Archive for Kiyoshi Kurosawa

The Woman in Red

Posted in FILM with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , on April 13, 2009 by dcairns

Light posting this week, since my friend Kiyo from Japan is visiting. Happily, his trip also coincides with a visit from our chum Stephen Murphy, special effects makeup artist extraordinary, so a get-together in grungy local pub The Phoenix was swiftly organised.


Woman in Red 1.

From left, Stephen Murphy, who transmogrified Jude Law in SLEUTH and decorated the goblins of HARRY POTTER: Kiyoyuki Murakami, who translates STAR WARS literature for Japan (and who was delighted to find that Darth Floyd/Pink Vader T-shirt); lady in red Fiona Watson, screenwriter and muse (“I look like the dwarf in DON’T LOOK NOW!”); Brian Robinson, screenwriter, rodent-frightener and excellent blogger.

When Kiyo’s around, I see the world through fresh eyes: things that seem normal enough, like the information centre for Polish immigrants, of whom there are many hereabouts, suddenly pops out of the landscape because it’s called Planet Poland. And Kiyo’s use of language also makes me hear things differently. He arrived Wednesday evening, having been traveling “for fourteen years”, so he was quite tired. The job was to keep him conscious until nightfall in order to get his body onto British time. I remembered when I first went to New York, and my friend Comrade K blew my frazzled mind by screening Kiyoshi Kurosawa’s CURE (I hadn’t seen any KK at that point), so I whipped out a disc of KKurosawa’s RETRIBUTION which Comrade K had sent me, figuring a tired Kiyo could better follow something in his native language.


Woman in Red 2.

But as devotees of the mysterious KK know, “following” is perhaps the wrong word for what you do when you join his audience. Or maybe it’s the right word, more right than it usually is: you enter the labyrinth and sift through the traces of the departed auteur, trying to make sense of the spoor and property damage left in his wake, pursuing a filmmaker who often seems far ahead of you. Those who like their films simple, unambiguous and tonally consistent are likely to find KK talented but undisciplined. The truth is, his particular discipline leads him to depart from the traditional templates which allow us to watch without thinking.

RETRIBUTION begins with its title, which is probably the last straightforward thing that happens, but even that straightforwardness is deceptive. “It’s not really called RETRIBUTION,” observed Kiyo, reading the kanji above the English subtitle. “It means MORNING, or THE SHOUT,” he went on. Japanese is an interesting language. “No, not THE SHOUT… THE SCREAM,” he concluded. 

Now, in this Wes Craven-smeared age, I can see why the distributors might shy away from using the S-word, but it’s definitely a shame, since that original title would have provided a clue to one of the film’s visual motifs —

This woman in red is the film’s avenging ghost, who pops up when least expected and causes numerous citizens to meet watery graves. Salt watery graves, to be specific. (“Frolic in brine / Goblins be thine,” as the subtitles of RINGU sought to assure us, in perhaps the most benighted couplet in subtitling history). Her dress, so brilliantly coloured and so flat in its colour, reminded this former art student of something, and the Japanese title was enough to clinch it —


This is the closest match I could find, but there are other less obvious visual cues in Edvard Munch’s prints and paintings, in the way he uses a brilliant slab of colour to puncture and destroy any sense of perspective. As Riona Hazuki drifts through the frame in her searing red dress, floating as if mounted on a camera dolly, the brightness of her costume cutting her off from the surrounding reality, the creator of that other celebrated Scream is irresistibly brought to mind.

Incidentally, where does that floating on a dolly idea come from? I’ve used it myself, in my short film CLARIMONDE. The earliest dollying ghost I can name is in William Castle’s THE HOUSE ON HAUNTED HILL, but in Cocteau’s LA BELLE ET LA BETE he does mount Josette Day on some kind of trolley so he can trundle her through the Beast’s mansion. In this case, the purpose behind the effect is to make the environment strange, rather than the character.


We all enjoyed RETRIBUTION quite a bit, it’s spooky and disconcertingly funny and very creative. It’s almost a straightforward genre piece  compared to something like CHARISMA, but there are plenty of moments when you feel you might be losing track.  Which is good. And Kurosawa produces humorous effects and almost-humorous effects in surprising ways. My favourite was probably when depressed cop Kôji Yakusho interrogates a female suspect on a patch of waste ground — yanking a dusty, discarded office chair from a heap of rubbish, he sits on it and faces her, transforming the vacant lot into an impromptu interview room.


The Anemone Within

Posted in FILM with tags , , , , , , , , on January 11, 2008 by dcairns


Things I read off the screen during Kiyoshi (SEANCE) Kurosawa’s BRIGHT FUTURE (a floaty-strange tale of murder, social/familial disaffection and freshwater jellyfish which Fiona and I watched tonight).

TOILET LADIES. Illuminated sign in the very first shot. Great beginning!

