Saturday, July 19, 2008

Kiyoshi Kurosawa's Retribution

Today is Kiyoshi Kurosawa's birthday - an excellent excuse to post about him. It helps that I have had Retribution out from Neflix for a while, putting off watching it until I would have the time to do justice to it, maybe even write about it.

This is about Retribution. It’s a ghost story (which kind of spoils it, though not really, since it doesn't waste much time before turning fantastic.) Koji Yakusho plays a cop investigating the murder of a woman, drowned in salt water. He starts finding clues that he was the criminal - he thinks he can’t be, but for some reason he can’t shake the feeling. Then he starts dreaming and seeing ghosts... The story will be familiar to J-horror fans, and Kurosawa fans - vengeful female ghosts, mystical serial killers. It plays a bit like Cure for a while (complete with sinister madhouses), before sliding toward a more conventional J-Horror ghost story - but Kurosawa makes it unmistakably his own, bringing a characteristic intense sadness to his apocalypses. Its a beautiful film, moving, and thrilling to look at.

I want to pull out one stylistic device Kurosawa uses heavily in the film. He has a tendency to film characters in murk or from behind, and bring them into the light, or a clearer shot - as this shot, Yoshioka seen through a plastic screen:

But even when they are not obscured - he very frequently composes shots to put the characters in a darker, more shadowy foreground, with a bright, intrusive light source in the background - usually a door or a window, or something leading out of the space of the shot.

This shot of the police station (repeated a couple times in the film):

Or the first shot of the ferry, again using the dark foreground, bright background:

And almost every shot in Yoshioka’s house has some variation on this. His introduction, being awakened by an earthquake - all fairly shadowy, noirish, but with two bright windows puncturing the background:

A dinner scene, with recessive openings leading to a bright window, almost threatening in the background:

These compositions quickly take on thematic, dramatic force - Kurosawa withholds what they signify at first, but it’s hard to see these shots and not know something isn’t quite what it seems right now.

Harue leaving:

Harue commenting on the neighborhood - full of screening effects, plus the lighting in the background:

All of which pays off in the end. Kurosawa sets up the pattern and carries it through - those background lights keep haunting the shots, as much as the ghosts do. In the madhouse, Yoshioka moves through darkness, with slashes of lights cutting the background, before finding what he was looking for - with a nice visual rhyme to the earlier shots of Harue, as well:

All that, while maintaining the tightrope between uncanny and marvelous, that Kurosawa usually walks. How much of all of this is in Yoshioka’s head?

And how much in the world?

(Or - )

But through it all - Harue's story, while always seeming to be in the background, carries the most weight - and is given the most weight, by Kurosawa's camera (not to mention the last word, which I am not going to include, in a belated and feeble gesture at not "spoiling" anything.) But these shots - one of the couple together, one of the couple parting - seem to me to be the center of the film. Both come before the real plot of the film has been revealed - but they show everything....

Harue in the light:

Harue leaving:


Maya said...

Your usage of screenshots is effective, WeepingSam. And I like the idea that light in the background "haunts" the foreground characters.

weepingsam said...

Thank you - I'd like to take another look at his older films, to see if he does any of the same thing, or if this this device (the opening/light in the back of shots) is unique to retribution. He always makes good use of light and dark, shadows, spaces - you noted his comments from the interview on Cure that talk about leaving openings from offscreen to the screen space, which fits this...

Anonymous said...

Fascinating stuff - thanks for this!