“Kurosawa’s masterful formal approach to cinematography shows vividly that creepiness lurks at the surface of society (…) Creepy is a masterpience and truly lives up to its name. And yes, you will think twice about getting cozy with your neighbours”.
In 1997, 14 years after he started directing feature films, Kiyoshi Kurosawa appeared with a bang on the international scene with Cure (1997), a subtle and creepy serial killer narrative, while regaining his place – a place he lost in the eighties under influence of Nikattsu – in Japan as well. He confirmed his position with Pulse (2001), considered by some as his most successfully realized horror narrative to date.
Forever interested in the psychology of the individual and, quite often, the impact of society as well – these are the themes around which Kurosawa’s oeuvre turn around, Kurosawa left the horror genre with Tokyo Sonata (2008), for which he received the Jury Prize at the Un Certain Regard section of the Cannes film festival, and Journey to the shore (2015), providing a compassionate emotive contemplation on the supernatural.
With Creepy (2016), an adaptation of Yutaka’s Maekawa’s award-winning mystery novel, Kurosawa returns once again to explore the darker side of society in general and of human beings in particular. We cannot help but wonder, does the narrative live up to its name?
Creepy, as narrative, begins as an ordinary slice of life narrative, leisurely following the lives of Takakura (Hidetoshi Nishijima) and Yasuko (Yûko Takeuchi), who have just moved into a new neighbourhood., while Takakura, once a detective, is trying to settle down as a newly appointed lecturer in criminal psychology at Togaku university. But as much as the banality of daily life is carefully underlined, an intriguing mysteriousness concerning Nishino Masayuki (Teruyuki Kagawa), one of their neighbors, and the Hino city crime, Takakura examining this case after a request of an ex-colleague (Masahiro Higashide), is immediately evoked, drawing the spectator’s interest in, hooking his wish to know – or maybe his wish not to know.
The focus on banality, the plane of outer appearances and keeping up appearances – themes of social isolation touched upon along the way – enables Kurosawa to truly emphasize that what disturbs this banality, what is foreign to it and belongs to the order of the uncanny. Furthermore, it enables him, in connection to the framing of the foreign, the creepy, to assert the psychological dimension, how characters and relations develop. Kurosawa sketches the psychology of Takakura, Yasuko, and Nishino very tangible on the silver screen. The strong performances of the cast – The performance of Teruyuki Kagawa is outstanding – evokes believable depth to each side of the character and brings the impact of familial discord, power and the foreign on subjects realistically to the fore. Creepy, so masterfully structured, is as much a character study as it is a psychological thriller.
This character study/psychological thriller is brought to life with true cinematographic artistry. The blending of fixed camera perspectives with slow camera movement – and in some instances shakier movement evoking psychological tension – used so often in one shot, gives the narrative a certain smoothness, taking the intrigued spectator along with its flow (cine-note 1, cine-note 2). Besides originating from the carefully crafted shots, much of the effects the images have, be it effects of emotion or of the foreign, comes from the masterful use of the cut. It shouldn’t come as a surprise that Kurosawa shapes his narrative with long(er) shots/takes, underlining in all its subtility the emotive and psychological presence of each character as they interact with one another.
Kurosawa’s cinematography is a one of detail and of subtlety. Besides framing the more striking and unsettling behaviour of Nishino directly, it is also through the insertion of minor changes in the image (e.g. a sudden wind, a door that suddenly opens, … ) that the cinematography is able to introduce the strange – or the creepy – into the banal, giving the rather bleakly painted narrative world its ominous atmospherics (cine-note 3). The bleak and ominous character of the world is further strengthened by the use of lighting and how the music, ever in accordance with the cinematography, is blended with ambient noise and speech, enforcing the very atmosphere already painted (cine-note 4). Silences between speech-acts, for that matter, are not so notable, and only retrieve their full unsettling effect in Creepy‘s finale; as the spectator, through the gaps of speech, fills the empty space with the tension so carefully cultivated throughout the narrative. It is this ‘minimalism’, this cinematographical and narrative approach conditioning emptiness as a general canvas for psychology and emotion to be painted on, that gives the restrained finale its sublime quality.
Kurosawa’s masterful formal approach to cinematography shows vividly that creepiness lurks at the surface of society, behind the facade of daily life as image, and that the horrors of today are, in fact, hidden in plain sight. As much as we want to ignore the foreign element in our view of reality, Creepy’s subtle approach confronts the viewer over and over with the realm of the foreign, culminating in a finale that is sublime by virtue of its constrainedness. Creepy is a masterpiece and truly lives up to its name. And yes, you will think twice about getting cozy with your neighbours.
Cine-note 1: There are two different ways of slow camera movement: one attached to the movement of one or more a characters and one unattached. The shakier camera movement for that matter is always attached to the movement of one or more characters.
Cine-note 2: The narrative is mainly framed from an objective perspective. In two instances Kurosawa shifts to a POV shot. The spectator then takes the perspective of Yasuko, enforcing the strangeness of Nishino in the narrative space.
Cine-note 3: One example of a minor change can be found in the shot from 28:02 to 28:10. When and Mio are walking to their home, two moving stains are present above the garden – something not present in earlier shots of the garden.
Cine-note 4: The use of lighting often translates the mood. For instance, a subtle change in lighting is present when Takakura talks with Saki. As his interrogating tone abides, the darkness recedes as well [44:03-44:47].