In an act of supreme perversion, Japanese horror maestro Kiyoshi Kurosawa unleashes the least menacing monster ever to terrorize Tokyo in Bright Future, his latest and dreariest comment on contemporary urban ennui. More ineffectual even than the Smog Monster, Kurosawa's poisonous Red Jellyfish won't have anyone running for their lives: As long as it stays in its tank and nobody messes with it, the creature remains pretty neutralized. For Kurosawa's metaphorical purposes, jellyfish are cast as the deadly slackers of the aquatic kingdom, stand-ins for their slack-jawed keepers, who also seem harmless enough until someone foolishly pokes them. Usually a master of creepy, low-key atmospherics, Kurosawa faces the considerable challenge of turning passive beings into active instruments of malice, but his scattershot movie remains dangerously inert.
Photographed through what appears to be a soiled diaper, Bright Future emphasizes the drab, colorless world of two young working stiffs whose destinies are anything but bright. Logging hours at a dead-end job in industrial laundry, Joe Odagiri and Tadanobu Asano are offered permanent positions by their middle-aged boss Takashi Sasano, who seems anxious to hang out with them and relive his "wild" youth. After losing his job for letting Sasano stick his hand in the jellyfish tank without warning him of its deadly poison, Asano lashes out by murdering Sasano's family. While Asano sits on death row, Odagiri is left to manage an experiment with the jellyfish that involves acclimating it to fresh water, which proves problematic when the undulating beast slips into the city canal. Meanwhile, Odagiri strikes up a peculiar friendship with Asano's estranged father (Tatsuya Fuji), a junk-electronics salvager who treats Odagiri like the son he never knew.
To his credit, Kurosawa distinguishes himself from other J-horror auteurs with his insistence on using the genre to grapple with larger social ills, especially the disturbing undercurrents of fear and malaise that plague the younger generation. But save for the mesmerizing final tracking shot, Bright Future just mopes around aimlessly, hoping that its vague themes will eventually congeal into something profound. Though the image of Tokyo undergoing a jellyfish invasion carries an undeniable beauty, Kurosawa's attempt at anti-horror seems just as disengaged from the audience as his protagonists are from the world. Without imposing the discipline needed to generate scares, his film merely floats around in the tank, waiting for a lazy hand that can be stung.