Of course, this being a Japanese film, there’s a lot of kanji-signage which I can’t read. Reminds me of how Boorman’s HELL IN THE PACIFIC provides no subtitles for Toshiro Mifune’s character, whereas when shown in Japan, they left Lee Marvin untranslated. Two for one!

EXCELA SO. Brand name of BIG washing machine (Might be EXCELA 50, hard to tell).

GOAL. The name of a fun-looking arcade game where the “heroes” fire pistols at a bouncy surface will balls on, trying to bounce the balls into holes. Later, another character will lecture them on the importance of goals. Little does he know, they have a Secret And Wonderful Goal already.

XAO. PENNYBLACK. ASBEE. Shop signs on a busy street. Most of the English-language signs in this movie are equally abstract and meaningless.

man (lower-case). Seems to be a jar or carton of foodstuff in a kitchen. ‘Sorry, we’re all out of “man.”‘ ‘Run out and get us some more “man”, would you?’

Just realised, it’s a partially hidden jar of mangos. I am an idiot.

DIZ ‘N’ BIRD. Cover of a long-playing record. Charlie Parker and Dizzy Gillespie album, in keeping with the nonsense/baby-talk quality of most of this film’s onscreen text. Is this a deliberate strategy or a reflection of the use of English in Japanese print?

Victor JVC. Big sign on a building, in a desatured cityscape that looks like pure b&w until a medium-shot introduces a pasty flesh-tone.

bright city

NOISE. A poster of some kind in a lawyer’s office. Why? Never mind, we are here because one of our protags is in prison for MURDER:

...with some brine shrimp and a nice chianti

ZIMA. Sign at a bar, seemingly a product. I’d never heard of this, but upon googling I find it is “the new malternative.”

FUNC. A partially obscured bar title. Could this joint actually be called FUNCTION? Or maybe it’s just FUNC?

SANDWICHES CAFE AND RESTAURANT. More information about what FUNC has to offer.

STANLEY. On the protag’s T-shirt, written in an arch across his chest. Some smaller text below is illegible, looks like it might say “CONSTRUCTION”. STANLEY CONSTRUCTION? What kind of T-shirt logo is THAT?

SUCK. Glimpsed on a wall in his room, but it was real quick, I could be mistaken.

GREEN HOUSE. Ironic big logo on an ugly concrete building.

Canal Knowledge

The main guy discovers that he’s succesfully created a fresh-water jellyfish (his GOAL) and it’s living in a mysterious pool under his floor.

And at this exact point, one hour into the movie, the English text abruptly sto

The Words of the Prophet are Written on the Subway Wall

Posted in FILM with tags , , , , , , , , , , , on December 2, 2007 by dcairns

Seance on a Wet Afternoon. Written for the screen and directed by Bryan Forbes. A Beaver Film.

Starring Kim Stanley and a false nose driven by Richard Attenborough.


“FORECAST 2/-” This is inscribed above each window of a derelect building where Sir Dickie Lord Attenborough stashes a Rolls Royce he’s stolen while abducting a rich little girl. I have no idea what this signage means, but perhaps everybody in 1964 would have understood it perfectly. It adds a weird little mystery for me though, and connects to the film’s psychic theme.

“BREAD”. This is written on a bread bin in Kim Stanley’s kitchen. Bread is what they feed the “borrowed child” and bread is what they demand from the girl’s parents.

“TY-PHOO”. This is written on the side of a bus. It’s a popular brand of tea — perhaps relating to tea-leaf reading?

“Get on the trail of the happiest ale. BEN TRUMAN.” Another bus. This is also a detective story, and the police will soon be on the trail of a less-than-happy Dickie.

“THE PUBLIC EYE”. Big ad for a play, seen behind a crowd scene as Dickie makes himself furtive in the foreground.

“MUST END.” To do with the play, but we see a Greater Significance, and this is the first of several signs tainted with ominous subtext.

“SEEDLESS”. Written on a box of grapes in a market stall. Possibly a comment on Dickie’s impotent character, seen loitering nearby.

Also around here is a Max Factor ad but I can’t quite read the product name. “Coiffure Italienne”? I am reminded of an anecdote of uncertain veracity told me by my late friend Lawrie Knight, and since Lawrie knew Bryan Forbes slightly, I’ll reproduce it here:

Lawrie was running an ad company in Soho and he was approached by someone from Max Factor and offered the lucrative Max F account. But there was one condition: to prove his abilities, Lawrie was instructed to make a copy of a mysterious film handed to him by the Factor factotum.

He runs the film in his screening room and it’s hardcore porn. He tells his projectionist to get it duped. The projectionist hurries off, but soon reports back that no lab will touch it — this is the sixties and such material is very illegal. Lawrie says he’s sorry but the man will have to get the film copied or he’s fired. (Lawrie wasn’t this harsh when I knew him, but it’s, like, necessary to the plot, so we’ll accept it).

