tell my actors in these scenes is to play them as if they are as normal a person as possible, even when they’re given an abnormal line or action.
Rumpus: You’ve been quoted in DVD Talk as saying that Americans are given to questioning the motivations of the characters in your screenplays, saying, “What’s going on with this character now? What’s his intent?” To which you answered, “He doesn’t have any intent. He’s just being.” Do you find that when you watch American films, there is a lack of moments of “just being”?
Kurosawa: Yes, definitely. As much as admire American films, I do often find that characters’ actions are too obvious or simplistic, and therefore unrealistic; I get bored with characters who can be reduced down to a single motivation. On the other hand, in the best American movies, characters have a clear goal, but there’s still somehow an element of mystery to them; their behavior and state of mind feel more natural. I puzzled over this at first, how the directors had achieved this effect. Eventually, I figured out that the answer lay in abbreviating a character. American filmmakers have a particular knack for injecting meaning into the space between scenes. In other words, a character may do something in one scene and then when you see them in the next scene, and you don’t know what’s happened in the interim — what decisions they’ve made, for instance — that space gives you the element of mystery that creates a fuller character.
Kurosawa: There are any number of angles to this question, but one way to answer it is to say that my opinion is the genres we have today were invented in Hollywood, so that when I think of genres, I think of American movies. These genre films are themselves impressive; at the same time, what I admire about the best American directors, like Clint Eastwood, is that they are able to work within a genre and then stretch the definition of that genre in a new direction — to, in effect, destroy the very genre they started with and create almost a new category of film.
In terms of screenwriting structure, I was really conscious of that form of screenwriting until quite late in my career — I’d place it around the time I made Cure in 1997. But I often found that sticking too closely to this formula really hindered the development of something more organic and left me a little dissatisfied. So when I wrote Cure, I decided I was just going to really just forget about that and to concentrate on making something that was truly my own vision. I’ve mentioned Clint Eastwood already, and I have to say that in recent years even in the US, any number of directors have taken on the form. This has emboldened me as well.
Rumpus: Are there any particular genres you’ve found are easier or harder to work with, and are there any genres you haven’t tried that you’d like to try in the future?
Kurosawa: The genre that was easiest to work with was the gangster film. One of the hardest genres to work with was horror. This might sound surprising, but there’s a simple reason for this. In a gangster movie, the characters’ histories are already implied — a gangster’s past is easily suggested, and all you need to do is to move the story forward. In a horror film, it’s always necessary, at the moment that, say, the ghost appears, to then go back and explain where the ghost came from. It’s sort of a pain to do back story in film; I find myself wanting to just move the story forward. So, anyway, right now I don’t have plans to go back to doing any horror films. As far as new genres to tackle, there are so many I haven’t done, and to be honest I’d like to do them all. Musicals, for example. Straight up comedy. Period drama. I’m interested in everything.