SFIAAFF 2009: KIYOSHI KUROSAWA—Serpent's Path & Eyes of the Spider

Brian Darr's and Michael Hawley's recent previews of the 27th edition of the San Francisco International Asian American Film Festival ("SFIAAFF") posted, respectively, at Hell on Frisco Bay and film-415, enumerate many reasons to be pleased with this year's line-up; not the least of which is the seven-film tribute to Kiyoshi Kurosawa. It will be no surprise to readers of The Evening Class to know how excited I am by this tribute, recalling the Kiyoshi Kurosawa Blogathon of last Summer, wherein I included my write-ups on Cure and Bright Future along with hosting essays from welcome contributors. Likewise—anticipating the opportunity to interview Kurosawa at Tokyo Sonata's TIFF08 North American premiere—I provided an overview of interviews conducted with Kurosawa. My dream to conduct my own interview with Kurosawa came true at the Toronto International and it now appears I will have a chance to follow-up when he attends this year's edition of SFIAAFF. Suh-weet!!

Along with the San Francisco premiere of Tokyo Sonata, Kurosawa's J-horror phase is represented by what many consider to be one of his creepiest ventures: Pulse (Kairo, 2001). Eschewing a facile equation of Kurosawa with J-horror, however, for the bulk of their retrospective SFIAAFF has spotlighted Kurosawa's nominally-yakuza revenge diptychs of the late '90s. Straight off, there is one particularly striking association between Kurosawa's early V-cinema—specifically Serpent's Path (Hebi no michi, 1998)—and his most recent Tokyo Sonata. Teruyuki Kagawa—who portrayed the unhinged yakuza Miyashita in Serpent's Path—returned to work with Kurosawa a decade later as Ryûhei Sasaki, the father in Tokyo Sonata. Curiously, even the neighborhoods where both films are set seem amazingly similar. This is a decade's fascinating career arc for both artists, pronounced between the premiere of Tokyo Sonata and the retrospective spotlight on Kurosawa's V-cinema.

The true through line by way of performance, however, is that of Sho Aikawa, who appears in all four revenge films featured in SFIAAFF's spotlight. Kelly Vance at East Bay Express describes Aikawa as "a stoic tough guy with a face like an Easter Island monolith—if the monolith wore black shades." Though I'll be catching The Revenge double-feature—A Visit From Fate and The Scar That Never Fades—at their Pacific Film Archive screenings, I've had an opportunity to watch Serpent's Path and Eyes of the Spider (Kumo No Hitomi) and offer a response, as well as an encouraging recommendation.

Each film can, perhaps, be appreciated on its own merits; however, in combination they resonate beyond the sum of their parts. This is a synergy undoubtedly intended. As Tom Mes has indicated in his invaluable Midnight Eye review of Serpent's Path, Kurosawa does the unprecedented by exploring the same story "in two decidedly different ways"; the story's premise being that of a father avenging the murder of his eight-year-old daughter. This shared premise is "the jumping-off point for the two films rather than their definition, resulting in a pair of works which are not so much occupied with revenge, but with the mental processes of human beings in situations that have placed them outside everyday life." Hiroshi Takahashi—famous for writing Ringu—contributes authorial credit to both films.

At Variety, Derek Elley informs that these companion films were "shot, incredibly, back to-back, two weeks each." Both films were shot in 1998, two months after Cure but before Charisma and License to Live (which is also in SFIAAFF's spotlight). Jonathan Crow at All Movie Guide claims Kurosawa "received an eccentric offer to make two films in two weeks, on a low budget and using the same cast" with the result being "the cinematic equivalent of fraternal twins … freakishly interlocked in ways that defy the conventionally linear relationship of a sequel, as each of these enigmatic, absorbing films elucidates our understanding of the other."

It's perhaps Jerry White's study The Films of Kiyoshi Kurosawa: Master of Fear (Stone Bridge Press, 2007:104-120) that most cogently grasps the challenge Kurosawa sets himself (and his audiences) by taking on such a complicated cinematic experiment; an experiment which White conjectures is not just about thematic variances in revenge and culpability; but, about the essence of film itself. "His work," White writes, "is often challenging because it needs to be; he is like a scientist, attempting to solve a difficult problem through a series of complicated experiments." (Supra, p. 104; emphasis added.) Much like the chalkboard puzzles that preoccupy Serpent's astrophysicist Nijima (Sho Aikawa) and his young mathematically-gifted (and suspiciously spectral) protégé. In Kurosawa's ongoing attempt to explore the nature of film, White continues, "he's answering a question (What is film?) with another question (the films themselves). The journey is the answer." (Ibid.)

