Sweet Home (1989) by Kiyoshi Kurosawa

A film crew head to the mysterious country mansion of a deceased artist to uncover his lost paintings, only to be terrorized by the ghost of his wife. Film director Kazuo (Shingo Yamashiro), his daughter Emi (Nokko), producer Akiko (Nobuko Miyamoto), reporter and host Asuka (Fukumi Kuroda), and crewman Taguchi (Ichiro Furutachi) enter the mansion in the woods unsuspecting of their fate. They are delighted to discover a never-before-seen mural depicting a mother with child, but soon things begin to take a sinister turn. Asuka begins speaking in tongues and digs up the coffin of an infant outside. The crew come to realise that the house is haunted, or ‘cursed’ as they are later told by elderly gas station manager Yamamura (Juzo Itami) who comes to their aid. The terrifying backstory of the Mamiya family is brought to light and the crew find themselves in a fight for survival against the violent spirit of Lady Mamiya.

“Sweet Home”, written and directed by Kiyoshi Kurosawa, was released alongside a videogame of the same name. This video game was one of the primary inspirations behind the original “Resident Evil” game, which has since gone on to spawn numerous sequels and a film series of its own. Kurosawa’s film is based on a simple premise, a cursed house that the group must survive, one that allows the characters and outrageous action to take precedence. In many ways the reason for them being at the mansion is insignificant, the central story is of what happened to the Mamiyas and how they are going to escape with their lives. Lady Mamiya’s backstory is a gothic, gruesome tale; mostly told in exposition it nevertheless provokes a shudder. The film varies in tone from knockabout comedy, such as when Taguchi nearly accidentally decapitates Kazuo with a hefty axe he found in a shed, to some increidble gore effects in the latter half that stand alongside the best in the splatter film genre. The mix of simple effects, CG effects, and audacious practical monster effects make for an enjoyable watch for fans of fantastical horror. The cast do a great job, both in the lighthearted comedy and the horror action. The relationships between the widower Kazuo and his daughter, and Kazuo and Akiko, are engaging and provide a solid secondary plot thread through the shocks and scares of the main story. Kurosawa’s direction makes the most of the locations, filling them with dark shadows, and making the mansion come alive. It treads several well-worn tropes (the eerie mansion, the local who warns them of danger, the group dynamics of comedic and serious characters), but the skill of the director is in creating something that is fun and engaging even with that familiar premise.

Themes of family run strongly through the film, with Kazuo and Emi having lost a wife and mother, and the story of Lady Mamiya revolving around the loss of her own child in horrifying circumstances. The relationship between Kazuo and Emi is the reverse of Mamiya who lost a child. The loss of his wife has left Kazuo unsure of how to raise his daughter and unable to form new relationships, for example with Akiko. Likewise, Emi seems to be missing her mother, though in subtler ways, perhasp the reason she wants her father to remarry. Their drama is at odds with the events that occur at the Mamiya mansion, almost a completely separate narrative about trying to rediscover love and rebuild a relationship with a bereaved child. However, it is this juxtaposition that makes the film exciting. “Sweet Home” has a knack for turning on a sixpence from chilling to funny to poignant, switching emotional register without skipping a beat. The disparate elements create something that is hugely entertaining, with moments to please horror fans of all kinds.

The Guard from Underground (1992) by Kiyoshi Kurosawa

Akiko Narushima (Makiko Kuno) is on her way to a new job as an art appraiser at a large company. At the same time another new employee appears, the mysterious Fujimaru (Yutaka Matsuhige), to join the security guard team in the building. The towering, terrifying figure of Fujimaru soon begins a murderous rampage, killing off a fellow security guard and members of staff. Akiko finds herself in a fight for survival agains this killer on the loose and also battling the unwanted advances of her superior, Kurume (Ren Osugi), in this satirical slasher.

“The Guard from Underground”, directed by Kiyoshi Kurosawa and written by Kurosawa with Kunihiro Tomioka, is a typical horror film, with a satirical self-awareness of its inherent silliness. There is no explanation given for Fujimaru’s actions, other than a rather cryptic proclamation by him late in the film. Instead we have all the elements familiar to old-fashioned monster movies but with a modern twist. Instead of a monster we have the figure of Fujimaru, distorting the image of the helpful security man to a figure of terror and danger; the damsel-in-distress trope is similarly subverted in the resourceful Akiko, who proves more than a match for the men around her. Makiko Kuno is perfectly cast as the modern woman taking on not only sexism, but the hulking figure of a killer stalking the building. The ensemble cast do a great job with straight-faced performances providing just enough believability to the outrageous premise to maintain tension. Director Kiyoshi Kurosawa’s skill is evidenced here in the creation of shadowy, claustrophobic locales, transforming the familiarity of an office into something terrifying, with danger lurking around every corner. The music by Yuichi Kishino and Midori Funakoshi creates a sense of dread that seems purposefully to test the limits of parody, over-emphasising each scare. That is not to say that the film doesn’t have some great gory moments, such as a man being crushed to death in a locker, but they are made so outrageous as to be clearly intended to entertain rather than shock.

