Charisma (1999) – By Josh Samford

For those of you not familiar with the man, who I now consider a true to word living legend, Kiyoshi Kurosawa can only be described as a director of invention. Going back to his earliest days in the Japanese V-Cinema market (their Direct-to-Video system, usually consisting of genre films considered not suitable for wide release), he has always taken what one might consider to be a genre film and twists it ever so slightly so to deform it and give it new meaning. It is something that has rubbed off on the community at large, and influenced directors as talented as Shinji Aoyama and Rokuro Mochizuki. Not to say such directors were solely influenced by Kurosawa’s fantastic hybrids; but there is question as to where the Japanese film community would stand without his alluring ability to mix the conventional. You could claim a lot of things about Kurosawa’s ‘style’ and what exactly he does for the film world, but no matter what, you can’t deny the intense thought and process behind the majority of his movies since about the time he burst onto the international scene with Cure. Another thing I find most reviewers and critics not taking note of is that, the minute you think you’ve come to an understanding of just what one of Kurosawa’s films are blatantly saying – you’re just as far from the truth as any one of us. Charisma is as much a testament to that logic as any one of his films. It is brilliant, engaging and most of all: challenging. There are no simple answers, there is no one universal truth to it all and there is no one select way of viewing it; so if I could give any piece of advice to all of my writing Brethren out there – I would ask you to take a look around, read up and then realize there’s so much to this film that your one simple answer just isn’t cutting it as far as theories go.

I have read far too many detailed reviews for the film by people who all seem to feel they have a monopoly on the truth, but don’t take into account that every one of their peers make exceptionally well made points about the exact meaning of the film. My belief is that, maybe Kurosawa created a film that is capable of saying many things to many people. A movie that offers enough concepts at work in the background that the audience could literally drag out dozens of answers to the questions posed; and depending on their personal philosophy, all could walk away with a different interpretation. That’s a bit of a simplified way to look at it by its self; but I see truth in it. Charisma, of all the things you could say to describe it – is not a simplistic bit of cinema. Not by a longshot. The only thing I find consistent is that yes, the basic theme of the film is about the nature of the individual and how he functions inside of society. This of course brings along a ton of questions in its self, such as what defines an individual, what course of actions, how does one remain an individual after choosing sides in a time of conflict, etc. Kurosawa piles on as many questions as you could bare as an audience member, but he doesn’t just leave them there to rot – he forces you to think about these things. Not in a demanding way, nor a pretentious one, but if you sit down and you become committed to watching this film as you should; you have to take these questions into consideration. Whether you’ll walk out of Charisma thoroughly confused or of the belief that Kurosawa can do no wrong, I think even the most hard-hearted of genre fans out there will at least give it some respect for its originality. Kurosawa on the whole demands that level of respect.

Yabuike is a cop on the verge of some kind of nervous breakdown. He simply can’t handle the every day responsibilities of his job, and more often than not, he can be found sleeping on a bench in the police station out of boredom. He is sent on a fairly important case with a political official being held hostage by an insane gunman – when Yabuike gets there, he tries giving a talk to the man… but for some reason or another pulls out his gun and points it at the madman. In some kind of lesson to him, to show he’s untouchable. Yabuike walks away from the scene and the gunman shoots the official, after which Yabuike and some others come back in and kill the young man. This does it for Yabuike’s boss, he sends him on vacation just to get him away. Being in this nearly intoxicated shape, Yabuike starts to head home but ultimately starts to wander into the woods just to see what he finds. He comes upon a sickly tree, held up by metal limbs. It is here that he finds his new home, and enters into a very confusing situation. The tree is the center of it all. Three forces are at work for and against this tree, one group of poachers – who are the first to come across Yabuike; want to dig it up and sell it as such an exotic tree is worth a good fortune and they know it. Their only problem is that the tree is guarded by a young man in his twenties, who fights them off every time they so much as try to examine it. Yabuike soon comes to live with this young man, who is taking over his late teacher’s work in protecting the tree from outside forces. The last group is a botanist and her sister, who believe that the tree – due to being from a different habitat; is what is killing the rest of the trees throughout the forest. They believe, well the botanist herself mainly, this tree should be destroyed no matter what. So Yabuike finds himself in the middle of it all much like the tree, and unable to align with any faction. It seems he must decide, because as a police officer, his instinct tells him to do what is right – but in the forest in such a situation, who decides what is right?

There’s a lot going on in Charisma, it’s probably not Kurosawa’s most easily accessible film. Really, after watching it, I wasn’t even sure it was one of my favorites. It took a couple of days though for everything to start to sink in, for my thoughts to finally start to clear away and then doing some reading on the various interpretations – all of which seemed reasonable enough – and I just sort of ‘got it’. Charisma isn’t the kind of flick you watch when you’re just wanting to be entertained, heave knows Kurosawa has plenty of brilliant films that still make you think but can also give you simple entertainment; I think this picture is something entirely in a realm of it’s own though. It comes highly recommended if you have the patience for something undeniably artistic and fascinating. I say, check it out.