The grand illusionist
Japanese director Kiyoshi Kurosawa toys with notions of truth and memory in his latest movie
What you see on the surface of Kiyoshi Kurosawa's films is not always what you carry away with you.
The Japanese director's productions have a habit of lingering, as specific moments return and the atmosphere he creates continues to unnerve, long after the curtain has come down. And the 58-year-old Kurosawa wouldn't have things any other way: he wants to get inside your head with his films.
"There's not really a part of me that takes enjoyment from making the audience anxious," he says with a sly smirk that leaves him sounding less than entirely convincing. "But anxiety is a part of everyday life that interests me. Everyone has their own anxieties and I like to explore what these are, or might be. What makes you worry? Anxiety comes from not knowing. It's a fear of the unknown. So I like to explore how people react to the unknown, to the things that are not under their control," he says.
It's the "unknown" that sits at the centre of Real, which begins with a man (Takeru Sato) trying to rouse his partner (Haruka Ayase) from a coma. The film - loosely based on the novel A Perfect Day for Plesiosaur by Rokuro Inui - begins as a simple mystery but by its end has expanded its reach into a deeper meditation on the very concept of "memory" and on how human beings define what is real in our lives and what is not.
"In the novel, the trick was trying to differentiate between what was real and what was being imagined," Kurosawa says. "The most difficult part was taking that into a film and making it all still seem believable."
Real does have moments when a suspension of belief is required - it would be giving the game away to reveal just when - but by its end you'll walk out wondering just how much of what you have seen is meant to be taken literally.
When we met at last month's Busan International Film Festival, the director began by revealing that it was only once he had started shooting that these themes really began to weigh on his mind. "I didn't really think about them at the start," he confesses. "But the longer I worked with this story, the more I started to think about cinema itself and how films can be about reality but they are also the filmmaker's version of reality. It's like it can be real but a little bit altered from that."
He adds, "The trick sometimes is to make the audience decide about what they are watching.Is it real or is it imagined? I want them to ask themselves, 'what is the reality here?'"
It's hard not to think exactly the same thing as the interview plays itself out: questions in English are translated first into Korean, then Japanese before the process is reversed, and it lends a strange, stilted air to the room that's broken only by some slightly nervous looking smiles. But it's somehow fitting, as fans of the filmmaker's finest moments will attest.
Kurosawa's work in the horror genre - in the likes of Pulse (2001) and Loft (2005) - has been marked by the disturbing moods he creates. And even in Tokyo Sonata (2008), his surprising take on a traditional family drama, you are left feeling slightly unhinged by the whole experience.
It should come as no surprise then to learn that Kurosawa's own first memories of the cinema are ones that left him quite affected. Promised a treat and taken as a young boy to see a film from Toho, the Japanese studio famed for its Godzilla series, the young Kurosawa was in for a rude awakening.
"I remember the first time I was scared in a cinema," he says. "I was just five or six years old and everyone then was going to see the films of Toho. My family took me to see Matango and people were expecting something like Godzilla but it was a horror film, about people turning into monsters, and I had nightmares for years to come!"
Elaborating on the experience and his reaction, Kurosawa talks about how "it was so unexpected, terrifying and like John Carpenter's The Thing, which I still think is the scariest movie ever made, it left you thinking that it might actually be able to happen."
But once the trembling had subsided, the Kobe native says he became fixated on becoming a filmmaker, playing around with every type of camera he could get his hands on and taking up formal training at Rikkyo University in Tokyo.
Like other promising young Japanese filmmakers of the 1970s and 1980s, he got his first breaks directing "pink" films - the often noirish-styled thrillers or dramas known mainly for the fact that they always seem to include (in)decent lashings of soft-core porn.
You might think that by their very nature, pink films allow for a wild amount of creative freedom but - not to labour a point here - Kurosawa says the reality proved to be something very different indeed. The director takes his head in hands and offers a look of pure exasperation at the memory.
"It was just very difficult to make those films," he says. "I made two and the thing with pink films is that they have to be very, let's say, direct with the way they portray love. That was very hard to portray. In other films it can be a little less direct but that is what people want from pink films. So you are actually quite restricted even though people think pink films give you a lot of freedom. It wasn't much fun at all."
Needless to say, Kandagawa Pervert Wars (1983) and The Excitement of the Do-Re-Mi-Fa Girl (1985) are not the kind of films Kurosawa wants to be remembered for. "To be honest I think they were very badly made," he says. "But the best lesson I learned is that I am not suited to this kind of filmmaking. It gave me a start but I am happy I could move on quickly."
And that leads us back to Real. Like all of Kurosawa's productions, it is mainly set in Tokyo but for the first time the capital plays no real role; the director says this is deliberate: he wants the audience to focus on the characters and the journey they are taking.
"I shoot in Tokyo because it is a place I know so well. But for the first time while it is shot in Tokyo, you wouldn't know it. It really could be anywhere as I wanted to focus everything on the characters and what they are going through." More specifically, "I am interested in the mind, and where it can take us."
Real opens on Thursday