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Charisma (Kurosawa Kiyoshi 1999)



Genre: Psychological Action

review in one breath

Heaven and Earth are not humane.
They regard all things as straw toys.
Therefore the wise man is not humane.
He regards all people as straw toys.

(~ Tao Te Ching)

Goro Yabuike (Koji Yakusho) is a Tokyo precinct detective who is called in for the difficult cases. His entire waking life consists of crazed lunatics and senselelss murders. Somehow he has found himself in the position where he is the soul who stands between the lunacy and civilized society, sometimes as translator, sometimes as the sole person who will decide a tragic situation's outcome. We are introduced to the sleep-deprived Yabuike as he is called to intervene in a hostage situation whose demands are simply "To restore the rules of the world". Reading this demand, he gives up any hope of resolution and as he leaves the presence of the gunman, the entire hostage situation goes to hell. His recurring preoccupation with this scene underscores his growing disdain for the chaotic social order in which he is steeped.

This social lunacy eventually causes Yabuike to take a sudden leave of absence, consisting of his calling home and informing his son that he will be gone for some time. He then boards a bus headed for nowhere in particular and in a rash decision suddenly exits the bus along an isolated forest pass. By the time he realizes the predicament he has put himself in, the bus is gone and there is no telling when the next one will be coming through this region. Deciding to set off across the forest to find a town, Yabuike's real adventure into lunacy begins, where he will soon learn that the laws of nature governing the forest are far more stark and inexplicable than anything he has encountered in the man-made construct of Tokyo.

As we have said before in reviews of director Kiyoshi Kurosawa's films, a characteristic of the worlds he creates is one in which the characters' identity is fluid over the course of the film, being impacted by the environment and personalities encountered. By the time we meet up with Yabuike, the insanity of his environment has brought himself to the brink of insanity. He finds himself without moral conscience, without personal investment in the outcome of these chaotic scenarios. He has seen enough to make him not care what happens. Thus Yabuike starts this adventure within his own brand of nihilism, and then proceeds to develop this through his encounter with the forest and those he finds within.

This is not solely, of course, a "man against the wilderness" tale, and Yabuike meets a variety of personalities living within the forest. First, there are the government forestry officials and their somewhat disgruntled contracted laborers who are investigating the mysterious fact that almost all of the forest's trees are dying off as if poisoned. They find themselves in the perpetual cycle of planting seedlings and watching them shrivel up and die. Whereas they are mandated by the government to repopulate the forest with living trees, they envision themselves as having to stay there for a very long time. Through these workers, Yabuike is introduced to a unique and very valuable tree, carefully maintained by a mysterious and violent character living somewhere within the woods.

Yabuike then meets Kiriyama, who has tended this tree, which he calls Charisma, since the director of the insane asylum at which he was a resident passed away and the asylum was abandoned. Kiriyama remains committed to maintaining the director's vision of the tree, which the director had imported at great cost from overseas. The tree, it is said, has the unique characteristic of poisoning everything around it in a bid for sole survival. Thus Kiriyama, in nurturing the one very special tree is intentionally causing the death of the forest.

And thirdly, Yabuike encounters Mitsuko, a university professor trying to renew the entire ecosystem of the forest following the poisoning introduced through the foreign Charisma tree. This renewal, she believes, involves the utter destruction of the Charisma tree, despite Kiriyama's devotion to it and despite the government workers' financial interest in it.

In the story that ensues, Yabuike finds himself in the midst of a triad of desires, each seeking his aid when it is discovered he employs brute force quite fearlessly (as a cop). Underlying and determining all these human desires, of course, is the forest itself, whose struggle manifests itself in the various human interests. Kurosawa thus quite impressively underscores his vision of human nature as a response to its environment rather than some static phenomena withstanding it. Our lesson, as well as Yabuike's, is that the chaos permeating the construct of society is but a mirror of the natural order, which itself is NOT a moral order.

Yabuike enters this saga burdened by the contradiction of attempting to value the life of an individual (whether lunatic or victim) above the life and goals of "society at large". By the end of his adventure, this question has been transformed into one of choosing either the life of one tree or the life of the forest. These, we and he eventually understand, are in fact the same question.

Yabuike eventually answers both these questions in a single answer, which for him not only resolves his place in the triad of tensions, but enables him to reenter socially chaotic Tokyo cured of his previous nihilism.

cultural interest violence sex strangeness
Kiyoshi Kurosawa, the increasingly influential director of Japan's newest horror/thriller films, is perhaps here redefining "character development". Several deaths or wounding by gunshot. Two poor souls eternally abandoned in the woods. One death by slow insertion of sword through rib cage. Two slow motion deaths by a mushroom crazed mob wielding one HUGE wooden mallet. (Holy cow!!) Although the trees receive the most tender-loving care in this story, they do NOT have genitals, okay? This film actually addresses some pretty heavy existential issues in a very creative and convincing manner.

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