Category: Japanese Cinema

Yurigokoro (Japan 2017)

Accidents will happen . . .

This title from the Japan Foundation Film Tour proved to be a startling and, I think, rewarding experience. In one respect it bears a resemblance to Hollywood films such as those by David Fincher and Martin Scorsese. I’m thinking of something like Scorsese’s adaptation of Dennis Lehane’s Shutter Island (2010). Like that film, Yurigokoro is based on a novel, Nan-Core by the horror/crime writer Numata Mahokaru. It’s common for Japanese features to be based on novels or manga, but there has recently been discussion about a new genre in Japanese popular literature known as iyamisu (eww mystery). This is the kind of mystery novel where the reader involuntarily gasps ‘Eeuw!’ or ‘Ugh’ at a description of something grisly. I try to read examples of contemporary Japanese crime fiction and I would argue that a writer like Kirino Natsuo is linked to this current cycle with her novels Out (1997) and Grotesque (2003). The most notable film based on an iyamisu novel by Minato Kanae was Confessions (Kokuhaku, Japan 2010) – a popular title in the UK. Watching Yurigokoro I was also reminded of the films of Nomura Yoshitaro from the 1950s-1970s which we saw in Bradford a few years back. Finally on the background, I’ll note that Gillian Flynn’s Gone Girl (which became the David Fincher film) was categorised on its publication in Japan as part of the new cycle.

Ryosuke is an accomplished chef

But ‘Enough!’ you are shouting. What is Yurigokoro about? You’ll note that there is no English title and that’s because ‘Yurigokoro’ is a made-up word, a child’s mis-hearing of the technical term for her problem. Little Misako is frightened of the world around her and needs something to give her confidence. Tragically it appears to be only death or pain that can give her confidence and as she grows up she becomes involved in a couple of deaths that could be construed as accidents. The film’s narrative moves backwards and forwards in time in a nonlinear fashion and as well as Misako we are introduced to a young man, Ryosuke (Matsuzaka Tôri) driving his fiancée to the summer café he has opened in a tourist spot in the forest. Suddenly he accelerates and frightens his partner before slowing down again when he sees her distress. At the café he introduces her to his father Yosuke (Matsuyama Ken’ichi), but a little later she disappears in a mysterious way. Ryosuke is also shocked to discover that his father has terminal cancer. A little later when he visits his father he finds a diary in his father’s room and starts to read it. The first line of the diary includes the statement that “I have never had a problem with killing people” (I don’t remember the exact words). Unlike a shocked but intrigued Ryosuke, we have some inkling who might have written such a line and soon we are back with a now adult Misako (Yoshitaka Yuriko).

In one of the flashbacks Yosuke as a young man begins an odd relationship with Misako

I won’t spoil the narrative any further but I will say that the violence escalates such that one scene featured so much blood that I think someone in the row behind me fainted (and I, and the woman next to me, watched the scene through our fingers). Sheffield Showroom warned punters at the box office that there were violent scenes (because festival films aren’t certificated). This would be an 18 in the UK – but it is listed as PG-12 in Japan!

I noted in the opening credits that the film was distributed by one of the original ‘major studios’ in Japan, Nikkatsu in conjunction with another memorable studio brand Toei. Toei-Nikkatsu appear to have focused on releasing major genre pictures in the last few years. Yurigokoro was released in September 2017 in Japan, making an entry at No. 8 in the chart but only lasting two weeks before disappearing from the Top 20. I suspect that the film earned more from video and streaming services. This seems about right for an adventurous genre movie with an experienced cast and crew. I think director Kumazawa Naoto manages to hold together the different elements in this very complex film very well. He co-wrote the screenplay with the novel’s author. The cinematography by Imamura Keisuke also works well to distinguish the noirish world of Misako with the clean and airy world of Ryosuke. I guess both the make-up artists and Matsuyama Ken’ichi the actor deserve credit for ageing Yosuke so well from flashbacks to the present.

Despite the gruesome scenes this was a surprising and rewarding night out at the pictures and shows once again the diversity of films from Japan. I’m always grateful for a chance to see these films from the Japan Foundation.

