Being a serious fan of earlier Kurosawa films, but then alienated from his more recent work by the double-disappointments of Tokyo Sonata
, I approached Creepy
with trepidation. I felt Kurosawa had really lost his touch, and the subsequent films on offer didn't seem at all attractive to me, but Creepy
promised a return to horror, and it had a fine trailer, so it seemed worth a go.
Everything charmed about the Kurosawa style is back. The performances are adroit, even inspired. Kurosawa seems to be in full control of his style, using the most minimal of stylistic vibrato to invest scenes with unsettling tension. The film is rich in thematic material, and individual scenes in the film are constantly hinting at themes and ideas that seem to burst from the real world around us. The basic idea of the film is one even that hews very close to his glory days––of Kurosawa's previous films, the new one is closest to Cure
, which is probably his most universally well-thought-of movie (or is it Pulse
nowadays? I always think of Cure
). The idea of dominance and mind-control is back for another chilling go-around, and it offers up interesting variations in this new film. More than a rerun of old tropes, Creepy
has its own thematic interest; the film deals with a kind of psychic vampirism whose effects are multiplied by the ways Kurosawa insists modern life in Japan is driving people and communities apart. Kurosawa evinces this sense of a crumbling social structure much more expertly and convincingly than in Tokyo Sonata
, and the horror proves more compelling than the serio-comic melodrama of that movie. It's a triumphant return of Kurosawa the sinister thinker, whose removed style and elliptical editing made his genre films feel like the very personal products of an imaginative and perceptive mind.
And yet...something is amiss here. I don't know if it's the oppressive presence of actor Teruyuki Kagawa, who played the father in Tokyo Sonata
, and who dominates this movie...the film leaves a strange and sour taste. And even though the picture is in one way the product of a director whose style seems wholly "mature"--honed to the point that his effects need only be very delicate and his confidence with storytelling seems complete--that sour taste I felt at intervals throughout the picture leads me to chafe at the idea of calling this movie any kind of masterpiece. At 2 hours and about 10 minutes, the film is right in the same sweet spot run-time as many other Kurosawa movies––but this one felt exceptionally long--like three hours or more. It's true that the title implies a certain growing sense of something unsettling, in order to work. But at an hour in, I looked at the clock and noted not only that an hour had passed, but that I was no closer to having any kind of handle on where the film was going. The plot of the film had not coalesced at that point into anything tangible. The film does begin with a masterful sequence depicting an escape and standoff at a police station, but that action turns out to be only adjacent to the coming story, a lever by which our cop hero
gets booted into early retirement.
The sequence seems to be about 10 good minutes of intensity, but now that I look back, I can recall that Detective Yabuike gets suspended so that he can go on the adventure of Charisma
in about 2 or 3 minutes of the film starting. 90 minutes into Creepy
the perspective of the movie shifts from the main character to some of the other characters, and we get an instant reveal of all the strange stuff that has been going on, who has been doing what, and what all the mounting horror is in aid of. Earlier Kurosawa films showed horrific situations sparingly, leading us to imagine a lot of the horror. But that extended late passage of Creepy
drags on like a never-ending geek show, reminiscent of a Park Chan-Wook film (I'm thinking especially of Three: Extremes
here, but Lady Vengeance
have this feel as well, I think). It's hideous and emphatic, and, one gets the sense, its own kind of deafening boredom. There is what appears to be a joke about that sense of dullness baked in at this point in the pudding.
The villain of the piece--the "vampire" in this "vampire movie," so to speak--sits in the homes he takes over watching jellyfish swimming in perpetual slow-motion on the family TV set while the house around him deteriorates and while his thralls whose house he has invaded waste away before him.
This seems to be part of a system of almost revoltingly underplayed jokes in the film. Earlier on, as the hero Takakura lectures a class on the psychology of serial killers in America, he outlines a near-identical crime to the one he'll eventually stumble onto next door. "America is really on a whole different level" he says, shaking his head in bemusement at the horrifying extent of foreign psychosis.
One of the most disturbed and disturbing victims of the film's serial killer, when finally free of his grasp, hops around shouting in pathetically petty fury at his corpse. There is also a repeated bit where Kurosawa makes you think he's going to off the picture's absolutely adorable dog.
These all feel like a side-line of mordant humor in the film, but they are so off-center and so softly-played that maybe they aren't meant to be funny, after all? I kind of wonder if Kurosawa finds actor Kagawa hysterical as well, because he gives Kagawa so many mugging close-ups. There was the sense that Kagawa's character in Tokyo Sonata
was supposed to be funny in his abject humiliation as the emasculated salaryman, but in both films I found Kagawa a character from which I could wring no little wisp or squirt of humor. Earlier Kurosawa movies seemed quite funny, and this picture seemed to be pulling some of the same moves, but with results that were much harder to track. What here was I meant to laugh at or not? As ambiguous as some of the humor in previous films was, its presence was no accident. But Creepy
feels exceptionally haphazard in its relationship to its funny bone.
