Categorised as a master of horror and suspense, one probably forgets all too quickly the trajectory of a filmmaker who has worked on a wide range of films and explodes the division that contrasts auteurism from genre film. One discovers that Kiyoshi Kurosawa redefines genres, respective of them but without letting go of his personal motifs. Through suspense films, yes, but also through stories of police vengeance or even erotic experimentations. In this interview, we tackle principally the neglected portions of his filmography, and attempt to get to know better the frame of mind that animated him in these early years.
This retrospective is an opportunity for the French public to discover a portion of your filmography that came before your horror films. How do you look back on this early period of your filmmaking?
There are an enormous number of films that I never want to see again in my life [because] I’m too ashamed of them. The Cinemathèque was adamant about screening the entirety of my work and didn’t accept my refusal to show everything. It’s something very painful for me. The advantage is that if my early films are shown to the public, the public will realise that it’s the work of a young madman who was searching for himself through mediocre films, but that over the course of the years and work, he progressively delivered more successful films. That could encourage young filmmakers or people who aspire to become filmmakers. It’s on that note that I gave in to screening this portion of my work.
When you were starting out, you filmed in 8mm. But you were also an assistant for Kazuhiko Hasegawa and Shinji Somai, who would later create the Director's Company . How was it like at that time, notably with people like Banmei Takahashi and Toshiharu Ikeda?
How shall I speak of this period? Effectively, as a student at the university, I made my little 8mm films myself in my own corner, while the filmmakers you mentioned for the most part came from reputable studios. These filmmakers would make fun of me by asking what 8mm could do for me. The real reason is that these filmmakers had participated in student political movements and they found immature the idea of making amateur films. All of a sudden, that gave me the desire to rebel, to revolt against these elders for whom I had a lot of respect but who gave me the desire to make better films than them. Even though I remained very friendly with them, there was a really strong rebellious sentiment that dominated in me.<
Why did you not make your first professional feature film through the Art Theatre Guild (ATG), since it was the case for many filmmakers of your generation and those who were on a similar path?
It’s a rather delicate question and I ask myself if I’ve the right to talk about it. That goes way back, but, well… It’s true that a lot of young filmmakers who worked in 8mm chose the ATG for their first feature film. Starting one’s career that way was the chosen path for a lot of aspiring filmmakers of my generation. Even my colleagues at the Directors Company asked me why I wasn’t making my first feature with ATG. I admit I wasn’t against this idea, but to make a film within such a framework demanded two or three years of waiting and preparation, while I was able to shoot a pinku  right away.
Obviously, the genre imposed specifications and certain constraints, but since I was being given carte blanche and especially the assurance of shooting within a month, I didn’t hesitate for an instant. I remember very well that a lot of my colleagues at the Director's Company told me that it wasn’t a good idea. Especially Hasegawa and Somai, who were worried about my future; they were even asking themselves if I would continue afterwards. That’s when Banmei Takahashi angrily intervened, coming from pinku himself. He asked them where’s the harm in making a first film such as that. It was with such an argument that Hasegawa and Somai accepted my decision.
Allusions to Godard in Kandagawa Wars, Kiyoshi Kurosawa’s first film
Then afterwards, you taught at Rikkyo University. Can you talk about that period and your rapport with students Takashi Shimizu and Makoto Shinozaki?
First of all, I never taught at Rikkyo. I was there as a student, but never as a teacher. Makoto Shinozaki, a little bit younger than me, also studied there at the same time as me. But from the 1990s, I became a teacher at the Tokyo Film School and one of my first students in my first year was Takashi Shimizu. I admit that the prospect of becoming a film teacher never really interested me. But we had Shigehiko Hasumi as a professor, and his vision of cinema and his courses influenced us a lot. In this way I came to understand that films, criticism, and ideas could influence filmmakers and lead us later to become teachers ourselves.
Speaking of Shigehiko Hasumi, do you continue to write for the Japanese version of Cahiers du Cinéma?
I participate voluntarily when the editors invite me, but I don’t do it regularly. Writing positive reviews doesn’t bother me at all, but it puts me ill at ease to have to write negative ones, even if it amuses the readers. My position as a filmmaker makes it that sooner or later I will encounter in a festival the filmmaker whose film I reviewed…hence my reluctance to say anything bad of others’ work… but those are the rules of the game.
I would like to go back to your V-cinema [straight-to-video] period, and notably the Suit Yourself or Shoot Yourself  and Revenge series. Did you choose your screenwriters according to the episodes or was everything established from the time the series was conceived?
These are films in which I took great pleasure in shooting. I discussed the series’ outline a great deal with the writers. In the case of Suit Yourself or Shoot Yourself, which consists of six episodes, the principal actor, the terrific Sho Aikawa, was also able to give his opinion and submit his ideas on the development of the episodes. The more numerous we were discussing the conception of Suit Yourself or Shoot Yourself, the further we went towards experimentation. It was a particularly rich and very valuable experience, especially since we were lucky to have a producer who accepted all of our madness.
