If recent Japanese cinema offers an accurate reflection of the country’s problems, it’s going through an unprecedented social and moral meltdown.
The kids are definitely not alright. Nor are the adults.
Kiyoshi Kurosawa’s films are generally oblique enough to resist easy allegorical reading, but his 1997 masterpiece “Cure,” about a man who hypnotizes people into killing for him, was a clear response to the Aum Shinryiko subway attacks. Kurosawa (no relation to Akira) likes apocalyptic endings, but in interviews, he insists that they offer the promise of a new beginning. Even in “Pulse,” in which ghosts launch themselves off the Internet and destroy the world, he concludes with two people finding a real connection under hopeless circumstances.
In its own enigmatic way, “Bright Future” is ultimately about the same quest.
Yuji Nimura (Joe Odagiri) and Mamoru Arita (Tadanobu Asano) work together at a hand towel factory. At home, Mamoru keeps a poisonous jellyfish in a tank. When their boss visits Mamoru’s apartment, he sticks his hand in the tank but neither man warns him of the danger. While he doesn’t get stung, he fires Mamoru the next day. Telling Yuji to wait, Mamoru leaves the factory.
Arriving at their boss’ house, Yuji discovers the dead bodies of the man and his family. Mamoru is sentenced to jail. Continuing to take care of the jellyfish, Yuji becomes friends with Shinichiro, Mamoru’s father. Following Mamoru’s instructions, he tries to acclimate the jellyfish to Tokyo’s freshwater canals.
Using a mix of High Definition and standard digital video, Kurosawa creates a chalky, pale look. By this point, he’s an expert at using the frame to express his characters’ alienation. When Yuji and Shinichiro visit Mamoru in jail, they’re posed in compositions that strand them in much larger geometrical forms. The camera generally remains distant from the actors, avoiding close-ups. Key incidents, like the murders, are left offscreen and only suggested. These tropes are fairly common in contemporary Asian cinema, but Kurosawa deploys them brilliantly.
The mastermind in “Cure” served as a psychiatrist of sorts, leading his victims—whose problems were quite genuine—to catharsis through murder. In a perverse way, he had good intentions. Here, Mamoru is a similar figure, who tries to pull Yuji out of his shell.
The jellyfish is more than a symbol. It’s practically a character, much like the tree on whose fate the world’s shoulders rested in “Charisma,” one of Kurosawa’s strangest films. It could represent youth, Mamoru’s memory, adventure, hope, the ability to adapt and/or the inevitability of danger.
Yet none of these is sufficient to explain the film. As enthusiastic as Yuji and Shinichiro are about the jellyfish, who thrive in Tokyo’s canals, Kurosawa never lets us forget their toxicity—he shows a TV news report about a girl landing in the hospital after being stung by one. Even so, jellyfish glow brightly and beautifully in the water.
In its final 20 minutes, “Bright Future” risks going off the rails when it introduces a gang of louts. Dressed identically in white shirts and wearing walkie-talkie headsets, they break into a factory at Yuji’s urging, trash it and steal money. Oddly, the end credits roll over a lengthy shot of them walking, all wearing Che Guevara T-shirts. Just before the credits begin, the title “bright future” appears onscreen. Is it ironic? In this context, it’s hard to take it any other way, but that interpretation reduces the film to a rather conservative dismissal of Japanese youth. Kurosawa’s generally smarter than that, but it’s also hard to believe that he really sees them as a sign of hope and it’s worthy of not that their blinking headsets link them visually to the jellyfish. The ending seems pulled from an entirely different film.
Kurosawa’s work has an odd tendency to be simultaneously blunt and opaque, best exemplified by the scene in “Pulse” in which a character uses a screen saver whose dots are destroyed if they come too close as a metaphor for human relationships. Without the safety net of genre, his films can lean towards flakiness, a danger “Bright Future” skirts.
However, the film has one crystal clear subject—the friendship between Yuji and Shinichiro. Brought together by Mamoru’s jail sentence, they manage to bridge the gap between generations, unlike the boss, who babbles on about how much he wishes Yuji and Mamoru could have seen him when he was 25. The jellyfish become a shared passion. Kurosawa doesn’t romanticize this relationship, but it’s a rare oasis of warmth in a world whose alienation he depicts so well.
Torn between its desires to evade meaning and to deal directly with emotion, “Bright Future” pulls off reconciliation between the two in its best moments. The title may or may not be sarcastic, the future may or may not be bright, but humanity strides on nevertheless.