The best movies seem effortless, and Charisma embodies its intentions so effortlessly it almost seems like an accident. Here is a movie about a struggle over a tree, of all things, and yet somehow the director and the cast have managed to invest it with a fascination and an urgency that most movies never reach. It’s not a simpleminded environmentalist’s sermon, but a deep and troubling movie about the place of the individual in society, among many other things.
Charisma opens with a policeman, Yabuike (Kōji Yakusho) being brought into a hostage situation. The whole thing goes horribly wrong, with both the hostage (an MP) and the captor being shot dead, and Yabuike is suspended from the force. Instead of heading home, however, he wanders into a forest and becomes quite lost. There, he comes across a single gnarled tree in a clearing, the object of study by a nature survey team.
The tree is an object of controversy. The nature team is convinced the tree’s root system is destroying the forest around it. There is also an apparently deranged young man who violently shoos everyone else away from the tree and cares for it, in a kind of guerilla-environmentalist fashion. He also cares for an old, senile woman, the widow of a sanitarium that has since fallen into disrepair and which he is using as his squat. Other figures show up, including the cheerful young Mitsuko, a botanist, and her slightly dizzy younger sister Chizuru, all of whom provide Yabuike either with help or a sounding board of sorts for his understanding of the situation.
Yabuike is torn: he wants to do something, but is afraid that by choosing sides he will alienate the wrong people and incur disaster. Can both the forest and the tree be saved? The tree itself is not even a native growth, but was transplanted from another country by the sanitarium director, and was never meant to interact with its current environment. A once-balanced forest was disrupted by the presence of the new tree. Protecting it may simply be foolish. “It isn’t choosy about how it survives,” Mitsuko says, and it’s a measure of the movie’s intelligence that she can be talking about more than one thing.
The young man, on the other hand, is more than willing to let the tree flourish. That’s the law of nature, isn’t it? But the tree is not doing well, and by intervening on its behalf, he’s himself tipping the balance of the nature he claims to revere. The movie very cleverly stacks the deck on behalf of everyone interested, and puts Yabuike right in the middle, trying to be all things to all people. “My goal is to restore the rules of the forest,” the young man insists, not realizing how much hypocrisy is inherent in such a statement. “Freedom is just another disease, and a truly healthy person longs for surrender. You, being a cop, should understand, right?”
Charisma was written and directed by Kiyoshi Kurosawa, who typically makes cold, distant films that are both engaging and infuriating. His Cure, about a serial killer who may not even be really responsible for his crimes, was one of the best Japanese films in recent years, but his track record for misfires is just as notable. One of the most inexplicable was Kairo (Pulse), which had the form of a techno-thriller but got so lost in its pretensions that it couldn’t sustain the weight of what few ideas it did have. But his recent movies have been extremely impressive: Doppelganger and Bright Future injected levity and wit into the formula, two elements that work better for him than he might have initially realized. Charisma was made shortly after Cure, but was in fact written a decade earlier as part of a Sundance scholarship program, and is far better than most of the mopey productions Sundance is infamous for.
Kurosawa shoots the movie by keeping his cast mostly at arm’s length. He doesn’t want us to see them as individuals but figures in a landscape, or elements in a larger matrix. That ties into something else something about the film that I think is a key to understanding it. The policeman’s behavior is largely dictated by his surroundings. When he’s a cop, he’s a toadying inferior. When he is among the survey team, he’s almost animalistic. When he’s with the young man, he’s helpful, but also insists on being treated on his own terms. When he’s with the woman, he behaves like a bashful would-be boyfriend. Worse, each of these parties gives what seems to be contradictory information about the others, confusing Yabuike all the more.
What the movie seems to be saying (similar to Kurosawa’s equally bleak Cure, which also starred Yakusho, as do many of his other films) is that people are far greater slaves to their environment and circumstance than we readily admit. We may manipulate our world, but it manipulates us right back. That said, the way around that is by becoming aware of how our world manipulates us, by enlightening ourselves to the ways we change and in turn are changed. The tree is a catalyst, not just for the cop’s own understanding of his behavior, but for a great many other people as well. Like the tree, Yabuike’s presence in the situation is disruptive, but in what way is left to the audience to decide.
Another point inherent in the film is how all life comes at the expense of other life. For the tree to survive, it must kill the forest around it. For each of us to survive, we must (wittingly or unwittingly) exploit others. An individual in society can only remain an individual by being disruptive, to a degree, and Japan itself has been struggling with just how much emphasis to place on the individual’s sovereignty versus the needs of the whole. Yabuike has to choose who to ally with—or even if he will ally with anyone at all.
The movie’s final third is like a savage rebuke of everything that came before, with what little equilibrium that has been built up completely destroyed. Everyone is forced to reassess their roles, with some of them lashing out in anger and others resolutely accepting fate. There’s no way a movie like this could have a conventional ending, and Kurosawa doesn’t try for one. Instead, he throws us a series of savage challenges to our feelings about the movie and its ideas, including an ending that mirrors the beginning in multiple ways.
People raised on tamer movies that insist on spelling everything out are likely to grow bored or frustrated with Charisma. I like movies like this, though. They insist that we use our intelligence and become part of the movie, in a way, instead of just sitting there and being led passively by the hand. Charisma doesn’t have all the answers to its own questions, but that is part of its (dare I say it?) charisma.
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