Am I aging out of these movies? Is the poker-faced mask of the director starting to slip? I feel that in spite of his deftness, I can see Kurosawa pulling the strings, setting us up for a Hitchcock-like tale of outrage at perverse madness. And there is some way in which I can't find it in myself to like or be too involved in these later Kurosawa movies, in spite of their obvious admirable points. The performances are all very well-measured. Teruyuki Kagawa certainly stands out, playing the oddball neighbor
who is, of course, exactly the Hitchcock-variety psychopath that he seems to be.
Kagawa is an actor who reminds me quite a bit of Kevin Spacey––toned exactly right for any given role, but is it all a trick? There is this aura of control that feels poised, measured...and, finally, false. For Spacey and for Kagawa both, there is a level on which the performance feels less drawn from life than from the kind of virtuoso of a man who is more slick surface and brittle ego than deep, yearning soul. That is not to say that Spacey or Kagawa do anything other than give the best performance asked of them––a better performance, in both cases, than most people are capable of giving––but neither actor ever really succeeds in convincing me of their sincerity. That sense of being taken for a ride stands out very much in this movie, because both the villain of the piece, and the villain's sinister plan, prove to be so plain, dull, and depressing when it all is finally dragged out into the open--total spoiler--
psychopath Kagawa invades families, pretending to be family members as he slowly kills off his oppressed prisoners--he takes possession of the families, playing the father figure. There's the really sinister and potentially fruitful implication early on that he is psychically usurping the head of these households, but he doesn't actually integrate into the families––he's in it for the living space, what free meals he can get, and whatever savings the family has. Besides that, he...watches television. Hangs out. He seems empty...is that sort of the point?).
, the mesmerist mastermind who spreads the virus of psychosis amongst people is a helpless character––a villain with no large purpose, and the horror that is the lifeblood of that film stems from the helpless way the virus the villain brings to people redoubles and spreads without check, even after he dies. There is a sense at the end of that film that society itself is being undermined by this seeming disease, itself similar to a state of monomaniacal, psychotic fugue--and aren't so many of us in our so-called "reality" drifting into monomaniacal states (here I am on the internet, blabbering on to...anyone? maybe no one?)? In Charisma
that virus seems to have continued on from the plot of Cure
and spread, and civilization seems to be seriously deteriorating in the background of that film, as a result. The horror in these movies always spreads from an intimate source to a larger social setting, and we see the transfer of what seemed to be individual struggles to a larger social stage. Those films felt absorbing and interesting. To put a finer point on it, I watched those earlier films and drew parallels between the abstract horror conceits of their narratives and the alienating effects I felt in modern living. The films seemed to speak about serious concerns in a fictional matrix that was inventive in its mis-en-scene and in its narrative structure, and that was as invigorating as it was moving. Creepy
in a way moves in narrative reverse to those previous films, positing a society whose members are alienated from one another to begin with. Into that is introduced a psychopath who disrupts the couple that are the main characters--the apocalypse moves outwards towards the inner sphere. That should be equally fascinating, but...no. Somehow it seems rather stale. The gradual reveal of a society cracking at the seams is poetic and moving. I'm not sure carrying the thematic material inwards towards the intimate family structure proves quite as meaningful––especially since the household life of the couple we follow through the film has hardly any depth or intimacy to it. Are the couple already disconnected from each other, unsatisfied in their marriage? That does seem to be a later implication in the film, but then it has to be said that Kurosawa doesn't really do a definitive job sketching out that undercurrent of inter-personal strife––though we definitely see that they have trouble engaging their neighbors in even the most innocuous dialogues. In spite of that external social disjunction, the couple seems largely well-adjusted to each other most of the time––though the lack of intimacy between them is just a little disconcerting. It's revisiting the early sequences of home life in the film that causes me to reflect and to wonder if there are any scenes of real intimacy between characters in Kurosawa's films? The couple in Cure
is estranged by mental illness. The couple in Seance
are very strained with one another. The family is broken in License to Live
, and the point of the film, sort of, is that they never get back together, even when the son recently woken from his coma really needs them to. Something almost the same happens in Tokyo Sonata
, regardless of the last scene of that film, so preposterous I can only regard it as a dream sequence. No one in Charisma
is romantic partners with anyone, or even cohorts on the same team really--and none of the competitors have the "special relationship" with the tree that they think they have. The pair in Pulse
we think might have a romantic future together end up spiraling off in very different directions. Doesn't one of them disperse into birds by the end? Or something. Bright Future
offers no chance of any kind of romantic relationship––even the friendship between Yuji and Mamoru is one where they are never communicating with one another on the same level. The only romantic union I can recall in a Kurosawa film (barring the his pink films, which treat sex as ludicrous animal urges, and which feel somehow a little freer and more uplifting in tone as a result) is in the "happy" ending of Doppelganger
, where the supposed "romance" is part of a play for laughs, goofing on the genre trope of the happy ending. It seems that in Kurosawa's mind, humans are all thorny, difficult creatures who can at best exist politely next to one another, but can never understand or share one another's deeper feelings.
