'Foreboding' Director Kiyoshi Kurosawa on Being a Horror Master Who Doesn’t Like Gore

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Kiyoshi Kurosawa

The veteran helmer discusses his Berlin entry, and why an economically efficient Japanese film industry would make him unemployed.

Director, screenwriter, film critic and author Kiyoshi Kurosawa began his career, as did many Japanese helmers of his generation, in the world of soft-core pornography — called “Pink Eiga” in Japan — before moving into straight-to-video productions consisting mostly of gangster flicks. In 1989, his career took a major leap when he made Sweet Home, his first outing in the horror genre, with which he still is most associated. Sweet Home was made into a video game, overseen by Kurosawa, and inspired the Resident Evil games, which went on to become a major Hollywood film franchise. His varied career would head in an entirely new direction with the 2008 family drama Tokyo Sonata, which won him best director and film honors at the Asian Film Awards, while the romantic drama Journey to the Shore would nab him the best director prize in Un Certain Regard at Cannes in 2015. The 62-year-old Kurosawa spoke to The Hollywood Reporter about the complex route to Foreboding, his dystopian sci-drama screening in the Panorama section at Berlin, moving between genres and formats and why he likes scaring audiences.

You’ve made films across various genres, but quite a few of your films have been horror. What appeals to you about it?
That’s true, I don’t hate it. (Laughs.) One reason is that human death is a difficult subject to address, but it’s a theme that is important for everyone. And it’s a question for which no proper answer can be expected to emerge. What I appreciate with horror is that you can ask questions about the issue of death in a process like trial and error through a film. Another factor is the way you can actually scare an audience just through the camerawork, sounds and subtle expressions from the actors. If you succeed, then the audience is terrified because of your cinematic technique, which is achieved by trial and error, too. I really enjoy that.

There aren’t many gory scenes in your horror films. Is that intentional?
It’s not that there aren’t any grotesque scenes, but very few, and if I can make a film without them, that would be fine. The way I look at it is that fear of death and blood-drenched scenes are two different things. Of course they’re linked: If someone is pouring [out] blood, then it expresses the idea that death is near, but I’m not a fan of gory scenes where you have to turn your eyes away from the screen. That’s not the fear of death that I’m aiming to create.

You’ve also directed across a lot of different formats: feature films, TV dramas, straight-to-video and even erotica. Do you approach each format differently?
I don’t really. Of course each production is different — the stories, actors, genres, budgets, producers and audiences. They’re all films to me. For years, I’ve watched films from every era, country and genre. There are so many great films out there. It might be better to shoot differently for television and movies, but I don’t. Television sets have become so big these days that the difference has shrunk. Having my films shown in a theater in front of a big audience is still the dream, but I don’t think that is the only way it has to be.

A lot of your films have been shown at international festivals — has the novelty worn off now?
They have been screened a lot, but I was still surprised that Foreboding was selected for Berlin. As I said, I see it at as a real genre film, so I thought it might be shown at fantastic film-type festivals but didn’t expect such a big festival to screen it. But then again, they selected [Kurosawa’s 2016 horror release] Creepy a couple of years ago, which was also a genre film. Still I thought Berlin basically chooses films that deal with themes like social problems or political issues. But foreign audiences might find something in Foreboding which illustrates an issue in contemporary Japanese society, even though I hadn’t consciously intended to depict it.

What is your take on the current state of Japanese cinema? The past two years have seen record box-office numbers for Japanese films. 
There are hundreds of features released every year, and there are not many countries in the world where that many are made. There are a lot of boring films among them, but even they create potential for the future. The lion’s share of the box office is now concentrated on a relatively small number of films, and it would be better if that was spread around more. From an economic efficiency point of view, the film companies would make more money if they just made 10 big hits every year. But then a whole bunch of directors, including myself, would be out of a job.

This story first appeared in The Hollywood Reporter's Feb. 18 daily issue at the Berlin International Film Festival.