Kurosawa Kiyoshi should be considered his own genre. While primarily known for his horror films in the West, he got his start with pinku eiga movies (like many other Japanese directors) then moved into yakuza territory before making the switch to horror. Highly skilled, Kurosawa can successfully move between genres but every film he has made is distinctly and undeniably his. He uses unorthodox techniques and favors convoluted storylines with intense thematic complexity. He likes playing with experimental techniques; in his work you will find everything from disorienting shot placement, to musical numbers, to short silent films. There are a few things, however, that he uses with regularity and have become part of his style – ambiguous narratives, the use of both static and tracking cameras that form exceedingly long takes, the tendency to film his characters from a distance, the use of reflection and light, illogical editing, extremely deliberate pacing. He also has very important things to say about Japanese society – social alienation, the gap between generations, the modern family and workplace, morality. But what makes his films so special is that he does these things while scaring the hell out of the audience.
RETRIBUTION (2006, Japanese title Sakebi, ‘scream’) isn’t the best Kurosawa movie and it isn’t the scariest, but it is a great example of what Kurosawa does. The film opens with a static shot of a murder, viewed from Kurosawa’s recognizably distant vantage point. A man in a black trench coat is holding a woman in a blazingly red dress face down in a muddy puddle. The scene is completely silent; when the man finishes his task he walks away. Detective Yoshioka (played by Kurosawa’s cinematic alter-ego Yakusho Koji) is tasked with investigating the murder. However, he begins to wonder if he is the murderer, as he uncovers evidence that seems to point to him and is haunted by images of the ghost in red. As he attempts to discover her identity, a series of similar killings take place in the area – seemingly random people are all drowning loved ones in seawater.
One of RETRIBUTION’s biggest problems is that it revolves around one of the most common Japanese horror conventions – the vengeful female ghost. I discussed onryo previously, but Kurosawa’s depiction of the dead girl with long black hair is so based in Japanese folklore that most of the nuance will likely be lost of American audiences. Like most onryo, the ghost in red died by drowning, but Kurosawa does not depict her as wet or decayed in anyway. She periodically emits a shrieking scream – an obvious reference to onryo like Okiku – and her connection to water and drowning is reminiscent of Oiwa from Yotsuya Kaidan and Kobayashi’s Kwaidan. Most importantly, this ghost is uninterested in jumping out and scaring characters for the most part and actually has several long conversations with Detective Yoshioka. None of these things will likely strike Western viewers as particularly terrifying, but this also isn’t what Kurosawa is trying to do. Instead, he is using and subverting these well-known Japanese horror conventions to create an atmosphere of surrealism and uncertainty.
That said, Kurosawa still creates his trademark atmosphere of imminent dread and despair. Kurosawa uses some really notable imagery; puddles of water that inexplicably ripple, the slow movement of the light from a window pane, reflections of the ghost, feet sticking out from beneath sheets in a morgue, and the ghost’s slow advance towards a static camera that refuses to cut away from her face. This is all very creepy and Kurosawa films his movies with a clinical detachment that makes them extremely uncomfortable to watch. The environment of RETRIBUTION is severely decayed. Externally, the city is racked with recurring earthquakes and the area is undergoing frequent building demolitions. Internally, the deteriorating psychological condition of Detective Yoshioka and the other characters mirrors the crumbling of society.
In typical Kurosawa fashion, the nature of the ghost’s grudge is never fully explained. The film’s conclusion – in which Detective Yoshioka walks alone through a seemingly deserted neighborhood – is marked by the ghost stating, “I died, so everyone else should die too.” The resident of an abandoned mental institution, the ghost mostly seems resentful that society forgot and abandoned her. Her attachment to Detective Yoshioka and the other murderers is equally random – 15 years ago they all rode a ferry that passed by her window. Thus, the collective guilt shared by the characters of RETIBUTION is not connected to their actions but their inactions. Similarly, the lack of one serial killer or culprit – a move that is reminiscent of the viral spread of murders in Kurosawa’s CURE – implies that all of the characters are responsible. The state of society is not the fault of one bad individual, but of everyone. In RETRIBUTION, the ghost in red has taken it upon herself to hold them accountable.