The range of interpretations vary greatly, from a commentary on the Japanese society to eco-friendly messages. Maybe it's all of the above... There's no law. In fact, I haven't made my mind yet and I'm still writing this review with the bold hope that I'll be able to come up with one by the time I'm finished.
The opening sequence and the rest of the film play a duality joined by a statement spoken in both parts: "Restore the Rules of the World". The protagonist, Goro Yabuike, is a detective who is asked to negotiate with a lunatic who is holding an M.P. as a hostage. The lunatic writes down a note and delivers it to Yabuike, demanding exactly the phrase above. Yabuike misses a clear shot to save the M.P. because he willingly hesitated, and consequently both the M.P. and the criminal get shot.
The introduction is stylistically unrelated to what follows next, but not thematically. Yabuike is taken to an unnamed forest where people are divided between preserving a possibly poisonous tree protected by metal poles, or destroying it.
So I see the tree "Charisma" as a leader, a ruler of some kind, playing a transcendant role in the people's lives. By the time this leader arrives, he/she inflicts a powerful influence over the surrounding populace with its "poisonous roots". The rest of the forest, which is described as "average trees", represents people in terms of hierarchy power. Finally, the human characters represent any group of activists, that go from the leader's followers, to conspirators, to military figures:
- The followers are willing to accept the self-destructive nature of any society or form of government (in this case, an "ecosystem"), because that cost is implicit and unavoidable in the human nature. Rules are rules, especially those of the world, and these, according to them, imply a battlefield of conflicts, life and death.
- The conspirators are in favor of the populace, and are not willing to concede any opportunity to the poisinous roots of the "tree".
- The military figures have their own interests, possibly financial, but they circle around the leader's interests as well. They depend on him.
But amidst these conflicts, a unique person rises holding the idea that the best way to preserve a blanace for the sake of everybody is allowing both the leader and the populace to survive, because it is common to think that the only way to overthrow a regime is to kick out the leader, possibly assassinating him, as history has tought us. And as history has tought us, not all charismatic leaders exert a positive influence on people: think of how Jim Jones got 909 members of his People's Temple to commit mass suicide in the jungles of Guyana in November of 1978. But as the structure of society seems to dictate most of the times, there is no room for this idealistic, utilitarian ideas and the tree eventually gets burned.
Of course it couldn't stop there. Another tree rises, bigger than the previous one, but without its "charisma", and therefore is not another "Charisma". That's the contradictory duality in the history of mankind: they have always demanded a ruler to follow, because they love to follow someone, but if the demands of the populace are not perfectly met, they'll seek another source of power. Does that mean that they lose hope in the form of the government that have betrayed them and failed them so many times? No. They sustain hope in something hopeless. So the tree gets destroyed, but did it die? No. There is still "his" seed , which will "rule" afterwards in the name of his predecessor.
The ending confirms this duality with a pessimistic point of view: be it Mother Nature or civilization, the "rules of the world" are unavoidable. We were once asked in a Philosophy class whether if we perceived nature - in that moment, the teacher's finger pointed towards a window where trees and birds were under a very sunny climate, because it was pretty sunny that day - as peaceful and calm or not, as compared to the society structures we have created. Naturally everybody responded that nature seemed more peaceful. I rolled my eyes at everybody's response. Before I could say anything, the teacher clarified that nature is a very hostile world, where animals, plants and trees get hunted, saved, killed, tortured and predated by other animals with sometimes destructive natural disasters, like thunder storms and floodings. It's a food chain out there.
Kurosawa maintains his impressionistic lens, keeping us as distant observers, not only with the purpose of displaying an otherworldly cinematography, but because a wide scope/landscape of the events matters when we are third-party, neutral observers. We are not put inside the mind of the characters or adopt the point of view of the situations minimalistically. We are kept distant, so that we can form, first, an interpretation, and then, a judgment. The ending was terrific from a "cool factor" point of view, worthy of an 80s cult sci-fi film. A little bit exaggerated, but appropriate.
One thing remains certain: this is still about how the role of an individual can be affected by society's forces which are way bigger than him/her.
Or at least, that's what I distilled from the film. There are a lot of things going on in Charisma, many of which dead-end without any attempt at resolution or explanation. The sanitarium director's wife, the professor and her sister with the weird coat, and the mysterious militia with an unexplained need to cut down Charisma all fall by the wayside by the end of the film. I could make suppositions as to their purposes, but next to the overall theme of the film they feel unimportant and wasted. It's an uncomfortably familiar sensation in Kurosawa's films, almost all of which feel overstuffed and oddly thin at the same time (Pulse evades this, and Seance to a lesser extent).