An offbeat love story wrapped in an ironic comment on post-millennial blues, “Barren Illusion” is cult Japanese helmer Kiyoshi Kurosawa’s most obscure movie so far. But it still proves a fascinating, sometimes hypnotic sit, even when one’s brain is working overtime to decipher what is going on onscreen. Likely to baffle Kurosawa first-timers, and destined only for festival and highly specialized outings, it’s an upper-mid-range rather than top-class item from the prolific writer-director.
As hinted in the Japanese title (which means “Grand Illusion”), pic is a dryly humorous take on the way society’s headed, with a central character, Haru (Shinji Takeda, from “Tokyo Eyes”), who’s so bored and alienated that he sometimes literally fades from view. In that respect, he’s simply fulfilling the demand of some safe-robbers he stumbles across at the film’s opening, one of whom tells him to “get out of my sight!”
Haru sells tapes of experimental music made by a high school friend, Kenji (Kazushige Inami), even though the buyer, Satake (Yutaka Yasui), reckons it’s simply “nice and safe.” Haru’s g.f., Michi (Miako Tadano), who works as a post office sorter, is equally listless, stealing mail from work and dreaming of traveling to exotic places. The pair’s love is more a shared despair than a conventional romance.
In any other director’s hands, these elements would likely result in a total snoozefest, but just when the long takes and monosyllabic dialogue are starting to grate, and the low-key humor is wearing thin, Kurosawa starts stirring the pot. A wraithlike female appears to Michi and declares, “Why doesn’t someone do something?” — recalling the dire warning (“Restore the rules of the world”) made by the kidnapper at the start of Kurosawa’s “Charisma.” Suddenly, you realize that “Illusion” is essentially a continuation of that previous picture, but post-rather than pre-millennial — human society still hasn’t got it right, and is still out of step with the natural world. (Per production notes, but never stated onscreen, the film is set in 2005.) Haru and Michi gradually stumble toward taking action, but they do all the wrong things.
Both agree to be guinea pigs for a drug that can counter a new, powerful pollen, even though the drug may cause impotence; Michi tries to flee abroad, without success; Haru turns to crime. None of these actions proves fruitful, and Michi returns to her boring job. Then, one day during a post office stickup, she does take action, with surprising results.
In some respects, the movie is Kurosawa’s version of “Pierrot le fou,” with which the parallels become more obvious as things progress. Godard’s film had a bright ’60s energy and obvious spoofing, but the progress of each film’s romantic couple is the same — fleeing from a disjointed life and society to try to find some kind of utopia by the sea. Kurosawa also adds his own message: In love, as in life, positive action is the only alternative to a long, slow slide into loss and destruction.
On a budget but well put together, movie was partly crewed by students from the Film School of Tokyo, where Kurosawa has lectured since it opened two years ago. Perfs throughout are geared to the material.