The Films of Kiyoshi Kurosawa: Master of Fear

picture: The Films of Kiyoshi Kurosawa: Master of Fear
9 March 2009


At the 2008 Cannes Film Festival, Kiyoshi Kurosawa was awarded the Un Certain Regard Jury Prize for his film Tokyo Sonata. For fans of Kurosawa's films, it was vindication from one of the world's top film festivals of what they've known for years: Kiyoshi Kurosawa is quite simply one of the most interesting and exciting filmmakers working in the world today. The timing, then, of Jerry White's The Films of Kiyoshi Kurosawa: Master of Fear couldn't be better. As the first English language book dedicated entirely to Kiyoshi Kurosawa, it promises to get to the bottom of Kurosawa's raison d'etre: "What is cinema?"

The book charts Kiyoshi Kurosawa's growth as a filmmaker from 'pink film' director to an '…industry maverick who constantly pushes boundaries of staid film genres…" This is done through an introduction to the Asian film phenomenon (the rise of HK Action fandom) and how Kiyoshi Kurosawa fits within the Asian film world. The book then continues on through 25 loosely critical analyses of Kurosawa's films before concluding with an interview with Kurosawa himself. Unfortunately, the problems with Jerry White's book appear almost immediately.

Starting with the introduction, which is designed to be a kind of primer for those who are new to Asian film fandom, Mr. White attempts to connect the dots between the rise of Jackie Chan and John Woo style HK action films and how this led inexorably to J-horror's popularity and brief box office success. He contends that Asian film fans were turned off by Hollywood's wholesale looting of their prized genre and so they went searching for the next new (obscure) Asian film thing: J-horror.

I have a problem with this thesis, if for no other reason then the timeline that Jerry White provides doesn't hold true. Tetsuo: The Iron Man (1989) or Evil Dead Trap (1988) or even the Guinea Pig films (1985 and on) all pre-date the J-horror phenomenon and are not, in a strict sense, even J-horror films, having all been released before Norio Tsuruta's Real True Scary Stories in 1991. They lack the tropes of the genre and, if we take the example of Tetsuo: The Iron Man, it has long been considered a sci-fi flick having been originally marketed in the early 1990s to the kaiju and anime fans by Image Entertainment in the US. I also, quite simply, wonder whether Asian film fans really need any excuse to be constantly on the look out for the next new Asian film phenomenon. Fans are always hungry for the next new thing and I would posit that the success of J-horror, in some respects, came largely as the result of the ease in bootlegging and fan-subbing Japanese DVDs. The rise in popularity of J-horror, in turn, came about relatively quickly in the West because by the time Hollywood took notice of it as a genre, it already had a large back catalog to pull from. But, perhaps, this is neither here nor there; it seems that Jerry White chooses this approach because he wants to contrast Kiyoshi Kurosawa as a different kind of horror director from the usual J-horror subjects, due largely to his diverse back catalog.

The book moves on to Kiyoshi Kurosawa's early years doing pink films. White is correct in describing Kandagawa Wars as a pink film since it'd been made while Kiyoshi Kurosawa was at the Director's Company and was one of two films made by the largely art film focused company for pink movie distributor Million Films. (The other being Banmei Takahashi's Wolf.) But when White turns to The Excitement of the Do-Re-Mi-Fa Girl there are a few errors. I haven't been able to verify whether Nikkatsu did in fact fund the original film version of The Excitement of the Do-Re-Mi-Fa Girl called College Girl: Shameful Seminar, but in all of the Japanese resources I've looked at it says that it was produced by the Director's Company but was denied distribution by Nikkatsu. It was then that Kiyoshi Kurosawa re-shot some key scenes and extended the length of the film.

