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Tuesday, Feb. 29, 2000

The truth is in here, not out there

Is it a coincidence that one of the first Japanese films made for release in the new millennium should be something of a cinematic Nostradamus? "Charisma," Kiyoshi Kurosawa's eco-allegory about a mysterious tree that obsesses all who come in contact with it, resembles the prophecies of the 16th-century French astrologer in being oblique and enigmatic, but with a strange power and persuasiveness.

The film, however, does not make grandiloquent, if gnomic, predictions about the future. Instead it poses questions that go to the heart of modern attitudes toward not only nature, but society and even life itself. What one of the film's contending factions regards as life-giving, another sees as life-threatening. What one wants to save, another tries to exploit -- or kill. For this outsider, it was next to impossible to sort out which group, if any, had right on its side. In the end, I could only rely on my not-always-reliable instincts. Logic, save of the dream variety, couldn't make sense of it.

The truth is out there, says "The X-Files." "Charisma" makes the less popular, if more defensible, assertion that the truth is not absolute, but individual, not out there, but in here. What is this tree that is alternatively celebrated and despised? What you make of it, for better or worse. A directorial design is evident, but no directorial moral, neatly wrapped and ready for easy delivery.

"Charisma" could have easily degenerated into a pseudo-Beckettian exercise in intellectual paradox -- sterilely theatrical and unbearably pretentious. But Kurosawa, who spent much of the past decade making low-budget horror and gang films for the video shelves before becoming a festival favorite with the 1997 psycho-thriller "Cure," would rather connect with his audience than lecture to it.

Instead of allegorical figures behaving, well, allegorically, his characters act with a disconcerting, almost childish directness, as though their social masks had been surgically removed. While looking and speaking like normal flesh-and-blood Japanese, they seem to move in an unusually vivid dream, one that invites interpretation while defying it.

The film's principal dreamer is Yabuike (Koji Yakusho), a detective who has been suspended from the force after botching the rescue of a kidnapper's victim. Fleeing to the countryside to escape the media and sort out his life, he finds himself alone in a mountain forest. Then, while he is sleeping, his car explodes in flames and he barely escapes.

Wandering about, Yabuike encounters a tree strung with what look to be I.V. bottles and tubes. Then, he meets a forester, Nakasone (Ren Osugi), who tells him that the forest around them is dying. Could the cause be that strange tree in the clearing?

But the tree has its defenders, the foremost being an intense young man named Kiriyama (Hiroyuki Ikeuchi) who lives in an abandoned sanitarium together with the widow of its owner and tenderly cares for the tree, while violently attacking anyone who would do it harm. He calls the tree "Charisma" and says that it has lived for thousands of years. He is also convinced that Charisma is about to transform -- and end as the last survivor in nature's battle for life.

Soon after, Yabuike steps into a trap while walking in the woods and is rescued by Mitsuko Jinbo (Jun Fubuki), a university botanist who lives nearby with her eccentric younger sister Chizuru (Yoriko Doguchi). Mitsuko tells Yabuike that Charisma excretes toxins that poison everything around it. The only solution is to destroy it -- or risk losing the forest.

Finding himself in the middle of these warring factions, Yabuike can't easily decide which side he is on. Mitsuko seems to have hard science on her side, while Kiriyama exudes fervent conviction. Meanwhile, Nakasone and his associates simply want Charisma out of the way.

One day Nakasone and a group of men appear in the clearing and, after chasing off Yabuike and Kiriyama, uproot Charisma, and drive off with it in a truck. Later Yabuike happens upon the tree, set ablaze by the Jinbo sisters.

End of story? Not quite. In another part of the forest a giant, leafless tree appears. Is it Charisma in a new guise?

But when Kiriyama sees this new tree, he is not overjoyed. "This is no good," he says. "I can't understand it."

Yabuike, on the other hand, is beginning to emerge from his personal fog. Unlike the others, he claims no special knowledge or insight. He is, he confesses, "an ordinary man." He does believe, however, that Charisma and the forest can live together. Or can they?

It is tempting to call Charisma the life force, and tag Kiriyama as the good ecological warrior and Jinbo and Nakasone the evil forces of scientific arrogance and capitalist exploitation. (Nakasone seems to hate the tree because it interferes with the lumber harvest.)

The film, however, resists such easy labeling. Charisma remains, from beginning to end, an ambiguous symbol. At one point Kiriyama even tells Yabuike, "You are Charisma." What does he mean? That Yabuike is the life force -- or that he alone knows how to save the tree?

With the broadest range of any Japanese actor working today, Koji Yakusho is well equipped to portray Yabuike's slow coming to awareness, while never losing sight of his common man appeal. Nonetheless, his Yabuike is not a hero in the usual sense. He also has blood on his hands -- and knows no easy way to cleanse it.

The rest of the cast burst with an energy and spontaneity not often seen in recent Japanese films -- perhaps because Kurosawa gave them a chance to act out as well as act.

Most movies are good for a few moments of post-screening coffee shop chat, if that. "Charisma" almost demands a longer thrashing out. Is it a work of twisted genius? An out-of-control example of directorial self-indulgence? What, if anything, is this man trying to say? Go see for yourself -- but make sure to check the time of that last train.

"Charisma" is playing at Theatre Shinjuku.

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