Original Japanese trailer (no English subs):

Dad’s Lunch Box (Papa no Obento wa Sekai-Ichi, Japan 2017)

Midori and her Dad

The bento or lunchbox is at the centre of traditional Japanese food culture. The box filled with cold cooked food is something I remember from train trips in Japan way back in 1977, but it seems it is still there in school as the Japanese equivalent of the British ‘packed lunch’. This short (76 minutes) comedy melodrama focuses on a marriage break-up that leaves the salaryman father (Watanabe Toshimi) with the task of providing his daughter Midori (Takeda Rena) with a bento each day. He could send his daughter to the bread shop or use processed foods but he determines to do the job properly, perhaps to prove to himself and others that he can be a ‘proper’ parent.

Father (I don’t think he is named) is starting from scratch and his first efforts aren’t very good. Eventually he will get genuinely useful advice from a female colleague at work and he will improve. As his colleague points out, bento for teenage girls needs to be ‘cute’ and to look good. Midori eats her lunch with two friends who are quick to comment on what she is eating. There is only a slight narrative since much of the time is spent on a procedural study of Father’s attempts to shop, prepare and cook lunch for his daughter. The origin of the story is a tweet the ‘real life’ daughter posted at the end of her time at high school (i.e. from age 15 to 17), comparing photos of her father’s first and last attempts to make her daily bento. This went viral and attracted a film producer.

Midori at school. What’s in her bento today?

Though the narrative says nothing directly about the missing mother, who leaves in the pre-credit sequence, there is a story about the father which is carefully threaded through the main narrative. He confides in both a male and a female colleague at work and he becomes a regular customer of the woman who runs his local greengrocer. (In the current climate in the UK it is quite shocking that all the vegetables father buys are wrapped in plastic.) His bento preparation becomes his way of communicating with his daughter and he discovers that she responds to the messages he puts in with each meal. The main expressive element of the film is the music which unfortunately in the screening was ear-splittingly loud. Some of the more melancholic music was fine but much of it was pop music which at the volume played was unbearable and on one occasion we had a voiceover on top of the music. I think the excess of music possibly shows a lack of faith in the narrative. The film’s credits on IMDb suggest that apart from Takeda Rena as Midori, the rest of the cast and all the crew had little or no previous experience.

I was surprised to see that the film was released theatrically in Japan and Taiwan. I would have guessed that it would have been made for TV. Apart from the short length, the shooting style is mainly that of a TV soap with high-key lighting. The image itself also seemed to be rather ‘washed out’ (which meant that the food isn’t as visually striking as it might have been). Having said that, I enjoyed this gentle comedy with its feelgood narrative. As this helpful review comments, Midori doesn’t seem to suffer any kind of stigma at school because of her single parent family (whereas in the 1990s it still seemed to be the cause of social criticism). Food preparation and presentation is very important in Japan and there have been several notable films placing it at the centre of narratives (see, for example, the classic Tampopo (1985). Dad’s Lunchbox is an interesting new genre mix with food, family comedy-drama and high school. Thanks again, Japan Foundation.

Here’s a trailer with English subs (possibly made for Taiwan or Hong Kong distribution?)

GFF19 #14: Killing (Zan, Japan 2018)

Mokunoshin and Yu

This short feature (80 mins) sees the Japanese auteur of ‘cyberpunk cinema’, Tsukamoto Shin’ya, exploring what he can do with the chanbara or swordfight film. This follows on from his previous film, Fires on the Plain (2014), a remake of Ichikawa Kon’s classic anti-war film from 1959. There is certainly a possible connection between this new film and its predecessor.

The film opens with the forging of a katana, the classic samurai sword, shown in close-up. We then meet the central character, a young ronin or ‘masterless samurai’, Mokunoshin (Itematsu Sosuke). He appears to be working for a farmer in his rice paddy and in his free moments sparring with the farmer’s adolescent son, with both using wooden staffs rather than swords. They are being watched by the boy’s sister Yu (Aoi Yu) when a pair of older samurai enter the village, engaged in some kind of duel. The victorious samurai is Sawamura (played by the director himself). Tsukamoto often appears in his own films but although I recognised him it wasn’t until later that I realised that he played a secondary role in Martin Scorsese’s remake of The Silence (US-Mexico-Japan 2016).

