Risk-taking ‘Cure’ for J-Horror

by Mark Schilling

THE FILMS OF KIYOSHI KUROSAWA: Master of Fear, by Jerry White. Berkeley, CA: Stonebridge Press, 2007, $19.95 (paper)

Kiyoshi Kurosawa has been an international cult favorite since the release of “Cure,” his breakthrough film, in 1997. Telling the strange tale of a blanked-out young man who hypnotizes his victims into killing themselves, “Cure” was utterly unlike anything coming out of Hollywood in its indirection, ambiguity and scares that seemed to ooze up from the collective unconscious rather than spring from behind a door. It also labeled Kurosawa as a J-Horror director, a label that Jerry White, in his pioneering critical study “The Films of Kiyoshi Kurosawa: Master of Fear,” admits does not quite fit: “His films,” writes White, “are often too complex for the cult fan, yet too mired in genre convention for art-house fans.”

White, a regular contributor to the fan magazine “Asian Cult Cinema,” tries to explain Kurosawa’s complexity and conventions with a refreshing candor, enthusiasm and lack of academic jargon. But in his analyses of 25 feature films, White also frequently slams Kurosawa for cinematic crimes and misdemeanors, including the “completely uninteresting actions” in “Barren Illusion (Oinaru Genei)” in 1999, the “disregard for narrative consistency” in “Seance (Korei)” in 2000, and the “alarming failure of storytelling” in “Loft” in 2007.

Which raises the question of why write a book, as opposed to a journal article, about such a patchy director?

White makes a good case for Kurosawa’s importance as an innovative, risk-taking filmmaker whose best work redefines the horror genre, despite his faults. But instead of focusing on the few films he feels prove this case most strongly, White slogs through the entire Kurosawa oeuvre, giving the same weight to early, disposable films as he does to the later more important work. The six films in the “Suit Yourself or Shoot Yourself (Katte ni Shiyagare!)” yakuza comedy series — minor V Cinema fluff (Japanese direct-to-video films) — account for 30 pages of text; “Cure,” Kurosawa’s masterpiece according to White, only seven, including several pages of plot summary.

White is quite good at explicating Kurosawa’s influences, particularly the American genre films he tried to channel in his early work. He also is enlightening about the worldwide J-Horror boom and Kurosawa’s place in it. Also, despite his often-stated reservations, he is clearly a fan of Kurosawa, both as a man and filmmaker. He is not, however, well versed in Japanese film history, which leads him into basic errors. He tells us that Nikkatsu blamed its near bankruptcy — and shift from “straight” to “pink” (i.e., soft porn) films in 1971, on the “incomprehensible” films of Seijun Suzuki. In fact, Suzuki left the studio long before, in 1967. He also informs us that Juzo Itami, Kurosawa’ s producer on the 1989 horror pic “Sweet Home,” never had a hit after “The Gentle Art of Japanese Extortion (Minbo no Onna)” in 1992, though Itami’s “Supermarket Woman (Super no Onna)” was the fifth-highest grossing Japanese film of 1996.

More seriously than these factual hiccups, White has done little to fill in his knowledge gaps with legwork. There is one, brief interview with Kurosawa, but none at all with people who have known and worked with him. There is also no mention of Kurosawa’s own essays on film, in which he discusses his influences and aesthetic principles. Given all of these lacunae, there remains much to be written about Kurosawa and his films in English. White, however, deserves credit for making a spirited, engaging, start.