For Kiyoshi Kurosawa, obliqueness often seems to be the order of the day. But hiding beneath his more forthrightly abstract films, like Barren Illusion, Charisma, and Bright Future, and lying closer to the surface of more generically situated works like Cure, Pulse, and Doppelganger, is the beating heart of a true melodramatist. If a film like Bright Future, with its loaded but still hard-to-suss-out metaphors (jellyfish equals social malaise…what now?), keeps its central character conflicts floating in a pool of visual expressionism and abstract ideas on generational anxiety, one could say it does so mostly to curb its own underlying moralism. The same could be said of Cure and Pulse, expertly crafted horror films, respectively, of the serial killer and ghost variety, that make grand, sweeping statements about the state of contemporary Japan, mainly its apathetic citizenry, which in both cases point towards apocalypse. Cure posits murder itself as a contagious social disease; and Pulse, though its ability to spook the viewer is nearly unparalleled (its game of withhold and reveal pays off the best horror dividends of any film this decade), is both naïve and chastising in its prophesizing of a technological doomsday, and, unsurprisingly, it has not aged well.
That Kurosawa masks his social critique in ghostly, vague affectation often gives him the tag of Abstract Auteur, though compared with willfully obscure directors like Lucrecia Martel and Claire Denis, he’s far more digestible. His latest film, Tokyo Sonata, moves away from his recent forays into toying with horror and sci-fi conventions, but it’s no less generic. Playing off the Japanese domestic drama, even seemingly purposely referencing Ozu in its title, Tokyo Sonata applies the trademark Kiyoshi Kurosawa tactics (hazy character motivations, eerily alienating mise-en-scène) to distract from an essentially straightforward narrative. Surely this is a film of immense misdirect, but Kurosawa’s always been something of a trickster, and Tokyo Sonata tricks us in an occasionally edifying way: it makes us look so closely at recognizable people—in this case one urban family living in quiet malcontent—that they become unfamiliar, only to then remind us that they were not all that different from us in the first place. Click here to read the rest of Michael Koresky’s review of Tokyo Sonata.