This article appeared in the June 7, 2024 edition of The Film Comment Letter, our free weekly newsletter featuring original film criticism and writingSign up for the Letter here.

Chime (Kiyoshi Kurosawa, 2024)

There’s something in the air in the films of Kiyoshi Kurosawa: over five decades into a career defined in equal measure by prolificness and idiosyncrasy, the Japanese filmmaker has cultivated a mastery of atmosphere so palpable it could be its own genre. One might call it the cinema of contagion, in which carefully balanced urban ecosystems get upended by some invading physical or psychic force. Not all of Kurosawa’s movies fall into this category, but the ones that do have a special quality of entropy that feels true to our moment of anxious, perpetual doomscrolling. In films like Pulse (2001), a sleek techno-horror, and Bright Future (2002), a slow-burn portrait of youth in revolt, the threat is felt before it’s seen, and then becomes visible—and indelible—in increments. Methodical yet uncanny, Kurosawa’s style produces an effect akin to watching a modern procedural conjured via vintage spirit photography (a lineage referenced and literalized in his elegant 2016 ghost story, Daguerrotype)

Beginning in the 1980s, Kurosawa established himself as an efficient and expressive genre filmmaker: a reliable pro willing to take on work for hire in an industry churning out studio product. Since then, he’s maintained his affection and respect for B-movie scenarios and structures while using his auteur status—which solidified following a sterling run of features before and after the turn of the millennium—to revise those premises from the inside out. The same feeling of incipient outbreak that informs Kurosawa’s apocalypse narratives inflects his aesthetics as well. In his films, reality is remade, subtly but radically, so that the world eventually becomes its own doppelgänger.

Kurosawa is slated to release three new productions this year, including a French-language remake of his own fine 1998 crime thriller, Serpent’s Path. Following in this self-reflective spirit, the 45-minute short Chime, which premiered in February at the Berlinale, could be a spiritual sequel to its maker’s 1997 masterpiece Cure; it’s currently available online via the streaming website Roadstead, an odd landing spot that’s nevertheless apropos given the film’s themes of virality. Here, the malady afflicting Tokyo—and possibly the world beyond—is ambient: spacing out in front of a pan of rapidly charring onions, meek culinary student Tashiro (Seiichi Kohinata) likens the otherworldly sound giving him pause to “a scream… but not human.” His classmates can’t hear this cry and neither can we, but Tashiro is adamant. Is he going deaf? Or mad? Or is everyone else just not on the right frequency?

These are the sorts of questions—big, creepy, and abstract—that Kurosawa likes to ask, far more than he likes to provide answers. His most powerful films, whether sinister enigmas like Cure and Charisma (1999) or deceptively conventional dramas à la Tokyo Sonata (2008), tend to be styled as metaphysical riddles, their ambiguity deepened and rendered all the more disorienting by the director’s uniquely pellucid mise en scèneKurosawa’s framing derives some of its fearful symmetry (and axial cutting patterns) from Kubrick, but mostly minus the magisterial bombast. His interior spaces are profoundly ordinary, transformed into loci of terror by careful gradations of focus or lighting design, or else decisive turns of performance and tone.

Chime’s slender storyline is built around several such showstopping moments. A sudden act of violence that passes the narrative baton from Tashiro to his middle-aged instructor Takuji (Mutsuo Yoshioka) is staged with the same slow, inexorable inexplicability as the murders in Cure (Kurosawa doesn’t so much avoid jump scares as invert their affect; his set pieces are drenched in the numb, hypnotic dread of sleep paralysis). In lieu of a sociopathic Dr. Mesmer figure puppet-mastering the action, Chime dispenses with an antagonist—and a hero—altogether, and simply offers glimpses at a society in the throes of some profound, collective malfunction. To invert the title of a film by one of Kurosawa’s former students, the film unfolds in a space where evil does, indeed, exist. What’s memorable is how this particular malevolence is evoked and sustained via a series of swift, recurring motifs: gourmet meals being prepared but not eaten; waste products being obsessively recycled; characters navigating winding, aimless trajectories through urban spaces that seem to grow increasingly liminal before our eyes, as if the streets and buildings were quietly phasing in and out of existence.

For viewers susceptible to Kurosawa’s brand of metaphysical insinuation, Chime will strike a precise chord. Those who insist on reconciling the film’s sensory effects with some sort of explanation or closure may be nonplussed, but it is in these very fissures between feeling and meaning that Kurosawa practices his dark art. Chime is great not because it refuses interpretation or analysis, but because it welcomes it, secure in the knowledge—at once apt and hopelessly bleak—that coherence is of little consolation in a contingent universe. A late shot of Takuji, by now cognizant of the infernal noise and as a result seemingly incapable of doing anything, silently standing forehead-to-forehead with his own reflection in a full-length lobby mirror could be Chime’s emblem: an idyll shivering with layers of implication. What’s hard to tell is whether the image qualifies as a moment of self-recognition or an encounter with the Other. The deep, implacable horror of Kurosawa’s strange little fable lies in its suggestion that both possibilities are one and the same.

Adam Nayman is a critic, teacher, and author based in Toronto. He has written books on Paul Thomas Anderson, the Coen brothers, and David Fincher.