And what a profoundly confounding journey, devoid of the narrative signposts that ordinarily govern such genre pieces; but, of course—as has long been noted—Kurosawa is the master of subverting genres for his own artistic ends. As Derek Elley states it, Serpent's Path is "a provocative examination of human psychology built on a generic genre entertainment base." Ever heedful of Kurosawa's alterities, of the slight adjustments he makes to consensual realities—often effected through elision and subtraction—White nails it when he suggests that the variable Kurosawa has removed from these twin films is story itself, "leaving only pure film behind. Just like any scientifically sound experiment, major elements are kept purposefully consistent: the lead actor (Sho Aikawa, in both films), genre (yakuza film), locations (a plethora of abandoned warehouses and fields), and filming time (two weeks). By controlling these variables, Kurosawa hopes to render them inconsequential in a comparison between the two films, leaving the viewer with an unaffected glimpse into the true nature of film." (2007:104-105.)

That's why—in my humble opinion—a synopsis of either film seems beside the point, though if it's synopses and narrative recitation that help ground you in a film, I recommend those proffered by Greencine ("a grim foray into the heart of darkness … Kurosawa spins a chilling web of cold ellipses as loneliness, betrayal and the inability to ever know someone's true motives take center stage"); Jonathan Crow's capsule for All Movie Guide, Derek Elley's Variety review, and the essay by Tom Mes for Midnight Eye (all cited above); Kevin Pyrtle's thorough rundown for WTF-Film.com ("Do you get it?"); Kelly Vance's review for East Bay Express ("film-school quotes and odd grace notes run through both films … dark meditations on culpability"); and George O. Singleton's observations on Eyes of the Spider for Reel Movie Critic.com ("a film about dealing with unimaginable pain and how one manages to live with it—or not").

As for themes, Kurosawa grapples with several while structuring his sibling experiment. Kevin Pyrtle lists Kurosawa's familiar focus on the "true" nature of identity and the tension struck between what civilization and society pose as an individual's identity and the dark personas (doppelgangers?) that individuals summon from within themselves, from behind the façades, from beneath the surface. One might say that Kurosawa exalts a slackened tolerance with social façade. "Literal and metaphoric dualities run rampant through both films," writes Jerry White (2007:110), "symbolizing their twin-like nature. …These self-reflexive dualities are meant to remove the audience from the narrative experience and remind them that they are watching a film, for only through this realization can they hope to answer the question: 'What is film?' Godard would approve."

Pyrtle is especially astute in spotlighting the atmospheric contribution of Kurosawa's frequent musical collaborator Makio Ika (Ika has worked with Kurosawa on at least seven other films), whose unsettling and spare score "dominated by a sort of low industrial heartbeat" is key to Serpent's success.

Another theme picked up on by several reviewers is that of human adaptability to violence and degradation. In Serpent's Path, especially, the initially-kidnapped suspect Otsuki provides a prime (and often comic) example.

Speaking of comedy, let me not fail to emphasize just how entertaining these films are, especially Serpent's Path whose dark profundities are riddled through and through with absurdist humor. Tom Mes didn't know "whether to laugh out loud or gape in astonishment" at the scene where a second victim is snatched from a golf course under the noses of his colleagues. "They run across immaculately green hills, dragging the unconscious yakuza behind them in a body bag while the bullets fly past their heads," Mes writes incredulously. Even the breaking of one of the captive yakuzas by denying him toilet privileges "is portrayed in a darkly funny light," Pyrtle adds.

Though I can recommend both films for the synergy they create in speaking across to each other, I concede with most reviewers that Serpent's Path is the most satisfying of the two and, perhaps, even Kurosawa's first true masterpiece. Admitting that Eyes of the Spider has a less dense script and less complexity than Serpent's Path, Derek Elley nonetheless asserts "it's still very watchable." Notwithstanding, when it comes to twins it's never wise to favor one over the other. That's a recipe for revenge.

Cross-published on The Evening Class.

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