In the first section of the film I found myself wondering when the film was meant to be set. As far as I could see there were no markers of the era and no dialogue exchanges that suggested when. Kurosawa Akira’s jidaigeki or ‘period films’ included some, like Seven Samurai (1954) set in the late 16th century or early 17th century, but most of the ‘samurai films’, as they are known in the West were far more conventional and formulaic and tended to be set in the latter days of the 250 year Tokugawa shogunate, the so-called Edo period. All the reviews of Killing from Venice and Toronto suggest that it is indeed an early 19th century setting. Presumably this info was in the Press Notes. The Glasgow programme suggests that Tsukamoto was ‘inspired by Kurosawa’. Hmm!

Sawamura (Tsukamoto Shin’ya) joins Mokunoshin

Sawamura tells Mokunoshin that he is on his way to Edo and that he is trying to recruit samurai to fight for the Shogun against rebels in Kyoto. He offers the young samurai the chance to join him and Mokunoshin agrees. The farmer’s son also wants to join and Sawamura agrees to take him as a reserve, convinced by watching the sparring between the two young men. The second ‘inciting incident’ is the arrival on the edge of the village of a group of bandits. This heavily-armed and gruesome-looking group are probably not samurai but rather ruffians with plenty of experience of fighting. Do we anticipate a battle with three against many? I won’t spoil the narrative as the film looks set for a UK release via Third Window Films, but what underpins the final section is a philosophical question posed by Sawamura and aimed at Mokunoshin. A samurai sword is intended for killing. Can a man really be a samurai if he has not used his sword to kill? Mokunoshin is a young man beset by several problems, questions of honour and gratitude towards the farmer’s family, the raging hormones of a young man living close to an attractive woman and strong feelings about how to fight.

The action in the last section of the film is shot in almost expressionistic style with flashing blades, hand-held photography and the action itself something of a blur. A set piece fight under a natural bridge on a muddy path is contrasted with a chase up a hillside in the long grass and bracken and beneath the trees (the vivid greens of the forest clearings and paddy fields define the background while the samurai are presented in more mute colours). The film screened at both Venice and Toronto last year. It seemed to please critics but some raised questions about whether it would please fans of the director or fans of the genre. It’s a low-budget film made quickly but with verve and a music soundtrack by Ishikawa Chu (his last film before he died). I enjoyed the film and it’s good that there can still be new takes on the chanbara. I think I still prefer Kurosawa and the other filmmakers of the 1950s and 1960s. Tsukamoto is reported as saying his inspiration was partly Ichikawa Kon’s 1973 film The Wanderers, a film I saw on its release in the UK back in 1973. Perhaps I’ll try to find it and watch it again.

Tremble All You Want (Katte ni furuetero, Japan 2017)

Yoshika finds herself in a lift between her two possible suitors, Ichi (Kitamura Takumi) in the foreground and ‘Ni’ or ‘No.2’ ( Watanabe Daichi)

This is a romantic comedy, but one unlike the Hollywood model. Perhaps it has more in common with something like My Sassy Girl (South Korea 2001) and other East Asian hits? The subtitles suggest that ‘Ms Eto’ (first name Yoshika) is an accounts clerk in a Tokyo office. From what I could see she is actually what would once have been called a ‘computer’- usually a female clerk who tallies bills, receipts etc. It’s not a great job, but you need to be quick and accurate. She’s in her mid twenties and, shock, horror, she’s still a virgin thinking about the ‘prince’ she idolised in high school who she calls ‘No. 1’ (his shortened name is Ichi, which could mean ‘1’). One day she finds herself invited to an after-work drinks party where she is propositioned by a fellow worker who she dubs ‘No. 2’. She decides it is time to act. She must find ‘1’ so she can compare the two possible suitors, otherwise she is lost.

Each day Yoshika travels to work along the same route and meets the same characters – her next door neighbour who plays an ocarina, the railway employee at the metro station, a waitress in a coffee shop who wears what appears to be a cosplay outfit, an office cleaner who knits on the bus, an older man fishing and a younger man at the pharmacy/soda shop. Later we will realise that she doesn’t really know these people, she has turned them into her fantasy friends because she is so lonely. Back in her tiny apartment she whiles away the time fascinated by extinct animals.

Ichi discovers Yoshika at a party, drawing him as a manga style prince.

