Prolific, always interesting Japanese helmer Kiyoshi Kurosawa comes up with another mind-bender in “Charisma,” a realistic allegory on his favorite subject — human behavior out of joint with natural forces. Yarn about a cop stranded in a mysterious forest where a monstrous tree is supposedly upsetting the ecological balance takes awhile to tell a basic truth but has enough of a quirky feel to maintain interest most of the time. Pic is not on the level of helmer’s “Cure” (1997) and is more abstract than his last pic, “License to Live” (1998), but looks likely to do the festival rounds and notch up some small-scale sales.
Arresting opening has middle-aged Tokyo detective Yabuike (Kurosawa regular Koji Yakusho) bungling a hostage situation when the kidnapper hands him a note with a strange demand: “Restore the rules of the world.”
Yabuike’s boss suggests the over-tired cop take a few days’ vacation out of town, but on the way he becomes stranded in a mountainous forest, where he subsequently hears he’s been fired.
There are various strange denizens in the area, including a group of hunters who roam around with rifles; a young man, Nakasone (Ren Osugi), who claims to be from an environmental agency; a botanist (Jun Fubuki); and her odd sister (Yoriko Doguchi).
Nakasone is obsessed with an apparently withering tree, nicknamed Charisma, which he has isolated in a field and is protecting against both the plant hunters (who want to sell it to a collector) and the botanist (who claims it is sucking the life out of the forest). Yabuike, initially an observer of the weird, frontier-like community, soon starts to take events into his own hands, tipping the humans’ behavior into madness and violence.
Kurosawa’s script (developed under a 1992 Sundance scholarship) makes it perfectly clear that it is mankind rather than nature that is terminally screwed up. There’s little attempt at mystifying the forest itself, which is simply an arena for its inhabitants to exercise their personal manias, ranging from the hunters’ proto-fascism to Nakasone’s obsessive nurturing and the botanist’s scientific obsessions. Chaos ensues, says the movie, when the yin and yang are out of balance.
That’s hardly an original message, especially from the Far East, but the movie enriches the thin material by avoiding a bare, purely abstract approach and populating the picture with interesting characters. Yakusho makes the cop more than just a neutral personality, investing him with a bottom-line mentality that cuts through the character’s hang-ups. Both Fubuki and Doguchi are clearly defined as the sisters, and Osugi is cool and collected as the mad Nakasone.
As in Kurosawa’s other movies, there’s also a sense of mischievousness that further lightens all the allegorical goings-on: Two simple but shocking scenes of violence almost dare the audience into working out how they were accomplished onscreen, and the pic’s final shot suddenly broadens the picture way beyond its modest arena. Tech credits are clean, occasional f/x OK on a budget.