Kiyoshi Kurosawa’s “The Guard from Underground” is on the surface a slightly silly slasher film, but just under the surface there is a clever deconstruction of office politics. The film draws a direct comparision between the idea of a murderer on a killing spree with the far more common dangers faced by women in the workplace, sexism and sexual harrasment. The similtanous arrival of Akiko and Fujimaru speaks to this sense of certain threats being inescapable, or sadly just something she has to deal with as part of her job. A fun slasher film that displays the directors skill at creating atmosphere, “Guard from the Underground” bolsters its somewhat ridiculous premise with a thematic depth discussing sexual politics and more everyday dangers faced by working women.

Pulse (2001) by Kiyoshi Kurosawa

Ryosuke Kawashima (Haruhiko Kato) has recently bought a computer to get connected to the Internet. When he turns it on he is taken to a peculiar and disturbing website that seems to show people sitting alone in rooms and a message asking if he would like to see a ghost. He asks at the university computer department if they have any idea what is happening. Computing teacher Harue Karasawa (Koyuki) attempts to help him. Another student tells him that there is a theory that the spirits of the dead, having becoming too numerous, have begun to pass over into the world of the living. In a parallel story, Michi (Kumiko Aso), an employee at a flower shop, is also made aware of this unusual phenomenon when she goes to find their co-worker who has been missing for several days. The appearance of these figures, both on computers screens, and in the world, grow increasingly frequent and events threaten to overwhelm those involved.

Written and directed by Kiyoshi Kurosawa, “Pulse” takes inspiration from traditional ghost stories. Many of the scares in the film revolve around eerie happenings, such as dark figures appearing or disappearing suddenly. The music by Takefumi Haketa is disturbing, representing the howls of disturbed spirits. The sets used also give the impression of an old-fashioned ghost story, with abandoned buildings, and even a laboratory packed with various leads and devices. “Pulse” transposes these elements onto the modern world of computers and the internet, using techniques such as image manipulation and the idea that the screen may not be as much of a barrier as people think.

The film underscores its ghost story thrills with a deeply disturbing sub-strata of existential angst and fear of isolation. The concept of the Internet as a tool to connect individuals, but which will actually result in them becoming ever more distant from one another is interesting. Throughout the film there is a clear separation between the living and the dead. Kawashima is a young man who utterly rejects the notion of ghosts. He is forced through these occurrences to confront his fear of death. The character of Harue fears being left alone. The finale of the film is unexpected, bringing the story full circle to the opening narration, and making us question our assumptions of what has gone before. There is discussion in the film about the difference between life and death, about the imperceptible line between the two. Enough space is left for interpretation although as with much of the film it seems to be more about thematic exploration that any literal interpretation of events.

Creepy (2016)

A retired police officer, Koichi Takakura (Hidetoshi Nishijima) working as a lecturer is brought back into his old job when he learns of a mysterious unsolved crime. The crime involves the disappearance of three members of a family, leaving only a young daughter. Takakura has recently moved into a new house with his wife Yasuko (Yuko Takeuchi) and their dog. When the couple make a courtesy visit to their neighbour they meet the unusual figure of Masayuki Nishino (Teruyuki Kagawa). The man seems unusual, but the two ignore it. However, his behaviour soon leads Takakura to suspect that Nishino may not be all that he seems.

The film is based on a book by Yutaka Maekawa with a screenplay by director Kiyoshi Kurosawa and Chihiro Ikeda. The plot begins as a simple crime mystery but morphs into a psychological horror. It is clear early on in the film that Nishino is a suspicious character, and this is made explicit before too long. From there the film becomes a nightmarish situation for Takakura as he faces his greatest fear: of being helpless or unable to stop terrible things happening. Kurosawa creates a tension throughout the film using uncomfortable scenarios, particularly between Nishino and Yasuko. The blend of traditional detective drama and horror is subtle yet engaging with an unexpected twist partway through. Hidetoshi Nishijima and Yuko Takeuchi are believable as a couple with relationship troubles bubbling under the surface. Teruyuki Kagawa is impressively sinister as Nishino, often needing no more than a look or a word to give off a sense of uncertainty about his motivations.