The narrative provides us with flashbacks to our hero’s schooldays and we see ‘the prince’ how he was then and we’ll be able to compare his current characterisation as Yoshika engineers a situation in which he feels forced to appear. Meanwhile ‘No. 2’ strives manfully to impress. He’s a bit of a klutz but generally well-meaning. But what has Yoshika’s close friend at work told him? Young women in romantic comedies are supposed to have one close friend but Yoshika’s friend seems more like an office acquaintance. The film is adapted from a novel by Wataya Risa and the film is directed by Ohku Akiko, one of the women directing ‘popular’ films in Japan who hasn’t received the same amount of exposure as a festival favourite like Naomi Kawase.

Yoshika in the office with her colleague

This film’s biggest asset is Matsuoka Mayu as Yoshika. Ms Matsuoka has had exposure internationally for the last year as one of the members of the unusual family group in Kore-eda Hirokazu’s Shoplifters. I was very impressed with her performance in that film but it was a ‘supporting role’ and in this 2017 film she is the protagonist and at the centre of every scene. Still only 22 when she played Yoshika she manages to be a convincing 14 year-old in the flashbacks and both an attractive woman and a flummoxed office drone in her pursuit of a suitor (or perhaps just a boyfriend?).

In her Tokyo Film Festival review of the film, Deborah Young of The Hollywood Reporter repeats several international film industry truisms. After praising Matsuoka’s performance and suggesting that this helped get the film selected for the festival, she continues:

Aimed at Japanese females under 30, chick lit on screen generally occasions smiles, yawns and rolling eyes. In this upscale example, experienced genre veteran Akiko Ohku (Tokyo Serendipity, Tokyo Nameless Girl’s Story, Fantastic Girls) directs a comedy about a kooky young lady who can’t decide between a fantasy guy and a real, imperfect boyfriend. Well-made and amusing if overlong at two hours, it is an Asian flavor that should work well at home but would have a hard time getting a foothold beyond.

The truisms are that men and everyone over 30 will be bored and rolling eyes – and that comedies like this don’t travel. Ms Young is a well-regarded film journalist and she may be correct about how the film won’t appeal outside Japan. But I enjoyed learning something more about Japanese twenty-somethings and the film didn’t feel too long (actually it’s 117 minutes), partly because of sharp editing. There was a good audience for the film at the Showroom and the two young women on my row seemed to have a very good time with it. There were notes with the screening written by Jasper Short, the well-known scholar, critic and enthusiast for Japanese film. Jasper tells us that the film won the Audience Award at the Tokyo Film Festival and that this got it an ‘in’ to other specialist Asian film festivals in Europe and North America, so perhaps there is hope yet for the UK. As Jasper concludes: “We are ultimately left with a universally touching tale of a young woman inwardly struggling to overcome loneliness, a lowly self-image and the reality behind her dreams.” But as he also suggests: “. . . it goes about its business with such effervescence and fresh-faced honesty that one can’t help but succumb to its charms”.

The Japan Foundation Touring Film Programme, 2 February to 28 March 2019

The Japan Foundation tours a group of films each year in the UK. This year there are 18 films with some showings in each of 20 venues. Each venue (click on the image above to see your nearest venues) selects a handful of films from the 18 and since most of the venues are far apart and only show the title once it’s virtually impossible to see all the films. Instead it’s pot-luck which titles are available locally. Still, that’s part of the fun and you often get to see something you might not have chose otherwise- and enjoy it.  I hope to get to at least two venues this year after failing to make any last year and feeling that I missed out.

This year the loose theme is ‘People Still Call It Love: Passion, Affection and Destruction in Japanese Cinema’. Most of the films are productions from the last few years, several from 2018. Many are UK premieres. I don’t think any of them have been commercially distributed in the UK. The films include an anime and an archive print, this year it is Where Chimneys Are Seen from 1953. Going solely by title, I’m tempted by Her Love Boils Bathwater.

All films are subtitled. There is a programme brochure and notes for each film. You won’t normally get the chance to see films like this, so give it a go!

Here’s the trailer for Three Stories of Love, showing in nine venues.

Happy Hour (Happî awâ, Japan 2015)

happyhour01

When will it end?

I’ve been laid low with a virus for a week and that seemed to be a perfect time to watch a five hour-plus film. Streamed on MUBI, I watched it in two parts and can seriously recommend it if you have five hours to spare. Director, and co-writer, Hamaguchi Ryûsuke takes his time laying out the lives and . . . well, not ‘loves’ because the four thirty-something friends are all faced with stupid men.