Hence the great final episode, “The Hero,” which starts as a rather funny yakuza comedy and ultimately leads towards this apocalyptic end, very indicative of your future films…
It makes me enormously happy to have someone talk to me about Suit Yourself or Shoot Yourself. As I’ve just said, I really enjoyed making this series. If everything had been shot for the home video market, for me these are the true films in my career . From the time the series was made fifteen years ago, no one in Japan speaks about it, in good or bad terms. I’d never been interviewed about it or seen any analysis of it. It practically moves me to know that we can talk about Suit Yourself or Shoot Yourself in France. It’s really while making these films for video that I finally understood that I was capable of making films as independently as my subsequent feature films, such as Cure  or Charisma .
Now I want to focus on the Revenge diptych and the character of Goro Anjo embodied by Sho Aikawa. How did you create the trajectory of this noir character? How did you work with the screenwriter Hiroshi Takahashi?
First of all, I want to say that in my filmography, the Revenge diptych is my favourite. I wasn’t expecting I’d talk about it one day in France. It’s so long ago that I wouldn’t know what to say, but I really want to thank you for having mentioned this saga! Since they were films directed at the home video market, we didn’t have a lot of resources. Also, the producer asked me to develop two episodes of a series centered on the theme of vengeance. We came to agree that the first part, A Visit From Fate, would be written by Hiroshi Takahashi and that the second, The Scar That Never Fades, would be written by me. I calculated that the carrying out of a vengeance couldn’t end with a happy ending; the hero could never regain his past happiness. That constitutes the approach to our diptych.
We began writing our respective episodes in parallel. The lack of time and money required of us to shoot two films successively. Hiroshi Takahashi couldn’t finish his screenplay, while I had already finished my episode…I thus had the ending without knowing the beginning. I had written the story of a man who was going to take revenge for the second time, carrying with him the weight of the experience of his first act of vengeance. Then Hiroshi Takahashi finally finished his screenplay. But it was much later—during preparation—that I discovered the story of a cop who refused to carry firearms but who ultimately had to use them to carry out his vengeance.
Kunihiko Ida and Sho Aikawa in Revenge - The Scar That Never Fades
It’s interesting because one finds similarities between The Serpent’s Path  written by Hiroshi Takahashi, and The Eyes of the Spider  written by yourself. Did you write your episodes at the same time?
There is a continuity, in fact. The Serpent’s Path and The Eyes of the Spider were originally thought of as Revenge 3 and Revenge 4. But in the intervening time, there was a change in the production company , which wanted the second diptych to have no connection to the first cycle. But for me it remains a tetralogy. It was also between these two films that I made Cure. As with the Revenge films, I had already finished my part of the writing while Hiroshi Takahashi hadn’t yet completed his part. I took up again the character of an avenger in search of meaning in life by continuing to kill people. I wasn’t worried about Takahashi’s screenplay because I knew that this character would continue tirelessly to avenge himself and increasingly empty himself.
Did making films for television influence your manner of working?
No, I don’t distinguish between my work in film, for home video, and for television. Given that the development of projects in film takes time, it happens that I work on television series. The format is different, the running time, rules for commercial breaks. But the shooting and design of my television work is similar to that in film. As with V-cinema, television has allowed me to experiment with things beneficial to my future films. All my work on the representation of horror and ghosts on the screen began in television.
I noticed that you shot twice for television the narratives on the mythical figure of Hanako-san, in 1994 and in 2001. Was it imposed on you or did you want to make your own saga?
I never really had the intention of making a saga on Hanako-san. It so happened that this urban legend is very popular in Japan. Having made serials on ghosts in schools, the producers were always suggesting to me an episode dedicated to Hanako-san. And I accepted willingly because this character entertains everyone. It was a very rewarding experience for me subsequently because it was through my first Hanako-san that I created this woman in red with long black hair, who moved slowly, a figure that one will encounter in a lot of my future films.
Your latest work, Redemption , which won’t be screened at this retrospective, is a TV-drama that would serve as the prologue to Tetsuya Nakashima’s film Confessions , adapted from a novel by Kanae Minato. Can you tell us about it?
Well, perhaps you didn’t have the exact information. The TV-drama Redemption is essentially an adaptation of the successful novel in Japan. Confessions, which is another novel by the author Kanae Minato, was adapted into film two years ago. But I want to say that it’s not culled from the same novel. I’m supposed to be the first to have adapted it to the screen and directed it. Redemption was aired in Japan in five episodes. It was a rather long project to get off the ground.
What are your next projects?With respect to what’s coming up, I should begin shooting for a new film shortly before summer. But for the moment I can’t tell you anything.