Depicting the mystical on film presents any number of problems. Make it too literal, and you risk the loss of your audience in laughter. Make it too artistic, and lose viewers in stupefied wonder. Maverick Japanese film director Kiyoshi Kurosawa braves this treacherous territory with Bright Future (Akarui mirai), a subtle, unsetting tale of affectless youth and unexpected intergenerational communication.
Palm’s new DVD includes a 75-minute making-of documentary, including an interview with the reticent but self-assured director. Though Kurosawa has been making films since 1981, he only gained his foothold in the West with the serial killer saga Cure (1997). Unlike recent J-horror shockers like Ringu (1998) or Ju-on: The Grudge (2003), his work develops disquiet and uncertainty. The result is like a Twilight Zone episode directed by Yasujiro Ozu.
In Bright Future, Yuki (Jô Odagiri) and Mamoru (Tadanobu Asano) work as extra help at a laundry and wile away their time with computer games, manga, and general moping about. Then Mamoru takes up a curious project. He purchases a poisonous jellyfish and attempts to acclimate it to fresh water. The two young men do not appear emblems of their generation or symbols of male potency gone sour. Instead, the film offers an uninflected documentation of their behavior, allowing the psychology or symbolism to emerge in the viewer’s mind.
Yuki and Mamoru’s dissatisfaction is not without cause. Their boss, Mr. Fujiwara (Takashi Sasano), takes advantage of their willingness to ingratiate themselves, and talks them into carting home a new desk for his daughter and situating it as he wishes. Mamoru takes the assignment as an opportunity to break from the laundry, giving away the jellyfish to Yuki, and, most mysteriously, killing Mr. Fujiwara and his wife (Marumi Shiraishi) for no apparent reason.
While Kurosawa depicts the murders without relish or overt gore, their impact is profound. Mamoru faces, at the least, life imprisonment and most likely death. His one friend is now left alone with the jellyfish. And yet that creature offers no particular meaning. Could it be the embodiment of the young men’s alienation? Or does their effort to acclimate it to fresh water signal a potential for radical transformation? Maybe it’s just an elegant, clear mass of pale tissue, its tentacles waving back and forth in the water.
One clear transformation for Mamoru is changed relationship with his father, a self-employed repairer of discarded goods, Shin-ichiro. Played by Tatsuya Fuji, who starred in Nagisa Oshima’s legendarily scandalous In the Realm of the Senses in 1976, Shin-ichiro is down to earth and eager to make sense of his son’s actions and their effect on Yuki, whom he takes on as an assistant. The emerging relationship between Yuki and Shin-ichiro illustrates, as does the jellyfish’s adaptation to fresh water, a sense that there might be some kind of “bright future,” a merging of the generations.
While the plot elements might appear mundane, the film remains consistently thought-provoking. Its emphasis on behavior over explication casts its own hypnotic spell. The rhythms, however, are far from dreamy or laconic. Bright Future races headlong through its narrative, with some shots lasting mere seconds. And yet, it never feels in a hurry or hell-bent to grapple with the viewer’s consciousness. In fact, one of the most attractive aspects of Kurosawa’s style is his implicit trust in his audience’s intelligence.
Here he renders the psychological underpinnings of characters’ behavior obliquely, through long shots, only employing close-ups for punctuation. That sense of calculated detachment comes across as well in the documentary, “Ambivalent Future: The Creation of Bright Future,” which underlines Kurosawa’s disdain for overt psychology and praises suggestiveness, not only in his story, but also in his communications with his players. Motivations are only implied by physical actions, not explained by an elaborate psychological overlay of backstory or confession.
The final sequences of Bright Future, wherein Yuji and Shin-ichiro discover that the jellyfish has produced offspring that now drifts towards the sea, offers a rare satisfaction. The overhead tracking shot of Yuji and Shin-ichiro racing alongside a stream filled with dozens of phosphorescent jellyfish lingers in the memory long after the credits roll.