24 June 2005 | BrandtSponseller
Proceed with caution
Some sources have called Charisma a "thriller". Fangoria, the horror magazine, had Charisma on its "Video Chopping List", which should imply that it's at least a thriller, if not horror. They also ran a review of it online. The Netflix summary--although they are notoriously way off base, so one should know to take them with a pound of salt--described Charisma as "an existentialist eco-thriller". Although there are a couple nifty deaths in the film, it is not at all a thriller or a horror film. It is basically an art-house drama centered on a tree. There are hallucinatory aspects, there is humor, and we could generously say that there's a lot of "poetry" to the film. But the only relationship that Charisma has to the more macabre and suspenseful genres is that as a Japanese film, it shares a disregard for linear logic similar to many Japanese genre films.
The story concerns a detective named Goro Yabuike (Kôji Yakusho). After an odd screw-up at work that resulted in the death of a member of the Japanese Parliament, Yabuike is put on a leave of absence. He decides to head to a forest. For some strange reason, he doesn't come prepared, he has no place to stay and he walks around in his everyday street clothes. He starts off by sleeping in an old car until it's set afire. He happens upon a scrawny tree that's supposedly incongruous for the area. A metal, tubular framework surrounds it. There are IV bottles and tubes hooked up to it. Apparently some guy is guarding it and chases off anyone who gets near it. Yabuike meets the tree's keeper. He meets a woman botanist. The keeper and botanist are arguing about the merits of the tree and whether it is killing the forest. Yabuike keeps bouncing back and forth between the two, getting filthier all the time. Each wants him on their side. He gets somewhat involved with a woman who seems like the botanist's sister. A bunch of commando-looking guys keep showing up, trying to take the tree for commercial purposes. Yabuike keeps getting into strange situations, people always show up in the nick of time from out of nowhere, and people keep eating plants in the forest that are maybe poisonous and maybe hallucinogenic. The bulk of the film, when there's some kind of action, consists of people "arguing" back and forth about the tree, alternated with strange non-sequiturs in the dialogue and plot.
As you've probably discerned already, it's not exactly easy to describe the content of the film. That's because it doesn't exactly make much sense. Westerners might assume that there's some deeper cultural context to the film, that maybe it speaks of some current events in Japan and/or invokes some well-known mythological or artistic references, but in director Kiyoshi Kurosawa's interview included on the DVD, it sounds like the film was simply precipitated by the emerging environmental movement in the late 1980s (he admits that the script is 10 years old), and that he later tried to graft some "human drama" onto it. Kurosawa adds that he's not quite sure what the film is about, and he's not sure if it works. I don't think it works, either. The story is not at all compelling, it tends to drag too much in spots, and the lack of exposition and logic end up hurting more than helping. My wife ditched out after a half hour.
But, I wouldn't say it's a complete failure. There are interesting elements here that might make Charisma worth watching for viewers with particular kinds of interests, as well as die-hard fans of Japanese cinema.
The most conspicuous asset is that Kurosawa is amazing at visual composition. If I were to recontextualize Charisma as something more like a series of still photographs--still with moving elements, if that makes sense--it would easily get an 8. Almost every shot is very rich compositionally. Kurosawa must take incredible care in getting his actors placed and moving to the exact right spots--otherwise known as blocking--with complex, varied sets and background elements that usually create multifaceted visual paths for your eye to wander around. He has interesting combinations of objects, colors and textures, and often takes great care in ensuring that there are multiple elements in motion--things like water, smoke, blowing curtains and so on. There will often be several layers of this. He tends to place the camera unexpected distances from his actors. A lot of shots are wide and stay wide and motionless for a whole scene. There is a relative absence of close-ups. He also uses lighting in very unusual ways. All of these unique approaches tend to work, with the sole exception of some of the darker scenes, or scenes with a bit too much backlighting. If you have any interest in visual composition, Charisma is worth checking out for that alone.
Also interesting are the subtextual and metaphorical aspects of the story. Whether intended or not, Charisma is rich with this material, partially aided by the film's ambiguity. Starting from a more literal level, the story can be seen as gradual working toward redemption for Yabuike. He ends up redoing the event that brought him to the forest, only this time he gets it "right". More abstractly, the Charisma tree and the events surrounding it can represent everything from mass human interaction with a unique, individualistic human, to a parable about "natural law", to a polemic against imperialistic nations in the world, perhaps even the U.S. There are also numerous suggestions throughout the film that the forest is some kind of alternate reality, perhaps even Hell. We never see anyone leave, by the way, even though they talk about leaving. These ideas are intriguing, but they all require the viewer to do a lot of work; the film can be a catalyst for them, but that doesn't help make the film entertaining or compelling.
Proceed with caution on this one.