Some reviews have compared it to television narrative which, despite watching it in two ‘episodes’, it resolutely is not. If it had been made as an episodic narrative for television the whole structure would have been changed as each episode would need to be internally coherent and finish with a cliffhanger of sorts. Without having five arbitrary endings Hamaguchi is free to let scenes run for as long as necessary; and some are very long: one, for example, a sort of New Age workshop about communication, lasts about an hour. It becomes clear that communication is a key theme, alongside friendship, of the film. Apparently the film was released in France in three parts over three weeks. ‘Vive la France’ for distributing it as there would be virtually no audience in the UK for such a long film.

Unsurprisingly the film is resolutely Japanese. The British are often ‘famed’ for their reserve but we cannot compete with the Japanese. Their ingrained politeness means voices are rarely raised even when anger is at melting point; I imagine the screen would explode in equivalent scenes in telenovelas. Although this doesn’t facilitate over-the-top melodrama, the measured discussion, because it allows frankness (there’s little danger of being belted when telling someone a ‘home truth’) the issues between people can be laid bare. For example, Akari (Tanaka Sachie), the boldest of the friends, states she can’t stand being lied to and this causes ruptures between the four. In Britain, such feelings are probably more likely to fester unsaid.

Apparently the film was developed in workshops in Kobe, and the improvisatory quality shows through giving many of the scenes a vital immediacy. Astonishingly it is the first film of all the principals; they are superb. Only occasionally did I feel a drop in quality; on a couple of occasions bright light from windows in the background makes the foreground murky. Mostly, however, the direction is exemplary.

There is plenty of humour in the film; an overbearing live-in mother-in-law suddenly changes sides and thumps her son who is cowardly delegating a sensitive task to his wife. It is only rarely boring; I found the book reading irksome (indeed some of the audience appeared to be asleep). Overall it was well worth the effort of sitting in front of a television for hours. Hamaguchi’s representation of characters (and therefore people) as being not being as simple as we assume is engaging even if most of the blokes in the film need a rocket up their arses; some of them are self aware enough to know this. The failure to communicate properly in what would be ‘middle years’ (if it lasted) of a relationship, the deadening caused by routine, is superbly portrayed. MUBI.

Shoplifters (Manbiki kazoku, Japan 2018)

Lily Franky as Shibata Osamu and Kairi Jyo as his young accomplice Shota

I watched Shoplifters on the day it opened in the UK over three weeks ago but was too busy to write about it. I worried that opportunities to see it might be limited but miracles do happen and it seems to be still going strong. I’ve been surprised to see mention of watching the film not just in film reviews but also in more general newspaper columns. It seems to have caught and held the attention of commentators who are not cinephiles and has become one of the few foreign language hits of the year. Obviously, I’m very pleased that one of global cinema’s most effective and affective directors is getting recognition – but it also begs the question of why many of his earlier films failed to make the breakthrough in the same way. Is it really down to winning the top Cannes prize? Is it the promotional clout of the still relatively new Canadian distributor Thunderbird Releasing (taking over Soda Pictures) or are there other reasons?

Kore-eda Hirokazu finally won the Palme d’Or with Shoplifters and in some ways it offers a summation of the group of his films that deals specifically with ‘families’ and young children. Starting with Nobody Knows (2004), the group would also include 2011’s I Wish and Like Father, Like Son (2013) and perhaps more marginally After the Storm (2016) and even Our Little Sister (2015). In his Sight and Sound review Trevor Johnson begins like this:

It’s a critical truism that Kore-eda Hirokazu’s domestic dramas have made him the modern heir to the likes of Ozu and Naruse. Those Japanese old masters, however, never cut and diced the nuclear family in the way Kore-eda has done so assiduously in the course of his expanding and increasingly valuable filmography.

