- 20 August 2003
by Tom Mes
Kiyoshi Kurosawa further consolidated his reputation as one of Japan's most intriguing and polarising filmmakers with the characteristically enigmatic Bright Future, which was selected for the official competition of the Cannes Film Festival. Midnight Eye met up with Kurosawa in Cannes to talk about his film.
You've once said that all your films start with a genre. The example you used at the time was of Charisma being like Indiana Jones, with two teams vying for a treasure. With that in mind, do you feel comfortable if I call Bright Future a beautiful monster movie?
I really appreciate the fact that you call it a monster movie. I have no problem at all that you think that. Compared to my earlier films, I've tried to hide the genre element in Bright Future as much as possible. I consciously tried to make a non-genre film, but I knew that perceptive viewers would clearly recognise it as a monster movie.
The concept of a 'bright future' as you treat it in this film, seems related to the concept of 'accepting life as it is' which you dealt with in Charisma.
In Charisma, in this film and also in Pulse, even though they talk about the present, I wanted to express something about approaching the future. That's the similarity between them. At the time I made Charisma I wasn't so conscious of this, but eventually it turned out that these three films share this particular aspect.
In Bright Future I wanted to express the contents as the title suggests. Even though there are many negative elements in the film, in the end it becomes positive, just like the jellyfish that emerge from dark water. The audience wonders how they can find positivity amidst all this darkness, which is exactly what I wanted them to feel.
So the apocalyptic endings of Charisma and Pulse are not that dissimilar to the hopeful ending of Bright Future? Even though there is a lot of uncertainty at the end of Charisma and Pulse, that uncertainty is not necessarily negative.
That's right. As far as apocalyptic endings go, Bright Future is different from the other two, because its ending is not apocalyptic, as you point out. In this film I made the character played by Tadanobu Asano like a monster. Inevitably he will come into conflict with society, with which he has an antagonistic relationship. If you keep the monster alive, you have to destroy society, which means you need an apocalyptic ending. But in this film I didn't destroy society, because jellyfish live in water. They can escape to the sea, it's not necessary for them to stay in society. Also, I killed the monster character, Asano, so society continues to exist and people survive. This is the difference with the other films, and so my message at the end is "Let's live in society and head for the future without giving up hope."
At the end we see a group of boys walking confidently towards the future, and they're all wearing Che Guevara t-shirts. Che Guevara was a revolutionary and revolutions are usually started in the hope of creating a better future. Is that the significance of the t-shirts?
I really appreciate your presumption, and your direct, straight interpretation of the film. I did several interviews for this film and especially concerning the significance of the Che Guevara t-shirts there were many questions and different interpretations. For example, I've been asked about how I interpret the meaning of Che Guevara's revolutionary goals. And at times I felt a bit trapped in answering those questions.
Firstly, I'd like to explain something, because maybe for foreigners it was unclear in the film: those characters are high school students and they are wearing high school uniforms. Only underneath do they wear their own clothes, in this case a t-shirt, which they can only show after school. Some foreigners assume that because they all wear the same clothes, they are therefore wearing a kind of revolutionary uniform which they made or chose themselves, but that's not the case. They involuntarily wear their school uniforms and only underneath those uniforms do they make their own statement.
There are young people in Tokyo who wear Che Guevara t-shirts as a fashion item, probably without knowing who Che actually is. I didn't wear a Che Guevara t-shirt when I was in school, but there was a period during which I admired Che Guevara. It seems nostalgic when I look back now, but for me Che was a symbol of revolution and change in society and in the world, who destroyed the old, brought on the new, and advanced toward the future. When I think of these young people today, I don't think they would wear a Che Guevara t-shirt only as a fashion item. Even if they don't know who Che is, I think they grasp the meaning, the fact that he is a symbol of change. So they are similar to me thirty years ago. Because of this and also a little bit because of my own nostalgia, I used these Che Guevara t-shirts in the film.
And speaking of revolution, what about that poster of Godard's La Chinoise in the scene at the lawyer's office?
