"'s a safe bet that you won't really have a clue on what the hell is actually going on in the film. But that's not necessarily a bad thing."

- Len

Charisma (1999)

Director: Kiyoshi Kurosawa

Producer: Satoshi Kanno, Atsuyoki Shimoda

Cast: Koji Yakusho, Hiroyuki Ikeuchi, Jun Fubuk, Ren Osugi, Yoriko Doguchi

Running Time: 103 min.

Plot: After Goro Yabuike, a negotiator, fails to make the right decision in a hostage situation, it results in death for both the victim and the gun-toting madman. Goro is forced to take a vacation, and while in a forest, he comes across a large tree, surrounded by an altar. He discovers that this tree, called Charisma, is the center of attention for Kiriyama, a young asylum escapee who thinks the tree is unique, and is concerned for those who wish to do the tree harm in the name of profit. Goro must decide for himself whether the tree is a source of evil, the obsession of others, or simply a tree.


LEN'S REVIEW: With some films, you know what you're getting. If a film stars Steve James and Michael Dudikoff, you know you're in for some hardcore patriotic ninja action. If a film stars Koji Yakusho, and is directed by Kiyoshi Kurosawa, you'll get something to think about. And if you're seeing a film starring Koji Yakusho that's directed by Kiyoshi Kurosawa and the film is described as a "ecothriller with Tarkovskian visual language", it's a safe bet that you won't really have a clue on what the hell is actually going on in the film. But that's not necessarily a bad thing.  

In Charisma, Koji Yakusho plays Yabuke, a detective who is kicked out of the force because his attempts to resolve a hostage situation end up killing both the hostage and the perpetrator. To find peace and quiet, he travels to the idyllic countryside, only to end up in the middle of a conflict in the woods. Yabuke meets a strange ecowarrior, who is trying to keep a weird tree alive, while the forest rangers try to cut down the tree, not to mention the ecologist who thinks the mystical tree is killing the rest of the forest. Quickly learning that this ancient tree is called Charisma for it's influence on humans, Yabuke must takes sides in this conflict that seems to escalate into a small war.  

From the opening scene, Charisma quickly establishes itself as a film that requires thinking. Not just thinking to understand the heavy symbolism, but just to make some sense out of the plot. Actually, unlike in most films, where you can clearly separate the underlying meanings/symbolism from the actual storyline, in Charisma the different layers are merged together. There are scenes that make literally no sense, unless you put them into context as metaphors. And even then, with some scenes you're left wondering on what the hell it's all supposed to mean. So in a way, this is a film where good knowledge of cinematic language comes in handy when unravelling the plot. I'm tempted to compare this to Mulholland Drive, as that's another film that requires the viewer to actively think in order to comprehend the plot, but the similarities just about end there. Both are excellent films where the viewer is an active participant instead of just being a passive watcher, but from a storytelling point of view, they share very little.

But if you like films that give you something to think about, Charisma is an extremely rewarding experience. I found myself thinking about it weeks after I had seen it, as some mysteries just wouldn't make sense any quicker. The way Kurosawa uses everything as a metaphor for something makes excellent cinema, as he's clearly someone who's studied enough psychology and the fine arts to stay clear of the dull and banal stuff. Instead of using bland cliches, he uses images in a very fresh and powerful way, while managing to concentrate admirably on the characters. Of course, the always reliable Koji Yakusho gives a standout performance, as a cop who's a lot smarter than he originally seems.

Definitely recommended, and my favorite of Kiyoshi Kurosawa's films.