Back in the day I used to be a massive fan of Kiyoshi Kurosawa and his films, but like with most of the Japanese filmmakers I used to adore, my passion for his work seemed to dissipate recently. For some reason I felt like I was neglecting his work, and the anticipation I used to feel for one of his films was no longer present. However after looking through his filmography, I noticed this wasn’t really the case, as with the exception of his five part television series “Penance”, the only recent film of Kurosawa’s that I had not seen was his 2008 film “Tokyo Sonata”. Since that film Kurosawa seems to have taken something of a sabbatical from feature filmmaking, with “Real” being his first film in five years. Normally I would be chomping at the bit to see a new film from Kiyoshi Kurosawa, but unfortunately “Real” has been met with quite mixed reviews tending to be skewed more towards the negative, and because of this, even though I have had the film on blu ray for some time now, I hadn’t felt compelled to actually watch it. Anyway, that all changed the other night, and whether or not it was because my expectations were lowered, I ended up enjoying “Real” for the most part.
Koichi and Atsumi have been friends since childhood, and as they grew older, this friendship blossomed into love. The two of them lived together in a small apartment where Atsumi, a famous manga artist, worked. They lived a happy normal life together until a year prior to when the movie begins, Atsumi attempts suicide only to survive and end up in a coma. Having not woken during the year, doctors decide to try an experimental approach called “sensing” where Koichi is able to enter Atsumi’s subconscious and talk to her in a kind-of dreamscape. The purpose of such a thing is to determine why Atsumi did what she did, and to attempt to get her to wake up. Whilst in this dreamscape during one of the “sensing” sessions, Atsumi asks Koichi to find and bring to her a drawing of a plesiosaur that she drew back when they were kids; a drawing she considers to be perfect and holds the key to unlocking a trauma from her past.
Despite all the negative reviews I have read for “Real”, I actually really enjoyed it for the most part. While I would agree that this is not Kiyoshi Kurosawa at his best, it is none the less a fine effort. The concept behind the film is actually very intriguing, being entered into someone’s subconscious in an attempt to bring them out of a coma, and is not unlike a similar concept seen in Kristina Buozyte’s recent “Vanishing Waves”. Personally I prefer Kurosawa’s take on this concept, as like in most of his films, he seems to have a grasp on the psychological impact a trauma has on a person’s brain or mind. In regards to the technology involved in “sensing”, Kurosawa wisely never wastes time explaining in detail how it all works. We, as an audience, just must go with it, and from a visual standpoint, the machine comes across as very sleek and modern, and full of purpose. Also when we enter Atsumi’s subconscious, Kurosawa doesn’t go over the top with the visuals. Most of the conversations take place in a projection of the couple’s apartment, with its design again very sleek and paired back. From time to time, the apartment gets flooded seemingly indicating that what is disturbing Atsumi has to do with water, and there is a moment when a sealed room appears in a wall that was not there seconds before.
One interesting thing about the “sensing” process is when Koichi suffers from side-effects that occur either during the process or after, and consist of disturbing images that Atsumi is drawing for her manga, manifesting themselves and becoming very real. While these images themselves have no power or relevance within the real (or imaginary) world, just witnessing these dark images is enough to rattle Koichi and fear for his girlfriend more. Unfortunately not enough is done with this cool addition to the film, and seems to have only been put into the film to create a sense of dread or fear. While this is a shame, I must admit that the images of distorted bodies we are witness to is very cool indeed.
While it has been a long while since I had seen a Kiyoshi Kurosawa film, as soon as “Real” began it all came back to me. He has a very particular style that is easily identifiable as his own, but I must admit that I had forgotten just how visual a storyteller he really is. His shot selections particularly are amazing, always choosing interesting angles to tell his story particularly to emphasise the psychological aspects of his character’s trials. He has always had a clean style to his films that can sometimes come across a little cold, and he seems obsessed with ruins of old buildings and yet again, these visual ticks show up again in “Real”. One thing that I did hate about the film was the shots from inside the car of the characters driving. They were so badly done and obviously very fake, that they looked like something out of a bad videogame. While I stand by this negative reaction, the reveal towards the end (which I will not ruin) may explain and excuse why these scenes looked so bad. Other than that I thought the special effects of the film where handled brilliantly using the less is more approach, which is something Kurosawa seems to be a fan of. The CGI at the end was executed very well and I loved a scene of the Tokyo skyline “melting” as if like a painting destroyed by water. It is an outstanding image.
In terms of performances, I was impressed by Haruka Ayase who plays Atsumi, who has to portray the character in two different ways, from when she was normal to when she was mentally disturbed, and she is believable in both. I particularly liked her confusion early whilst in her subconscious and later, during her realisation that nothing was real and thus she could do whatever she wanted with no repercussions. Takeru Sato, who plays Koichi, however was a little too one-note throughout the film for me, which was a little frustrating because it is his character that evolves the most and yet his performance never changes or grows. He just didn’t bring enough weight to his role, which is sadly key to the film working.
The main problem with the film though is its length, with “Real” being at least twenty minutes too long, and its superfluous ending. While I enjoyed the scenes with the plesiosaur in and of themselves, they went on far too long and felt like they came from a different movie entirely. Personally I felt these scenes should have been excised completely because they take away from the true ending of the film. I also felt that the reveal of what is behind our protagonist’s trauma to be totally anticlimactic and also a little easy to work out. The other big reveal in the film I also found to be quite obvious, so I guess it is no stretch to say that you always seem to be one step ahead of “Real” and that the film holds no surprises.
Overall, while this is not top notch Kurosawa, “Real” is still not the disaster everyone has been reporting. It has been more than competently directed by Kurosawa, it is just that it doesn’t really add up to a whole lot. The actual concept of the film is intriguing and by the end, you wish more had been done with it. The film is far too long, and has quite a poor ending, but at the end of the day, I still enjoyed “Real” and was happy to have just watched a new Kiyoshi Kurosawa film.