Because Japanese director Kiyoshi Kurosawa made his international breakthrough with the nerve-wracking 1997 horror film Cure, he's been typed as some kind of modern master of the macabre. Actually, Kurosawa has a broader genre palette, and owes just as much to the mordant deadpan wit of Aki Kaurismäki, the visceral surrealism of David Lynch, and the fragmented character studies of his countryman Seijun Suzuki as he does to the suspense architecture of Alfred Hitchcock and Roman Polanski. Still, there's no denying that Kurosawa knows how to scare. He frames his ghosts, killers, or inexplicable evils so they hover in the back of shots, or over the hero's shoulder, or just behind a wall. The potential menace outstrips the actual, and every camera move becomes a cause for concern. Kurosawa's also a whiz at sound design, at making room tones and chair squeaks as loud as the dialogue, so that when the track goes deadly silent, the effect is all the more ominous.
Sudden silences pop up more than once in Kurosawa's 1999 think-piece Charisma, most notably when vacationing policeman Kôji Yakusho looks up into a woodland sky and sees an encroaching cloud of green spores. But it's indicative of Charisma's style and intent that the spore-cloud doesn't prompt any kind of immediate environmental apocalypse. It's an eerie image, preceded and succeeded by other eerie images, all of which add up to ambiguous social commentary. Kurosawa stalwart Yakusho plays a hostage negotiator placed on semi-permanent leave after he botches an assignment, in part because he forgot about the hostage and got interested in the hostage-taker's demand: "To restore order." Yakusho heads to the forest, where he discovers a pitched battle over a rare species of tree, which some want to protect, some want to poach, and some want to destroy before it upsets the local ecosystem. And then there's the woman who'd rather kill off the whole forest and start fresh.
Once again, Yakusho plays negotiator, and once again, he's paralyzed trying to figure out to whom he's ultimately responsible. Charisma plays out too much like a debate, and Kurosawa's flat tone drifts from amusingespecially early on, when trees keep falling down randomly around Yakushoto irritating, as the increasing weirdness begs for some kind of resolution, or at least a shift in mood. Instead, Kurosawa gives the film the nagging but often-revelatory quality of a nightmare, as Yakusho continually wakes up to bad news, wanders into an abandoned building, and eventually hears the dull thwack of metal against a human body.
Charisma is getting an official American DVD release at the same as Séance, a Kurosawa made-for-TV remake of 1964's Séance On A Wet Afternoon, and maybe the straightest horror film he's ever done. Yakusho returns as a sound-effects man married to a waitress who does psychic readings on the side. The police come to his wife to ask for help finding a missing girl, but through a series of coincidences, the girl comes to Yakusho first. Misunderstandings and tragic accidents ensue. A lot of Séance sticks with the familiar techniques of modern J-horrorcreepy kids, tangles of hair, and the likebut Kurosawa invests those genre conventions with his own kind of existential dread. The movie becomes about how people live with the mistakes they make, especially when those mistakes float around them like apparitions.