The Japanese director Kiyoshi Kurosawa is unrelated to the late, great Akira Kurosawa, but, at 49 and with 22 films under his belt, he has carved out a cinematic territory all his own: He works at the crossroads where horror movie, social drama, and art film all meet. ''Bright Future," released in Japan in 2003, isn't a shocker like his 1997 film ''Cure," but it exerts a gnawing dread that slowly turns to something faintly like hope.
Above all, this Kurosawa makes movies so Japanese they're often hard for outsiders to grasp. ''Future" is a meditation on a country whose youth is spiritually destitute in the aftermath of the bursting of the economic bubble and the 1995 sarin gas attacks by the Aum Shinrikyo cult. Both events remain unmentioned; the film concentrates instead on two aimless young men who work at a factory providing restaurants with the hand towels known as oshibori. Yuji (Jo Odagiri) appears to be sleepwalking through life, but his best friend, Mamoru (Japanese superstar Tadanobu Asano), simmers with defiance and drops hints of an upcoming insurrection. Mamoru gives Yuji his prized pet, a poisonous jellyfish in a pristine home aquarium, and provides specific instructions for its care. Then he commits a bloody crime that lands him on death row.
The jellyfish is not what it seems; I'm not sure anything in a Kurosawa movie is. The creature, beautiful and toxic, adapts to fresh water and escapes into the Tokyo River, where it starts multiplying. And glowing. Soon there are reports of poisonings across the city and the canals are filled with eerily phosphorescent medusae. Again, this becomes mere backdrop.
Visiting Mamoru in prison are his friend Yuji and his father, Shin-Ichiro (played by Tatsuya Fuji, star of the 1976 cult classic ''In the Realm of the Senses"). Shin-Ichiro repairs cast-off electronics for a living and he's never been much of a parent; he hasn't seen Mamoru in five years and barely recognizes the imperious, confident convict behind the bars. In the son's absence, Shin-Ichiro and Yuji grow close, forging a squabbling but strangely serene makeshift family unit on the underpopulated outskirts of the city. At the same time, Yuji falls in with a gang of teenage layabouts who dress in ''Clockwork Orange" jumpsuits and wear walkie-talkie headsets that mysteriously glow.
For a film about apocalyptic generational rebellion, ''Bright Future" is perversely quiet. The film strains familiar elements and images -- Kubrick, ''Fight Club," Che Guevara -- into an experience so muted as to be almost without tone. That's an unnerving place to be, especially for minds conditioned by commercial movies, and Kurosawa's penchant for David Lynchian ambient noise on the soundtrack is just one more rug pulled from under our feet.
Yet the movie has a curious and cumulative power. The film never seems to be going anywhere in particular but then suddenly arrives at a point where all the surreal elements converge and march toward the future. You don't have to follow, the director hints, but there'll be hell to pay if you don't.
Ty Burr can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.