Directors who become known as horror specialists often end up making little else, whether by choice or not. Labeled a “horrormeister” for such supremely creepy films as “Cure” (1997) and “Pulse” (Kairo, 2001), Kiyoshi Kurosawa is one director who has successfully expanded beyond the genre with his dark family drama “Tokyo Sonata” (2008), which won the Jury Prize in the Cannes film festival’s Un Certain Regard section.
His latest film, “The Woman in the Silver Plate” (“Dagereo Taipu no Onna”), is both a return to horror and a departure from his previous work. It is the first time the director has worked in a foreign country (France) and in a foreign language, but unlike Francophile colleagues Koji Fukada and Masahiro Kobayashi, he has not filmed an homage to French cinema and its masters. Based on his own story and script, “The Woman in the Silver Plate” is completely Kurosawa in every frame.
In “The Woman in the Silver Plate,” an assistant (Tahar Rahim) to a modern-day daguerreotype photographer (Olivier Gourmet) falls for the photographer’s ethereally lovely daughter Marie (Constance Rousseau) — and their relationship continues after her untimely death. Prior to its premiere at this year’s Toronto International Film Festival, The Japan Times spoke with Kurosawa about this most unusual project of his long career.
European ghosts and Japanese ghosts are different, aren’t they?
Yes, they are. European ghosts and ghosts in J-horror films are ghosts from the beginning of the story to the end. But in the old Japanese kaidan (ghost stories), that’s not the case.
One example is “Yotsuya Kaidan” (“Yotsuya Ghost Story”). In the beginning there are no ghosts, only living people. Then the heroine, Oiwa-san, dies and suddenly her ghost appears. That’s typical of Japanese kaidan.
In this movie, I wanted a mix of European horror and classic Japanese horror, with ghosts appearing both at the beginning and, after a death, in the middle of the film.
Japanese ghosts are usually angry about something. They want revenge. That doesn’t happen in your film.
Not really. The woman who dies does so by accident. I wanted to portray how her death affects the living, as well as the relationship between the living and the dead. That relationship changes, but not simply because of her death.
The heroine, Marie, doesn’t seem to be dead at all. You could almost misinterpret her as being alive.
That’s true. It’s true for the main character Jean. For him there’s always that sense of confusion: “Is she really dead?” Gradually he has to admit that she really is.
She is dead, but at the same she has a strong presence.
The film’s house looks haunted, but you didn’t use any CGI to create that atmosphere./strong>
Basically, no. It was all done by hand. We made curtains move by fanning them. The layout of that kind of old European building is very complex. For example, when you open a door there are stairs leading to a basement, or a flight of stairs going up. Then when you turn right there is a secret room.
That kind of complex building can’t be found in Japan but makes a great fit for horror.
Filmmakers can bring a fresh perspective when making a movie abroad, but you didn’t try to make a “French film.”
I was so excited that my dream of filming in France had come true, but I knew I couldn’t possibly do justice to the reality of France today. I’m not French and I’ve never lived in Paris.
I thought I should let French directors be responsible for that and instead I’d use French material to create fiction. I also wanted to film what I never could in Japan, with France as the setting.
The daguerreotype is the core of the film: It’s symbolic as well as central to the story. Does it have a deeper meaning for you personally?
The way I direct is very old-fashioned, so that old form of photography seems to suit me. I film digitally, but I need a long time to take one cut — I test the lighting, the costumes and the location and rehearse many times. When I finally like the result, that take is something special to me. There’s a kind of holy quality to it that I don’t feel from something created instantly.
I do my work believing that there is something beyond us, something divine encapsulated in each special cut I film. If just anybody could shoot those cuts, my work would become meaningless. So my job in essence is the same as a daguerreotype photographer.
I may be neurotic or crazy or old-fashioned in some ways, but my faith in that “special something” is what makes my filmmaking whole. That quality is exactly like that of the daguerreotype.
The daguerreotype process is 170 years old. The people featured in old daguerreotypes are now all dead, so when I see them, they seem alive and yet they are also like ghosts.
It’s the same with film. People exist in a very unique way on film, as if they are already dead. They aren’t quite people, yet they aren’t simple scenery or buildings. When you project the image, you see them and you can “reincarnate” them over and over on screen, so films hold a special power. The people on the screen will die (in real life) eventually, so they are just as much ghosts as they are living humans, but if you do it right, they will live forever in the screen. It’s a very peculiar thing.
This is your original story. Did you get the idea from a daguerreotype?
Yes, I happened to go to the photo museum in Ebisu a while ago, and there was an exhibition of old photos. One was of a little girl and she had the most peculiar expression on her face. It was as if she was feeling pain and pleasure at the same time. It’s very hard to describe, but I’d never seen such an expression before.
There was an explanation next to the photo saying that she had to be tied down for about 10 minutes while the picture was being taken, and that she was very nervous and scared to be forced to hold still for 10 minutes. So the picture recorded subtle fluctuations of emotion throughout that time, something that no single snapshot at a given moment could ever capture.
Just talking about these daguerreo-types is beginning to creep me out. But the eeriest feelings can be derived from the most ordinary things.
That’s what I think. If you see ordinary life or ordinary street scenes from a different perspective, through a daguerreotype or by varying the shutter speed of a camera, you can capture something very different. That is the most interesting thing for me about shooting a film. Of course, creating unreal cities or monsters from scratch using CG, as in Hollywood films, can be fun in its own way, but it takes a lot of money.
If you have a limited budget, you don’t have to shoot reality as it is. You can create your own reality, depending on how you change the perspective. That’s what I have been doing with J-horror.
“The Woman in the Silver Plate” (“Dagereo Taipu no Onna”) opens nationwide on Oct. 15.