Master of Horror: ‘Before We Vanish’ Director Kiyoshi Kurosawa’s Journey Through Horror
During the height of the J-horror craze in the early 2000s, prolific director Kiyoshi Kurosawa stood out for taking a much different approach to horror. Instead of long-haired ghosts of vengeance that delivered jump scare after jump scare, Kurosawa instead delivered quiet, mounting dread, and his ghosts often spooked with their oppressive sorrow. Filmmaker, film critic, writer, and a professor at the Tokyo University of the Arts, Kiyoshi Kurosawa is a name that elicits reverence and respect in Japan, an all the more impressive accomplishment considering the bulk of his work exists within the realm of horror.
Already a master of the supernatural in his own right, Kurosawa is stepping into new territory with the release of Before We Vanish (in NY/LA theaters this weekend and expanding next) Trading ghosts for alien body-snatcher territory, Kurosawa’s latest follows three aliens as they travel to Earth in preparation for a mass invasion by taking possession of human bodies. Earning critical acclaim and buzz, we can count on Kurosawa to explore the human condition in the most unsettling fashion, and perhaps even with a bit of dark humor. While we prepare for Kurosawa’s alien invasion to land, we look back at the director’s work in horror and what made him a master:
Sweet Home (1989)
Kurosawa’s first venture into horror is one that easily might have the most mass appeal. Borrowing similar ideas from the likes of The Haunting, or maybe even Poltergeist, the plot follows a TV production crew that are filming a documentary of a notorious painter in his mansion. His dead wife, though, is unhappy about their presence. A true ‘80s practical effect driven spectacle, Sweet Home is a fun haunted house thrill ride full of gore, monsters, and angry ghosts. Existing early on in his career, it doesn’t appear on a surface level to bear much of Kurosawa’s style. Except, when it delves into why the painter’s dead wife is such an angry ghost; her son suffered a tragic, horrific accident at a very young age, leaving Lady Mamiya stuck in a vengeful purgatory of anguish. This emotional story between mother and son bears Kurosawa’s imprint, and provides pathos in a film so entertaining it could have easily gotten away with simply being a visual feast. While it’s never gotten a proper U.S. release, American audiences are somewhat familiar with this film event if they don’t know it: Capcom published a RPG based on the film for Nintendo that coincided with the film’s release. That Sweet Home video game became the basis for Resident Evil.
Nearly a decade later, Kurosawa’s next effort is a technical masterpiece and his voice as a director now fully realized. Following the ‘90s trend of grimy crime horror, Cure is a noir horror feature that follows a detective as he deals with a case of multiple gruesome murders committed by people with no recollection of having committed the murder. It’s a simple plot, but Kurosawa makes it unsettling and multifaceted with his invasive examination of obsession and the fear of losing one’s self-control. It’s the first film that really highlight’s the director’s trademark when it comes to delivering chills; it’s what he relegates to the background of his shots that’s terrifying. The director’s first major breakout film, Cure earned critical acclaim and high praise from notable directors like Martin Scorsese and Bong Joon-ho (Snowpiercer, The Host).
With the success of Ringu launching the beginning of the J-horror craze, Kurosawa proves uninterested in playing into the tropes that made J-horror so popular. A genre-bending film that blends drama, crime thriller, and supernatural, Séance follows a psychic housewife and her husband as their dealing with a kidnapped girl that’s just escaped her capturer. The ghosts that plague the psychic housewife feel more at home with vintage Japanese kaidan, full of disquieting sorrow, than long-haired cursed female ghosts. The film continued his streak of favoring atmosphere and unease over jump scares. A made for television film, Kurosawa shot this on film and elevated it beyond its budgetary constraints. It also meant that Séance is one of the director’s lesser seen films. Mostly, though, it was a great precursor to one of his most universally seen and loved films…
While J-horror might be mostly associated for the vengeful, long-haired spirits, it really spawned from a generational Japanese fear of technology that took root after World War II. Most of the banner films of the J-horror movement tended to explore the spirit’s power over technology, and Pulse also does this in a way that is purely Kurosawa. Seemingly stemming from the quote, “When there’s no more room in hell, the dead will walk the Earth,” the spirits in Pulse grow restless and invade the human world through the Internet. Told in two parts, like two different sides of the same coin, Kurosawa uses creepy imagery to unnerve and explore the disconnect in humanity. Far more complex than usual films of this variety, Pulse stood out in the height of J-horror’s popularity, though the Technophobic theme doesn’t exactly translate as strongly on a cultural level. In addition to the screenplay, Kurosawa also wrote the novelization of his film.
When Reiko moves into a quiet, isolated house to finisher her newest novel, she notices her neighbor moving a human sized object, wrapped in cloth. It turns out that he’s an archeologist and the object is an ancient mummy. Reiko eventually agrees to keep the mummy in her home, which makes for a perfect roommate for the female ghost that already inhabits Reiko’s home; she just didn’t know it yet. Though the ancient mummy, and its horror appropriate curse, feature prominently in the plot, the ghost makes its presence known to viewers early on before growing in prominence. It’s a horror movie that illustrates what Kurosawa does best; take a seemingly mundane scenario and deliver maximum chills simply by the way he uses sound and frame his shots. His use of silence is always discomforting, and even if you’re well acquainted with his use of ghosts lurking in the background, it still manages to be effective every time.
What begins as a thriller, in which the police are in pursuit of a serial killer, becomes something else entirely in Kurosawa’s hands. This time, the ghost figures much more glaringly at the forefront, as a female ghost in red follows the police detective that soon becomes the primary suspect in the grisly murders, each victim drowned in salt water. That’s not to say she doesn’t spook, her subtle appearances in mirrors and background still elicit goosebumps. As with most of Kurosawa’s genre films, he examines the human condition and his favorite theme of identity. Which means that the ghost’s presence isn’t nearly as cut and dry as first appearance. As with most of his ghost stories, there’s a tragic underpinning at the heart of the film. Retribution also marked Kurosawa’s last foray into horror for the next decade.
Kurosawa’s long-awaited return to genre brought an aptly titled horror/thriller. Former detective turned criminal psychology professor Takakura is called back to the field to assist in a case of a missing family that’s gone cold 6 years prior. The only clue is the sole surviving family member, who happens to have no memory of what happened to her family. It’s a plot that plays out against Takakura’s home life, where his wife plays homemaker in their new home while getting acquainted with the rather strange neighbors. While you can count on Kurosawa to take the narrative to unexpected places, he does deliver what the title offers in spades; Takakura’s new neighbor is the very definition of the word. Teruyuki Kagawa, as strange neighbor Nishino, is masterful in his role.
Though many expected Kurosawa’s return to genre filmmaking to feature ghosts, he defied that by delivering an eerie serial killer based thriller. With Dagerrotype, Kurosawa returned to the supernatural, but this time he was more interested in exploring European ghosts. In a brave move, Kurosawa crafts a French language ghost story that follows an obsessed photographer and his assistant, who falls in love with the photographer’s daughter. Translating his themes of obsession and grasp of tragic ghost stories to 19th Century European romantic horror left critics and audiences divided, but it’s impressive nonetheless that Kurosawa stepped beyond his comfort zone to craft a screenplay outside of his cultural and language norm. He’s a master of horror whose already conquered ghosts, and it’s exciting to see a new chapter in horror take shape in the director’s prolific career.