“Restore the Rules of the World”: Kurasawa Kiyoshi and the Decline of Japanese Society

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Charisma (1999), for fans of Kurasawa Kiyoshi, is an unusually allegorical work that was released in the years between Cure (1997) and Pulse (2001). Not so much a horror movie as it is a dark study of a police negotiator’s effort at reckoning with a fatal choice he made during a hostage situation. Sent on a vacation, which becomes indefinite, “Yabuike Goro,” played by Kurosawa’s favorite leading male actor, Yakusho Koji, finds himself in the middle of a forest. Far from the world in which his status as policeman meant anything, Yabuike also finds himself in the middle of an ongoing dispute over the fate of this unnamed forest.

At the center of the controversy is an unimpressive tree surrounded by scaffolding and tended to by a former sanitarium patient, “Kiriyama,” played by Ikeuchi Hiroyuki. Yabuike first encounters Kiriyama and the tree when he’s led on an expedition to see this unique arboreal specimen. “Nakasone” (Osugi Ren) and “Tsuboi” (Otaka Akira) are working for a man, “Nekoshima” (Matsushige Yutaka), who want to take the tree for undisclosed reasons, but which is clearly quite valuable to them, given the money, manpower, and criminal activities they are willing to commit to their ambition.

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What Yabuike eventually learns is that the tree, which Kiriyama calls “Charisma,” is poisonous and is killing the other trees. So, whereas as Kiriyama wants to protect Charisma, another person, a professor of botany, “Jinbo Mitsuko” (Fubuki Jun), wants to destroy it. Which life, then, is more important, the tree or the forest? Or can they both be saved? Yabuike soon finds himself caught between the horns of another ethical dilemma, similar to the hostage situation that led to his dismissal, for which he’s compelled to make a decision as his search for personal understanding becomes enmeshed in the lives of those around him.

In the final analysis, there are elements of Charisma that are profound, eloquent, but also bizarre and perplexing (á la Fellini or Antonioni), which resist interpretation, including, in my opinion, the ending. However, judge for yourself, if you so choose.   If you’re like me, you’ll find yourself thinking about what you saw, slowly realizing the effectiveness of Kurosawa’s storytelling, looking for meaning in all the symbolism, which is never preachy, but rather is like a dream that leaves you a bit shaken without knowing why.

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