Next day the projectionist proudly presents a copy of the film. They run it for Max Factor man and the first thing up is a title, “The BBC Proudly Presents,” or some such, followed by the standard erect cock. Which means that the film is a kinescope. Which means that it’s a recording of a TV broadcast. Which means that the projectionist had taken the film to BBC Television and bribed somebody to transmit this hardcore porn extravaganza to the entire nation in the middle of the night when there were no official broadcasts and nobody was watching… except maybe some drunk somewhere, nodded off in front of the telly, awakened by sudden grunting and unable to believe his bleary eyes.

End of digression.

“GENTLEMEN.” Sign on a public lav. Which is an odd thing for it to say, when “POO AND PEE” would give you a more accurate account of the likely contents of the establishment.

“WALPAMUR Petrifying Liquid”. This is printed on a canister in Dickie’s garage, which a policeman searches. Again, I don’t know what this one means but it’s bloody terrifying. I’m going to have Walpamur-based nightmares tonight, I can tell.

“CLOSING DOWN”. Another sign weighted with foreboding.

“LONGFELLOW. AM READY TO OBLIGE. CHARLES.” The cryptic personal ad by which the child’s father signals his willingness to cough up the swag.

Now Dickie descends into the Underground, and suddenly his whole world is a speeding mass of signage. Only a few can be by read in all the flurry of ransom-collecting:


“People With Interest In The Future”. An ad, and another reference to crystal-gazing etc.

“Leave Something Solid Behind You,” another ad, certainly full of possible significance for Dickie. Could also serve as a slogan for the “Gentlemen”.


A few years back Bryan Forbes, along with many other directors, picked his ten favourite films of all time. He was the only one to choose one of his own movies. He picked WHISTLE DOWN THE WIND with performing prodigy Hayley Mills, which is an outstanding film, but  he could have equally picked this one. (My late friend Lawrie did not find it at all surprising that BF would nominate himself. I think it’s a rather splendid thing to do, personally.)

We have a suburban Lady Macbeth with whispery voice, in supposed communication with her still-born son Arthur, pushing her sappy hubby into this crazy abduction venture in order to prove her psychic abilities to the world. The domestic conspiracy scenes are quietly skin-crawling — this is a matrimonial horror film. Kim Stanley’s softly domineering Myra has the absolute faith of the true believer, which tells her that whatever she feels like doing is RIGHT, while Dickie is the weak man with no particular beliefs except a vague sense of right and wrong, which really proves his salvation.

I’ve never been very taken with Attenborough’s films as director, but as a performer he’s often remarkable: a fidgety, actorly outside, fussing away at bits of business, while a fierce-burning core of intense emotion rages behind the eyes. Here it feels like his big bald forehead is going to burst like an egg from the incredible pressures building within.

Also appearing: Nanette Newman as the kidnapped child’s mother. Forbes’ wife and frequent star, NN is a sort of English Rose type only her face looks like an Identikit of Sophia Loren: all the features are slightly the wrong size, which is definitely a good thing in this case. Patrick Magee as the Third Act Detective Inspector. This is the most restrained I’ve ever seen Madman Magee. He doesn’t even look as if he WANTS to start drooling and gnawing the chair legs. And he’s mesmeric.

Attenborough’s partner in Beaver Films was Bryan Forbes, a good actor and an often marvellous director. Here he seems to have picked up some tricks from the nouvelle vague and maybe the British New Wave: raindrops spatter on the lens turning the scene into a funhouse mirror wibble-wobble; we direct-cut from scene to scene and dissolve DURING scenes; we wipe between scenes just once, almost randomly. And this is combined with a staunchly classical mise-en-scene, strong compositions and elegant camera moves, especially around the seance table, which we circle counter-clockwise opposite Kim Stanley as she prepares to Make Contact.

British films have often seemed conservative to the point of petrification, a touch too much Walpamur Liquid perhaps. It’s not surprising to me that we made a film celebrating Douglas Bader, a war hero with tin legs: he has the perfect gait for our pictures. But in between the crazy dreamers like Michael Powell, and the plodding craftsmen like, well, 90% of everybody else, there are a few clever, skilled storytellers like Forbes who sometimes make contact with the beyond.


A vision from KKurosawa's SEANCE.

Footnote: Kiyoshi Kurosawa’s SEANCE is inspired by Forbes’ film. It shatters the neat structure, deploys an even more elliptical approach to narrative, and is a very interesting flick in it’s own right. The British film resists the supernatural without ever quite denying it altogether: offscreen spirits seem to breathe into its rooms. The Japanese quasi-remake teeters on the edge of total irrationality, and its protagonists plunge headlong into the terrible place that we sometimes see reflected in Attenborough’s glassy eyes.