Acclaimed Japanese director Kiyoshi Kurosawa’s best known films in the U.S. are the psychologically tormenting Cure (1997) and the sci-fi/horror internet saga Pulse (2001). The latter is not to be confused with the American remake, which he had no part in.
He has the reputation of being a horror director and even his newest film, Tokyo Sonata, shows traces of that, but it’s more appropriate to think of him as a director whose starting place is with genre and whose ending place is anyone’s guess. His works constantly explore multiple themes simultaneously, with subtle experiments in image, sound, tone, and genre mixed high and low. He is undoubtedly a contemporary filmmaker, but his movies, usually set in dark rooms, quiet streets and abandoned buildings, can feel outside of time and place entirely.
Tokyo Sonata is a poignant and unsettling domestic drama, which has won multiple awards in Japan, the Jury Prize in the Un Certain Regard section of the Cannes Film Festival, and the Grand Jury Prize at the Chicago International Film Festival. It features a slight shift in style and setting but is still firmly rooted in Kurosawa’s most prized themes: personal identity, the fantastic infringing on the ordinary, breaking down and rebuilding reality, and the fragile endurance of human connection. While Pulse is endlessly fascinating to me, I think Tokyo Sonata is his best, most masterful film to date.
I had the great pleasure of sitting down for 30 minutes with Mr. Kurosawa in a room at the Kabuki Hotel in Japantown. He wore a black shirt, grey sport coat, and looked, if I may say, a bit like he wished he wasn’t the room’s center of attention.
In many of your films, the characters undergo great transformations. Would you call the character transformations in Tokyo Sonata ordinary or fantastic?
That is an extremely difficult question and I really wonder which. I think that it’s probably both. I do start off grappling with changes and transformations that could happen to anyone, ones that are feasible and plausible in an ordinary sense. But I think as you see the film, we do shift into a different tone and take a few steps into the realm of fantasy and allegory. I think that I’m not entirely clear on where the boundary is, but I am conscious of always exploring the transformations that the characters undergo in a very universal way, or one that is very familiar to us, but also of being true to each of the characters in a very intimate, individual way. And in that sense, sometimes they veer off in directions that are more fantastical.
Do you feel this movie could have been filmed in any city?
You’re asking a very interesting question once again and it’s something I’m a little unsure of how to answer, but I think it’s a film that could have been shot anywhere. Most, if not all, of my films have been shot in Tokyo and I know some people misinterpret that to mean I’m a filmmaker who’s fixated on Tokyo as a city somehow. But that’s not true. As somebody who lives in Tokyo it’s simply that making a film there happens to be cheaper and more convenient. All my stories could be shot anywhere, in any other city. I think that’s true of Tokyo Sonata too.
Most of your movies take place in very private settings. Here you bring the characters into public areas a little more, notably a shopping mall. Were you always reluctant to do that?
The shopping mall was a place I avoided for a long time and so it was a risk for me to take on the challenge of shooting there, but because it is a place that does exist in Toyko I accepted it as the fate of taking on a film with Tokyo in the title.
While I’ve shot a lot in Toyko, often I would first come up with the characters and then the story and then I would think about Tokyo as a background to that story and choose locations that way. In choosing a location like the mall, in Tokyo Sonata, it’s kind of emblematic of the challenge I have with this film, which is that often I’m shooting in places where there are pedestrians and other elements in those locations that have absolutely nothing to do with the story I’ve envisioned. So you have people crossing the frame who have stories of their own and have a blatant disregard and perhaps even a betrayal of what I’m trying to accomplish with the film. So those forces are something I was very, very worried about. When you have a well known, popular actress like Kyoko Koizumi standing in the middle of the mall and you have all these other characters coming in, I would think that the pretense of film as reality starts to become strained, that somehow the structure, the fabrication, the fictionality of the film starts to crumble and that’s something that I was very, very concerned about, so it was a challenge for me.
So, you mentioned the private spaces are where I used to kind of reside. If those were to be seen as the fictional universes I’d been roaming in, if you look at the public spaces I was shooting at, as more of reality, then it’s possible that Tokyo Sonata was my fearful one or two steps into that realm.
In other interviews, I have heard you talk about using sound as a kind of third dimension. If sound is the third dimension, what is silence? I ask because your use of silence is often more noticeable to me than your use of sound but both are done extremely well and not quite like anything I’ve ever seen.
First of all, I think I distinguish between silence and the absence of sound. Film was silent to begin with and the moment sound technology was introduced, there was something revolutionary in that the invisible could all of a sudden be expressed using sound. The invisible is what people use to interpret the story, but I think it’s the sound that creates the certain reality or the verisimilitude of the film, that this is something that is actually happening and the moment the sound is turned off, the theater sound takes over, which is to say, the people around you or whatever else may be happening.
In the old silent film projections I think there were always orchestras playing music to drown out the sound of the audience and whatever was going on in the reality of the theater and I think today’s films also do that, they use a lot of soundtracks and other things to kind of drown out that reality. That’s been the history of sound in motion pictures, but I have been tinkering with the use of silence that can still allow us to remain inside the universe of the film. And it’s something I’m kind of trying and I think it’s a little bit scary. You’ll notice that in many of my films, not just Tokyo Sonata, there are moments where we do hear silence but I’m trying to find a threshold where we don’t knock people back into the reality of the auditorium of the theater, but stay within the world of the film.
Kiyoshi Kurosawa is the spotlight director of the 27th San Francisco International Asian American Film Festival. Select films of his play throughout the festival. Tokyo Sonata plays Saturday, 3/14, at 6:00pm at the Pacific Film Archive in Berkeley.
Special thanks to Taro Goto for translating.