Ah, you noticed that too (laughs). I thought it was not so obvious, but there are some people who noticed. Actually, some interviewers who noticed it tied it into the image of Che Guevara and the fact that the jellyfish are red, and they concluded that the film's ideology was communist or at least left-wing. So there again I felt a bit trapped, because that's not what it's about. The poster was there really by chance, because we shot that scene in the Tokyo office of Unifrance [the organisation that promotes French cinema abroad - TM]. I spotted that poster only during the shooting, but I thought it was quite beautiful and I assumed the audience wouldn't notice, so I left it there.
Bright Future played in Cannes in a version that was more than twenty minutes shorter than the version originally released in Japan. What's the story behind that change?
It started when the sales agent suggested that a shorter version would be easier to sell to foreign buyers. I've never done anything like that before and also it would cost extra money to re-edit it. But then it was decided that I could get the money to do it, so I accepted. Once I'd started to shorten the film, I cut out twenty minutes quite naturally. So the short version is the director's cut, in a certain sense. I was surprised myself about how easily I managed to cut those scenes out. When we asked the Cannes selection committee which version they preferred, they said they had no preference and that the choice was up to us. So I decided to show the new one.
And which version do you prefer?
It's difficult to say. I prefer the long version in the sense of its total achievement. I feel the short version has less explanation and is grittier, but it's also more energetic and has a more primal impact as a result. And this suits the essence of the film better. At the moment this is how I feel about it.
A documentary was made during the production process of Bright Future, called Aimai na Mirai (Ambivalent Future). It was released in theaters in Japan and it's available on some of the DVD releases of Bright Future. The documentary was not so much a making-of as an interpretation of your work, with Bright Future functioning as a case study. What did you think when you saw it?
I didn't watch it so attentively, because I felt a bit embarrassed about watching myself. I kept thinking "What a liar this director is!" (laughs). And I understood the difference between documentary filmmakers and fiction filmmakers. Documentarists shoot elements of reality, and after that in post-production they try to turn it into a lie as much as possible. Directors like me who make fiction - and I've never made a documentary - we deal with fictional elements such as the script, but after that we try to make them as close to reality as possible, and try not to lie as much possible. It's the complete opposite.
What came across most clearly in that documentary, in its interpretation of your work, was ambivalence. It seemed to say that the central motif of Kiyoshi Kurosawa's work is that there is no central motif.
It's an interesting point of view. I think you can say that. I think the motif always changes. And also, we can't avoid mistakes. If you follow one motif, by mistake you can end up with a different motif. Or even if you don't make a mistake, the motif will change naturally. I honestly say that you can never simply grab the motifs and apply them rationally. It's impossible, in cinema at least, because the motif changes with every image. This doesn't just go for me, but the essence of cinema is like this, you can never hope to rationally insert motifs. That's my honest opinion. So in that situation you have to instinctively choose the elements for making your film, without knowing how the film will develop, and you have to continue doing so. That's the only way to make a film. To say "the central motif of Kiyoshi Kurosawa's work is that there is no central motif" sounds too pretentious. That is the documentarist's lie (laughs).
In the documentary you say that the value of cinema lies in the fact that it affirms your individual position in society, by way of how your reaction to a film is different from the reactions of the people around you. That would suggest that if an answer to the question "What is cinema?" exists, that answer could only be given by the audience and not by the filmmaker.
Good point. I believe the answer to "What is cinema?" is decided by the audience. For example, I make films but I also watch films. Watching films is related to making films. If I didn't watch films, I would never have made any. Of course, the very first film ever made was made by a person who had never seen a film before. But the person who has seen films and has received a strong influence from them will sometimes go on to make films. That line of influence is an essential thing. The principal thing is that you have watched films. So deciding the essence of "What is cinema?" is left up to the audience, I think.
So if the viewer's reaction is what is important, bad films are as valuable as good films.
Well… I think so, but… It's an interesting question. Is a film born a masterpiece or bomb, or is its identity created when it's viewed by an audience? I think it's probably the latter, but I can't say with certainty. The question is worth more thought. It's possible that some films are born masterpieces. Maybe. They would be exceptional cases.
Which films could that be?
Difficult to say, but for example Sortie des Usines Lumière by Louis Lumière, the first film ever made. It just came into existence in that period and it's only about a minute long, but even when you watch it now you realise that it's an undeniable masterpiece. The fact that the history of film started with such a miraculous masterpiece confronts me with the mythical nature of cinema.