Charisma (Kiyoshi Kurosawa, 1999)
Despite my abiding adoration of Kiyoshi Kurosawa, I'm never entirely sure what I'm going to get when I see one of his movies. I think, with the exception of Sweet Home (which is sitting there waiting for me to watch it), I've now seen all of Kurosawa's movies available in the west, and no one is in any way like the other; Cure is a crime drama, Séance is a mystery (and a remake), Bright Future is... something unclassifiable, Pulse is a straight horror flick in the new Japanese tradition. I love them all, and all the other Kurosawa flicks I've seen. Enter Charisma, which is an odd blend of ecological flick, love story, and thriller.
Yabuike (Memoirs of a Geisha's Koji Yakusho) is a detective. Or he was. During a kidnapping, he misses a chance to take action, and as a result, bad things happened. His supervisor counsels him to take some time off, but instead of doing so, he simply walks off the job, taking a bus in a random direction, then getting off at random in the forest and walking, leaving civilization behind. Of course, there's nowhere one can really leave civilization behind in Japan, and he finds himself under the care of naturalist Mitsuko (Veronika Decides to Die's Jun Fubuki, who became a Kurosawa regular after this film). In the forest where she lives is a tree that he finds himself growing obsessed with. He's not the only one. One faction wants to steal it; another wants it to be destroyed, fearing that it's killing all the rest of the plant life in the forest. Former insane asylum inmate Kiriyama (Great Teacher Onikuze's Hiroyuki Ikeuchi) wants it protected at any cost. As Yabuike becomes more obsessed with the tree, he feels that his destiny is entwined with the tree's. Which would make things awfully simple, if he could figure out what he wanted for himself-- destruction, salvation, or to disappear, never to be seen again.
This is the kind of movie I'm not sure any modern director save Kurosawa could actually pull off. It's absolutely ludicrous, when you write it out like that, much as Bright Future and Pulse are ludicrous, but put it into Kurosawa's hands and you get a thrilling, absorbing work of art that tugs at the heartstrings every once in a while. I'm not exactly sure why this is. Some of it certainly has to do with the bleak atmosphere and matching lighting, the sound mix, all the little technical details that contribute to a movie's atmosphere as much as does the dialogue or the character development. Some of it has to do with Koji Yakusho's performance, which is stellar. Some of it has to do with the tree itself, which is an ugly ducking par excellence, and makes you want to root for the underdog, whether it's "evil" or not. Part of it is just the ineffable nature of Kiyoshi Kurosawa's directorial excellence. All sum up, as usual, to far more than the value of the parts themselves, and what we get is another superlative Kiyoshi Kurosawa film. Highly recommended. ****