“Creepy” transforms a typical detective story into something that plays on primal fears in a way that is unique and highly unnerving. In the opening scenes of the film Takakura allows a man under interrogation to escape and he subsequently commits a murder. This failure haunts him throughout the film. It is a feeling of powerlessness that is terrifying. The film manipulates many events to this end which may lead to accusations of plot holes and unbelievable scenarios. Understanding that the film’s focus is not on the surface level investigation, but on exploring Takakura’s own psyche is key to fully comprehending what is happening. When Nishino begins hitting on Yasuko and invites her to his house, it is representative of the atavistic fear of Takakura that he may lose his wife. This dynamic is brought back again later in the film when she is asked to choose between the two men. The film essentially becomes a struggle for dominance and control. One man appears to be losing his power to control his life and events surrounding him, while the other seems able to commit almost any act without consequence. There is also a dark undercurrent of inexplicable evil, reminiscent of other Kurosawa films such as “Cure”. Takakura tells his students that there are several kinds of killer; and that sometimes there is no explanation for their crimes. This is the most horrifying thought of all: that there are things out there that we cannot understand and therefore cannot control. An interesting take on the detective thriller genre with more going on just under the surface.

Cure (1997) by Kiyoshi Kurosawa

Detective Takage (Koji Yakusho) is investigating a mysterious string of murders. Despite the killers having no personal connection to one another, each crime displays an eerie similarity. The murderers all claim personal responsibility, but are unable to answer questioning about the circumstances of the incidents. All cut an X into their victims throat. Takage soon comes face to face with a former psychology student known as Mamiya (Masato Hagiwara) who seems to be hypnotising these individuals into committing murder. Mamiya is unable or unwilling to answer questions, apparently suffering from amnesia, and instead insists on questioning his interrogators. Takage’s wife (Anna Nakagawa) is suffering from a form of dementia and his frustrations with his wife’s illness seem to spill over into anger at Mamiya’s crimes.

“Cure” styles itself as a detective drama with strong horror elements, though never quite gives itself over entirely to the tropes of genre cinema. Writer director Kiyoshi Kurosawa does a fantastic job of creating tension and much of the horror remains psychological, with no clear motivation established for Mamiya’s actions. The settings of decrepit hospital buildings and crumbling city streets help to build the sense that everything is falling apart, mirroring Takage’s mental deterioration. A flickering light in an underpass, abandoned buildings, and suburban decay augment the imperfections of humanity that the film explores. Kurosawa weaves together the story of the killer and the detective in an interesting way, with Takage’s suffering and quest for understanding becoming an unjust mockery when compared to Mamiya’s cold detachment and lack of responsibility. Kurosawa manages to give the audience enough hints to keep the mystery engaging while never fully letting us into its most tempting secrets. In the final scenes of the film this lack of a complete picture makes for a uniquely terrifying experience. Koji Yakusho plays Takage as the world-weary detective, weighed down by personal struggle as well as the seriousness of his professional duty. Masato Hagiwara engenders feelings of hatred and anger, with Mamiya’s lack of social grace, impertinence and dead-eyed psychopathy getting under the skin in a way that is irritating and makes Takage sympathetic. Tsuyoshi Ujiki plays Takage’s psychologist friend Sakuma and is a good balance to Takage’s seriousness. Likewise, Anna Nakagawa’s role is small but pivotal in understanding Takage, and she gives a sympathetic portrayal of a character with their own mental health issues.

The horror of “Cure” is not in the violence of the murders, which are shown as terrifyingly commonplace, nor gory effects, which are used sparingly, but in allowing us to confront our own lack of comprehension when it comes to such things. Detective Takage states early on that he wants to find the words to describe what is happening. His ultimate realisation that some things are inexplicable is more horrifying than a serial killer with a well-documented backstory. The film’s ending leave both Takage and Mamiya’s thoughts and morality ambiguous. The credits, with partially broken and missing names, give a hint that this ambiguity is intentional. Life is imperfect, humanity is imperfect, and attempts to create meaning may be futile. Death and madness are natural, and by contrast rationalising such things may prove to be ironically irrational. Throughout the film explanations for the murders range from demonic possession to hypnotism and psychosis, but the film leaves the audience with this fundamental questions unanswered. We are left to speculate on the causes of crime and the reason for suffering in the world, and led to an increasingly distressing conclusion. “Cure” is a thrilling drama that will appeal to any fans of thought-provoking horror or detective dramas with a psychological twist.