That idea comes across real heavy and hard after seeing Creepy
, and I wonder if the reason I preferred those earlier movies that pulled back at the end to reveal a society taken up with the same craziness the characters in the movie have been wrestling with isn't that the zoom out to the whole society suggested some possibility of relief from the coldness with which Kurosawa stages interpersonal interactions. The apocalypses waiting in the wings throughout Cure
seem so much more comfortingly human the way they embrace the chaos. There's the sense in those earlier films of the world going crazy as the films delve deeper into their nature, and that in and of itself is at once more bracing and more comforting than the ending of Creepy
. It might be a personal feeling, but for me narratives that topple into madness at the end are all some variation on a happy ending. Creepy
doesn't do that, and so the coldness with which people hold themselves throughout the movie maintains as simply the coldness inherent in the film's alienated society. The
at the end provides no respite from the uncomfortable atmosphere of the film, or the depressing pedantry of the psychopath and his world of dull insanity. I wonder if I'm reading my own feelings into it when I say that the full reveal of the psychopath and his limited world seemed a little like a sigh of defeat from Kurosawa himself? He didn't seem to have it in him to make this character's madness ultimately very interesting.
Now, about that ending, there is this dangling thread:
the hero turns things around on the villain,
and I don't really understand how he does it. Somehow
the hero has broken the mind-control the villain exerts upon his victims. Has his wife helped him? Is he just pretending to be drugged by his wife? Does she not inject him with the drug earlier, as she appears to? And if she doesn't, how would the hero know how to pretend to react to the drug, since he's seeing it for the first time at the film's climax?
The twist seems very unclear, and so the narrative turnaround feels exceptionally forced. But between the ugliness and plainness of the sadism in the film and the careful spinning out of the suspense I feel this increasingly wide chasm of incongruity, which I think is just my widening disinterest with the movie. Serial killer movies have never really worked for me, though I can respect what Psycho
do with the genre, and I in fact love Sogo Ishii's Angel Dust
in spite of it being through and through a post-Silence of the Lambs
serial killer picture. And somehow all Giallos get a pass from me as well. But with Kurosawa in that genre space, I feel very torn. He seems so expert at making exactly this kind of film. He turns the screws just right. Everybody acts their hearts out. The script dolls out suspense and ideas one after the other. Just when I would feel the film wasn't lighting fire it would go and light fire, and keep me watching. But the picture has left me increasingly cold. I think I like it less and less, on an ever-increasing, minute-by-minute basis. And I can't tell whether this is purely a sense of my own changing aesthetic sense being disillusioned at what I'm seeing, or whether Kurosawa himself has just hit a kind of a wall, where his skill as a filmmaker has surpassed his subject matter, or vice-versa. There is a sense in which this is a less inventive film than Cure
, just in terms of creative mis-en-scene and dramaturgy. Scenes aren't quite as interesting to look at as in the previous movies. Maybe the point was to show the everyday life of the middle-class as something really dreary and suffocating. But one could feel the tenseness, the discomfort and the breakdown of society in almost any single scene of Cure
, and to stage a whole movie just to prove that same point again now seems excessive for Kurosawa. In a way the film reminds me of the later Hitchcock, the maker of Topaz
––so conscious and controlling of his effects in the wake of his interview with Truffaut, but unable to capture the fresh voice or the urgency of Shadow of a Doubt
...or even Foreign Correspondent
Looking at IMDB, it seems Kurosawa is more busy than ever right now. I don't know what these future movies will contain, but I guess I would like it to be something that challenges him more than Creepy
. I'd like to see Kurosawa open his eyes to something like actual intimacy, or, dare I suggest it, actual romance. Where both romantic partners are alive, even. I'd like to see something a little rougher around the edges than this movie, which was really almost painfully conventional in its polish, now that I think of it. There are a lot of subtle shifts in lighting in this movie, and wind that suddenly whispers through surrounding trees and over sheets of plastic. Everyone was lit to ecstatic, sculptural perfection, and characters who are meant to be sympathetic at one moment or another are cast to be exactly the right kind of sympathetic for their part. But there was a very special feeling converse to that in, say, the different killers in Cure
. Those killers were ordinary and unglamorous. Even the central figure making them kill was not a magnetic personality. None of them were especially sympathetic, either--my heart did not go out to the medical technician who was peeling the face off that man when she was in her trance. It gave the movie a sense of danger and freedom, the freedom of feeling that the lurking mood of doom in the movie was in the wind, available to anyone and everyone--you could carry that lightning out of the theater with you. Budgetarily-speaking, the film itself looked like its makers were barely scraping it together--at least in comparison to Creepy,
which is burnished in exactly the way a David Fincher movie is both polished and airless––but the world of Cure
seemed alive, catalyzed by the very social breakdown it was cataloguing. Actually, my heart did go out to that waitress at the end of Cure
; she trembles with vulnerable confusion before she seems to harden completely, going out of herself and picking up a knife on the way out of the shot--heading off to spread some fresh mayhem, like creamy butter melting over stale bread. Creepy
, by comparison, ultimately feels a lot like its central antagonist: poised, twitchy, finely wrought, but under it all, a tasteless, hoary old bore.