(13/12/07) – Kiyoshi Kurosawa is perhaps best known as a maker of quiet, disturbing horror films that are steeped in atmosphere and rife with ambiguity and subtlety, most notably Cure (1997) and the superbly underplayed apocalyptic Kairo Pulse(2001). Bright Future is a horror film in that mould. Sort of. In fact, in retrospect, it is difficult to class what exactly Bright Future is. Is it a drama? Sort of. Is it science fiction? Sort of. Is it social commentary? Sort of. A call to arms or a warning of social disintegration? Both. Neither. Sort of. What is so unusual about this is that the plot, while bizarre, is breathtakingly simple but engages on so many levels that it becomes a difficult beast to tame – as mentioned Kurosawa is a master of ambiguity and subtlety and Bright Future is no exception.
Yuji and Mamoru are two slackers in a dead end job laundering napkins, apparently apathetic to the point of near comatose. But Mamoru has one real love in his life, a deadly red jellyfish. When their boss Mr Fujiwara starts imposing on their social life and, even worse, borrows a CD, Yuji decides enough is enough and breaks into Fujiwara’s house to teach the old man a lesson and get his music back. But Mamoru has beaten him too it, battering the old man and his wife into a bloody pulp, their shell-shocked daughter left to stumble through the Tokyo streets. He now faces the death penalty, leaving Yuji with the painstaking task of looking after the jellyfish and realising a terrible plan.
Claustrophobic, introspective and nihilistic Bright Future relies on its tight, imposing framing and at times unfeasibly grainy video camerawork to drain the colour and hope out of its protagonists’ petty lives. Normally video can render a project lifeless or cheap looking but here Kurosawa deliberately forefronts the medium’s aesthetic limitations as a way of further creating a sense of alienation. At times the screen appears almost sepia as even recognisable Tokyo landmarks are rendered as buzzing noise in the background, forcing an insular perspective on events. Carefully composed, the film contrasts the formal but increasingly distancing framing in the prison scenes with a few choice tracking shots and imposing close ups. The net result is a world that draws you in with its (normally) quiet scenes of boredom and introspection.
What is particularly striking is the way in which so many elements of the film seem familiar but are handled in such a fundamentally different way as to seem fresh and original. There’s the Clockwork Orange-esque gang of carefree reprobates with their identical clothing style and Che Guevara t-shirts who delight in larceny and violence. Like Kubrick’s satire they are not seen by the film as particularly bad – indeed the film almost seems to say that "this is the future generation that you have created – your problem" – but a product of having no future and no hope, so they seek their own alternative society. Authority is there to be mocked.
But Kurosawa is not concerned with glamorising the activities of these gangs, with their pre-defined youth uniforms, or of proto-terrorists Yuki and Mamoru with their secret signs and grandiose plans, but rather accepting them as a natural corollary to Japan’s declining economy, aging population and disillusioned youth. This isn’t the gang violence of films like Romper Stomper or the vigilante nationalists youth film Kyouki no Sakura but rather a planned nihilism more akin to Fight Club without any of that film’s distancing aesthetic gloss. Bright Future is almost defiantly non-violent in its on-screen action but far more insidious in its intentions. This is youth terrorism that is calculated and desperate, horrible and pitiful, all too real.
The acting too is uniformly superb, from a slacker messiah performance from Jo Odagiri and his ‘disciple’ Tadanobu Asano to Ai No Corrida star Tatsuya Fuji’s estranged father figure. This is vital because the film hangs on these performances, with only a handful of startling special effects that are so matter-of-fact that they appear totally real.
But what of the jellyfish? Possibly Bright Future‘s most bizarre addition is that of the red jellyfish – always lit with crystal clear precision while the rest of the film is hazed in digital grain. This is the basis of the film’s central conceit (which we won’t reveal) and probably one of the finest McGuffins of recent years – crucial to the plot in terms of drive and purpose but ultimately a foil for the characters which reveals their tortured lives.
Bright Future is a compelling and bizarre yet down-to-Earth film about youth alienation. It won’t be to every taste – it is very low-key and understated – but for those who like their films thought-provoking, quiet, intense and not a little surreal this is a mini-classic of science fiction, drama, yob, horror and social criticism. Sort of.
Bright Future Region 2 is out now on Tartan Video. Please follow the links provided to buy a copy and support Kamera by doing so.