Yabuike Goro (Yakusho Koji), the hero of Kurosawa Kiyoshi's magnificent new film Charisma, is confronted with such a problem. A police officer, he tries to convince a man holding a Diet member hostage to give himself up, but is given a note: "Restore the order of things!" Yabuike draws his gun and has a chance to shoot when the man fumbles his gun, but as if affected by the note, he refuses to shoot. Wouldn't it be possible, he figures, to save the hostage-taker as well as the hostage? But when the police raid the room, both end up dead.
From the very beginning of this, one of the most intensely moral introspections in recent Japanese film, Kurosawa poses the problem: does one have to choose between one or the other dying, or does the order of things allow for other options? This question he refines when Yabuike, effectively thrown out of not only the force, but in some ways also society, wanders into an other-worldly, almost allegorical forest where a similar ethical drama is unfolding.
Nakasone (Osugi Ren) and his men are trying to replant the forest but all their saplings are dying. They think the cause is the mysterious, almost lifeless tree called Charisma, which is being meticulously cared for on private property by Kiriyama (Ikeuchi Hiroyuki), a former patient at a sanitarium, now in ruins, nearby. Jinbo Mitsuko (Fubuki Jun), a local botanist, confirms this theory to Yabuike: the tree, brought in by the former sanitorium director, is alien to this region and is poisoning the ecosystem. If you want to save the forest, you must kill Charisma; if Charisma is to live, then the forest will die.
Yabuike is thus confronted with one of the central dilemmas of human society: is the individual more important than the group, or visa versa? Or can these essentially contradictory elements somehow co-exist?
It is a continuation of the problem Yabuike first faced with the hostage situation, and he tries to solve it in the same manner, shifting back and forth - a movement echoed by Kurosawa's dolly shots - from one camp to other, attempting to save both Charisma and the forest. Each group, however, demands that he choose sides. Theirs are contradictory interpretations of the order of things: the "might makes right" of Kiriyama versus "the whole takes precedence over the parts" of Mitsuko.
Matters come to a head when Nakasone and his men learn that a collector is willing to pay top money for the rare Charisma. They dig it up and try to cart it away, only to lose it to Mitsuko and her sister who promptly set it alight. This solves little, however: not only is it possible that the poison killing the forest came from somewhere else, but the end of this apocalyptic tree seemingly sparks another apocalypse as even the fragile order of conflict in the forest breaks down. Yabuike, increasingly identifying with Charisma, then appears to assert he has found another Charisma tree.
The conclusion Kurosawa eventually supplies to this battle is thought-provoking, if not shocking. Suffice it to say that in this age of political and social uncertainty, the "solution" is not an easy one. When Kurosawa first wrote the script ten years ago, it had an optimistic ending that allowed Yabuike to save both sides. Contemporary conditions, however, no longer support that.
Like Takabe (also played by Yakusho) in Kurosawa's brilliant Cure (1997), Yabuike seeks an explanation to things, an order which will allow for the good of all. But in Charisma and all the things it represents, he confronts forces far beyond his control. There is a need to be free of those forces, but in a world where nothing is completely knowable, one action can lead to horrifying results. The best one can do, Kurosawa seems to imply, is to accept with responsibility what is and what will be, even if that means destruction. Perhaps that is just part of life.
Another Kurosawa, recently dead, urged us in his films to valorize life and humanity. This Kurosawa, however, is much less sure of the inherent good of that vision. Given the superb way he has posed our contemporary dilemma, and expressed our present unease, perhaps he (who's Charisma has already opened commercially in France) will eventually outshine the other director who shares a last name.
Reviewed by Aaron Gerowonogerow@angel.ne.jp
Originally appeared in The Daily Yomiuri, 24 February 2000, p. 11
Copyright 2000: The Daily Yomiuri
and Aaron Gerow