Karisuma : Japan 1999 : Kiyoshi Kurosawa : 104 mins

Even in the 1950s, horror movies about killer trees were regarded as very old hat – as the Monthly Film Bulletin‘s sniffy dismissal of Charles Saunders’ lurid B-movie Womaneater (1957) indicates. “As for the plot, the jolly little tale has not even novelty to offer: tree eats woman is almost history, though woman eats tree really would be news.” Leaving aside the various versions of Day of the Triffids – John Wyndham’s creations are outsized, ambulatory plants rather than actual trees – the sub-genre laid fairly dormant until William Friedkin’s The Guardian (1990), which culminated in what Time Out‘s Mark Kermode described as “coniferous chainsaw carnage.”

Kiyoshi Kurosawa’s Charisma, however, is of a rather different genus to these lurid predecessors. As usual with the director of Cure and Pulse, the mood is of ominous, silent dread – suitable for the calm exploration of serious philosophical and psychological themes are explored. Is this even a horror movie at all, by conventional standards? Well, any film which (apparently) ends in the destruction of a major city must surely be counted as at least ‘horrific’, even if the rest of the movie aims for much more highbrow territory.

Tired cop Yabuike (Koji Yakusho, the tired cop from Cure) botches a delicate hostage-taking incident, resulting in the death of an MP. Ordered to take time off, he heads home – but impulsively wanders off into a forest on the way. Night falls. Narrowly escaping death when the abandoned car he’s sleeping is set on fire, Yabuike drags himself into a clearing occupied by Charisma. This is an ancient, withered tree which he soon discovers is being squabbled over by three factions: a botanist who wants to destroy the tree, believing it to be toxic destroyer of life; forest rangers who agree that the tree is lethal, but have been hired to protect it by nefarious governmental powers; and a young hermit who believes the tree is just a tree, and has devoted his life to protecting it. Complications ensue.

Charisma has inspired much critical debate about its metaphorical and symbolic aspects: the Midnight Eye website’s review of the film interprets Charisma as representing “the role of the individual in modern-day Japanese society”, while also mentioning that some have taken the whole thing as “a cynical parody of Hayao Miyazaki’s Princess Mononoke.

Unfortunately for the viewer, Charisma is much more intriguing and rewarding to analyse after the event than to actually watch. Kurosawa’s films are never fast-moving, but here – presumably in an attempt to replicate the growth-rate of plant life – he slows things right down. His measured, precisely-framed images are often haunting and intriguing, but their surface beauty can’t hide the fact that the film they make up is frustratingly paceless. As in Pulse, character development is erratic, plotting is gnomic and muddy, and the apocalyptic final act seems like a rather desperate and cynical ploy to paper over the cracks of what’s gone before.

Kurosawa being Kurosawa, there are of course some jaw-dropping moments: the way he cuts to a shot of Yakusho as a dark green mushroom cloud of spores silently billows across the corner of the screen is nothing short of genius. But there are many fewer such moments than is usually the case in a Kurosawa movie – leaving us with the impression of an over-ambitious writer-director who has lost himself, and his audience, among the intricate, inviting branches of pretentiousness.

31st December, 2002
(seen on DVD, 2nd October)

by Neil Young
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