Where I have some concern about the reporting of these early parts is in the description of the Nikkatsu studio's history in the book. Besides the fact that it's an aside that has little relevance to the larger Kurosawa narrative except in a failed attempt to draw a comparison between famously black-balled Nikkatsu director Seijun Suzuki and Kiyoshi Kurosawa himself (possibly inspired by a reference to Suzuki in the chapter on Kurosawa from Tom Mes and Jasper Sharp's The Midnight Eye Guide to New Japanese Film), the book has to contend with a key mistake that is often made: Nikkatsu Roman Pornos are not that same as pink films. 'Pink films' are independently produced soft-core films made by a small number of companies specifically for cinemas who play their products. Roman Porno films can't be considered pink, as Nikkatsu Studios owned their own cinema chains as well as the studios and stopped producing them in the 1980s. Additionally, though of less importance to this conversation, the budgets, production facilities and film quality was usually higher with the Nikkatsu Roman Porno.

Moving on to the incompatible Seijun Suzuki comparison, Jerry White writes the following:

"This transformation from "legitimate" cinema to pinku eiga resulted from a financial crisis: if the company did not start turning a profit, it was going to go bankrupt. (Needing a scapegoat, Nikkatsu fired its best director, Seijun Suzuki; the company's downfall was blamed on his "incomprehensible" films, specifically Branded to Kill…) (p. 37)

Besides the fact that this is erroneous, the timeline is also out of whack. Branded to Kill was released in 1967 while Nikkatsu's move to a full Roman Porno line-up occurred in 1971. Seijun Suzuki's firing had less to do with making incomprehensible films (which were, in fact, popular enough) than with his disrespect for the 'corporate suits.' Part of the incompatibility of the Suzuki/Kurosawa comparison comes from the fact that the former was under contract to Nikkatsu and as such was a wage slave for the studio churning out the requisite number of films a year, while the latter was not. Kiyoshi Kurosawa was happily ensconced with the 'artistic' filmmakers over at the Director's Company and, as such, didn't have to produce program pictures.

As for the rest of the book, the bulk of it is comprised of film reviews that follow a simple pattern: first, we have an introduction to the specific Kiyoshi Kurosawa film and then we get a plot description peppered with some mild analysis that is periodically bolstered by quotes from various critical texts. Much of the research, it appears, has been pulled from articles found on the web but for the few book entries that there are, there's no footnoting or pagination by which one can go and verify the quote. In fact, considering how few secondary sources Jerry White used, I wonder why he didn't just put everything in foot or chapter endnotes for ease of use? As such, the write-ups are essentially super-charged plot synopses.

That said, the highlight of the book for me was the interview the author has with the man of the hour, Kiyoshi Kurosawa. I found this to be most interesting primarily because reading Kurosawa's own thoughts about films and the filmmaking process is something that is startlingly (and curiously) rare in English. Midnight Eye has two interviews with Kiyoshi Kurosawa (here and here), but outside of this, we have yet to have much else, including Kurosawa's books of essays, translated into English. Back in 2004 I had the honor of interpreting for Kiyoshi Kurosawa when he came to NYC. During his trip I interpreted at interviews with two different sets of writers who were working on Kiyoshi Kurosawa books at that time. As far as I know, neither of those books have been published.

Ultimately, I think what I was hungering for in this book was a large picture perspective/portrait of Kiyoshi Kurosawa; one which analyzed his films for thematic through-lines and directorial choices, as seen in the changes in the Japanese film industry over the last 25 years. That's not this book and, it seems, that the definitive overarching question has yet to be seriously explored: Why is a genre director (something viewed as only slightly better than a cockroach by the world of film criticism) like Kiyoshi Kurosawa one of the most highly regarded filmmakers in Japan?

While Jerry White does provide some interesting information about Kiyoshi Kurosawa and the plot synopses are of some utility, the occasional factual error and the limitation of scholarship make for a frustrating read. Ultimately, I'm afraid that we'll have to wait longer for a definitive book in English on Kiyoshi Kurosawa and his films.


The Films of Kiyoshi Kurosawa: Master of Fear

picture: cover of 'The Films of Kiyoshi Kurosawa: Master of Fear'
Jerry White
Stone Bridge Press