Charisma opens to an apparently familiar pattern of an overworked, rumpled, and unfocused officer named Goro Yabuike (Koji Yakusho) napping on an empty bench at police headquarters and being awakened by a superior officer to discuss the progress of his arrest case. One day, he is called to an abandoned house in the countryside in order to diffuse a hostage situation involving a prominent parliamentary official. As Yabuike enters the room, a lone, apprehensive gunman hands him a scrap of paper with a single demand to “restore the rules of the world”, before fumbling and dropping his gun on the floor. Yabuike instinctively draws his weapon and aims at the now unarmed suspect, but decides not to shoot and instead, retreats to deliver the cryptic and unrealistic demand. The hesitation would prove costly, as the gunman impulsively kills the official without warning, and the police immediately retaliate and open fire. When asked about his missed opportunity to shoot, Yabuike responds “I thought at the time that they both deserved help.” Placed on suspended duty for the botched hostage rescue, the aimless and guilt-ridden Yabuike is left on a stretch of road by a remote, barren forest populated by carcinogenic plants, polluted streams, and sickly, collapsing trees. He encounters a team of forest rangers headed by a radical named Kirayama (Hiroyuki Ikeuchi) who brings him to an open field in order to take photographs of an unusual, forbidding, and oddly decorated tree, before being chased away by the tree’s eccentric caretaker, Nakasone (Ren Osugi). Yabuike learns that Nakasone resides in an abandoned sanitarium where he has assumed guardianship for the tree, called Charisma, since the facility director’s passing three years earlier, and has been Charisma’s sole protector against opportunistic poachers like Kirayama who attempt to profit from its rarity. However, Yabuike soon learns that Charisma’s rarity may come at an ecological price when a botanist named Jinbo (Jun Fubuki) argues that the roots of the tree expel a toxic substance, and must be destroyed in order to restore the natural balance. As Kirayama, Nakasone, and Jinbo wage a selfish and increasingly destructive feud over the fate of Charisma, can Yabuike find a mutual solution for the coexistence of the strange tree and the viability of the forest?
Kiyoshi Kurosawa presents a visually compelling, multi-layered, and insightful film on radicalism, individuality, and balance in Charisma. Evoking the austere landscapes of Andrei Tarkovsky, Kurosawa similarly explores issues of conscience, spiritual longing, and personal disharmony through the manifestation of a metaphoric environmental malady. Using foggy, pale, and muted colors of the barren wilderness, decaying interiors to reflect psychological distress, and medium and long shots that frame each character in proper relation to his environment, Kurosawa raises contemporary issues on the value and quality of life in an increasingly polarized and uncompromising world, the dilemma between individual rights and social order, and the laws of natural selection versus human intervention against extinction. Inevitably, as the conflicting ideologies struggle between natural and created order, what emerges is an oppressive, alienating, and ominous wasteland of irreconcilable and consuming intolerance.
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