The White Canvas – Theory over Execution

Years ago, I got into the Japanese film auteur Kiyoshi Kurosawa, not to be confused with his non-relative, Akira, toward whom I’m mostly indifferent. I’ve already written at length about the personal impact K. Kurosawa’s “Pulse” (Kairo) had on me, but that account aside, what I mostly love about his movies is that they’re highly thought-provoking and great conversation pieces. What I would not necessarily call them is entertaining. The gratification you get from watching them is delayed and often wholly subjective. You might never get any. These are not movies for date night; they’re ones for your two-month solitary confinement sentence. They require prolonged, undivided attention. Under no circumstances should they be enjoyed while grappling with diarrhea.

Years ago, my friend in Japan who liked action, thrills, and popcorn asked me for a Japanese movie recommendation, and for some reason the first thing that came to mind was K. Kurosawa’s “Charisma,” a low-budget, allegorical movie that even the director now regards as “possibly not very good.” I realize now that the best thing about the entire film is its own elevator pitch–a worn-out detective wakes up in the woods after botching a hostage negotiation, discovers a tree called “Charisma” that is one of a kind but possibly toxic to the surrounding ecosystem, and encounters a series of characters either trying to protect or destroy the tree. The film can be interpreted in a variety of ways, hence makes for great conversation., in theory. Maybe that’s why I bothered recommending it. But I knew from the instant the recommendation exited my face that my friend probably wouldn’t like it. After all, it’s not very entertaining.

Approximately ten months later, she still hadn’t watched it, and she finally just returned the unwatched disc to me. I’ve still never found someone with whom to discuss this great conversation piece.

And perhaps that’s the lesson here. I once read a criticism of Kurosawa on a Japanese site, which I’ll paraphrase: The meaning of his films, the layer that gives them their value as films, is usually thoroughly buried, as is common amongst many Japanese auteurs. However, that hidden layer is unaccompanied by a surface-layer spectacle–something entertaining–to entice the viewer into expending the effort or at least allow him or her to enjoy the movie without expending the effort. Take this in contrast to someone like director Sono Sion, whose notorious “Suicide Circle” was both deeply challenging and full of immediately gratifying spectacle. If you didn’t get the film’s deeper meaning, you still walked away from it going, “Man! That was intense! I’m’onna go tell Billy!”

Of course, what passes for entertaining spectacle is a matter determined by the taste of each individual viewer. I think the best of Kurosawa’s flicks play the line of subtlety very well. “Pulse,” in particular, uses its ghostly imagery to potentially traumatizing effect, depending on the mental state of the viewer and the conditions under which the movie is watched.

↑ Case in point.

More to my point, though, I think I’ve discovered that a lot of the things that I liked are things that simply intrigue me in principle, sometimes regardless of uncompelling execution. The downside of this is that it probably means I’m one of those people who justify modern art that is literally just a white canvas, but I think it’s important to encourage creativity and deviation from convention, because what is convention but a life jacket for both creator and consumer? Let’s grow us some sea legs already.

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