Notes on two Japanese films that played at the London East Asian Film Festival. Two difficult, uncomfortable films from well known Japanese auteurs that both play upon suburban anxieties and the fears and discomforts within the home, with differing levels of success. In both films, welcoming an outsider into the proximity of the family unit causes considerable damage. Together they make for something of a stranger-danger double warning, two exegesis' on the perils of embracing society when evil might hover in its margins.
Kiyoshi Kurosawa's Creepy is the latest in a series of challenging, abrasive works from the modern master that have tested even his most ardent admirers. Creepy, as with last year's Journey to the Shore, sees the director take a B-movie format and invert it, producing material than while seemingly schlockish on the surface and eccentrically funny throughput, is crafted with such undeniable precision and specificity that it proves unerringly effective by the end. Kurosawa has a way of making the normal horrifying, and this is the case with Creepy. As the title suggests, the horror here is not much fear as a slow-building unease. This is daytime horror, where despite the film consisting of brightly lit, wide-shots - mundane situations made perverse by their emptiness - there is a sense of the unpleasant lurking on the edges, as if society is ready to fold over and reveal the ugliness at its core.
An adaptation of a popular mystery novel, Creepy's premise has retired cop turned lecturer Takakura (Hidetoshi Nishijima) investigating an unsolved missing family case, only to discover that his recalcitrant neighbour Nishino (Teruyuki Kagawa), is himself involved. The irony at the heart of Creepy's pulp novel mystery is that, while the rules of societal conduct dictate that Takakura should give Nishino the benefit of the doubt despite his asocial ways, it's ultimately his (and indeed the audiences, as a midpoint twist it's not the most surprising) initial suspicion that was correct. In Kurosawa's bright, vacant and chilly vision of suburbia, the only way to protect your family is to trust no-one, for every corner, door and pathway is paved with risk, and in every home there could be a psychopath. The other irony of course, is that by accepting that evil can be found anywhere, you lose the innocence of trust and distance yourself from those you mean to allow to come close. These, and other ironies inform Creepy's unsettling milieu, meaning that whilst it's decidedly hard to get a hold upon the film, attempting to do so offers some reward.
Kōji Fukada's Harmonium is similarly chilly, and if anything, emanates an even more pessimistic worldview. Judging from Harmonium's first act, the film looks likely to fit into the mode of Hirokazu Koreeda at his more twee and sentimental, displaying a series of cute family interactions soundtracked by the quirky tones of the titular instrument. It is, as in Creepy, when an unknown entity enters the frame that things start to become unsettled. The intruder here is Yasaka (Tadanobu Asano), an old friend of father Toshio (Kanji Furutachi), who comes to work in their family-ran printing press, living in their home and quickly becoming that uncle who comes for christmas but seems to somehow stay long into the new year. Unlike Creepy, the developments that lead Harmonium out of family melodrama and into something much more unpleasant are less predictable, so detailing them would be to strip the film of much of its primary effect. In loose terms, both men share a dark past and misgivings of the past return to unravel the present. As the film's timeline jumps forward following trauma, the gravity of exactly what had been concealed becomes more apparent with each reveal. Each lie uncovered layers a narrative of guilt, grief and cruelty that chips and chisels at the sanity of the film's protagonists, already facing circumstances difficult to endure.
It's disheartening material, finally buried by an ending that is so punishing, it seems to eviscerate any shred of happiness Fukada's ensemble had experienced before. Harmonium shows a director with precision, one able to shift tones, to guide a narrative in multiple directions, and to direct actors very successfully. It also shows one capable of such cruelty towards his characters that it makes these things hard to appreciate. By contrast, Creepy, and Kurosawa's filmmaking in general, is less easily classifiable, less easy to write off as aimless miserablism. In both films, characters are punished for their willingness to trust. In Kurosawa's film, there is the sense of what this means within a wider society, why we must continue to engage with each others despite the evident risk of doing so. In Fukada's relentlessly depressing, admittedly well crafted film, the same cannot be said.