charismaI don’t understand Charisma. The bare facts of the narrative are clear, but damned if it isn’t one of the most befuddling, obscure and confounding movies I’ve seen. Twice now I’ve seen it, and things that were clear are now opaque.

Normally, I dismiss these films of indistinct purpose and poor judgment. But Charisma is not a bad film. It’s technically proficient, the acting is superb, and the motives are plain. In fact, the film is about motivation, its origins and its meanings.

Yabuike (Koji Yakusho) is a cop who screws a hostage negotiation. The police put him on permanent vacation. He calls his family (never seen), says he’s working late, and he disappears into the forest. We don’t know why he disappears. We just have a list of demands from the hostage taker — “Restore the rules of the world” — and then there is Yabuike’s desire to help both the victim and the victimizer.

In the forest, Yabuike finds no peace, just factions that war for the sake of a tree — a sickly, tall thing named Charisma. The owner tries to keep it alive (he was the last patient in an abandoned sanitarium). His neighbors, a weird enviro-capitalist militia, want to steal it. A botany professor lives nearby. He thinks the tree secretes a poison into the land, and that it needs to be destroyed.

In my review of Cure, I discussed Kurosawa’s neutrality. There, it’s a directorial technique. Here, it’s the attitude of the sympathetic lead. Yabuike aids the factions, to dig it up and protect it. To everyone’s irritation, he doesn’t take a side. He doesn’t know what’s going on.

Here lies the bizarre power of the film. Charisma is an allegory of man and society. Allegory lends itself to boring and reductive analysis, but the interest is in the character of the tree. What is Charisma? The militia finds it valuable, and there are buyers who agree. The professor finds it a menace, and she will do anything to destroy it. Crazy Kiriyama lives his life protecting the tree, but he can’t say why it’s important.

The tree is not the subject, but the choice to make it important is. Choosing the tree out of thousands makes it subject to whim. Since Charisma exists, everyone reacts to it in order to define self. Only Yabuike doesn’t. He lost himself, and that makes him feared. Because he doesn’t fit into their societal outlines, the people in the forest are eager to see what he does.

This seems to move toward the film’s intent, but it doesn’t capture the heart. Charisma feels complex, but some elements are too sublimated. The last shot, in fact, seems to have apocalyptic implications the film does not prepare us for.

Charisma intrigues, but it does not satisfy. I’d find this a flaw, except the movie tells me this is the very point.

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