Johnson’s review is a well-argued attempt to place the film in relation to Kore-eda’s previous work and also offers a sympathetic reading which doesn’t spoil too much of the story. And this is a film that works very effectively when the audience knows as little as possible in advance. I’m not going to spoil the pleasures of the storytelling but I will recommend the film if you’ve managed to avoid the commentaries so far. Instead I want to expand some of Johnson’s points and add my own questions about audience readings. Johnson points to the two Japanese directors who became celebrated for their contemporary-set films, defined in Japan as gendai-geki and particularly forms of melodrama, including what Western scholars have dubbed the shomin-geki – ‘realist films’ about the working-classes. The preferred Japanese term is actually shōshimin-eiga referring to ‘lower middle-class’ people and this distinction is important. Ozu Yasujiro and Naruse Mikio worked at more or less the same time over a period of 30 years from the 1930s to the 1960s, Ozu at Shochiku and Naruse at Toho (two of the three major Japanese studios between 1930 and the 1960s). They therefore worked through the very different periods in Japan of the growing militarism of the 1930s, the severe economic hardships of the Allied Occupation post-war and the recovery and growing affluence of the 1950s/early 1960s. They dealt (differently) with all kinds of family situations but perhaps mainly the lower middle-class. In the late 1940s in particular they did tend to deal with families that had suffered break-up in different ways. Ozu’s The Record of a Tenement Gentleman (1947) and A Hen in the Wind (1948) both feature families ‘broken’ or ‘constructed’ in different ways. Naruse’s films perhaps veer more towards adult relationships rather than families with children.

The family together

Kore-eda is working in a different Japanese context – in a society that has now lived with twenty years or more of ‘stagflation’ – economic stasis – but slow changes in family structures with rising divorce rates and an ageing population profile. This is evident in many of the families depicted in his films. Most of them are perhaps lower middle-class, though in Like Father, Like Son we get a narrative directly about two families from different social class positions. Some of these films seem more ‘Ozu-like’ and some more ‘Naruse-like’. But Shoplifters seems most like Nobody Knows in terms of its social setting. In this earlier film Kore-eda presents a story, based on a news report, about a woman who has four children with different fathers and who constantly moves accommodation. At the start of the film she moves her ‘family’ again and then abandons them, having placed the two older children in charge. This is the film that Shoplifters seem to refer back to, though I think the new film is not as immediately harrowing. It was only recently that I began to note Kore-eda’s comments about his interest in the films of Ken Loach and it looks as if Shoplifters is deliberately Loachian rather than related to Ozu or Naruse. Kore-eda says that this is his most ‘socially conscious’ film and that he felt angry making it. As is often the case, he starts from his own thoughts and feelings, often triggered by news stories.

The first thing that came to my mind was the tagline: “Only the crimes tied us together”. In Japan, crimes like pension frauds and parents making their children shoplift are criticised severely. Of course, these criminals should be criticised but I am wondering why people get so angry over such minor infractions even though there are many lawbreakers out there committing far more serious crimes without condemnation. Especially after the 2011 earthquakes, I didn’t feel comfortable with people saying repeatedly that a family bond is important. So I wanted to explore it by depicting a family linked by crime.

 . . . I started to think about which elements were unfolded and would be examined deeply after the casting was settled. As a result, this film is packed with the various elements I have been thinking about and exploring these last 10 years. (See the Press Notes.)

As this quote suggests, Kore-eda introduces us to different members of a family who live in a decaying traditional house in a Tokyo suburb. We are told nothing and must watch and listen carefully to understand how the family survives. Some of the activities involve jobs that are on the surface conventional, others less so and some are clearly criminal as the father figure played by Kore-eda regular Lily Franky and the boy in the family expertly shoplift from stores that seem remarkably insecure. Other activities are less straightforward to fathom at first. The family also ‘adopts’ the little girl that they find and who appears to have been abandoned on a cold night. Inside the ramshackle home there appears to be warmth and a real feeling of working together for the benefit of all in the family group.

Kiki Kilin is the grandmother figure here with Matsuoka Mayu as Aki

Shoplifters is beautifully made with fabulous performances by the great Kiki Kilin in her last film (she died earlier this year) and Lily Franky as Kore-eda regulars and by the rest of the principal cast, Ando Sakura as the mother figure, Matsuoka Mayu as the younger woman and Kairi Jyo and Sasaki Miyu as the children. As for the aesthetics of the film, Kore-eda again in the Press Notes:

Before the shoot, I was thinking of this film was kind of a fable and sought ways to find and build poetry within reality. Even if the film was realistic, I wanted to describe the poetry of human beings and both the cinematography and music came close to my vision.

Kore-eda chose the veteran musician Hosono Haroumi (one of the three founding members of Yellow Magic Orchestra in 1978) to compose the score and Kondô Ryûto as cinematographer. They clearly provided what he wanted. I loved the film and I can’t find fault with any aspect of it, but I do feel out of line with many of the reviews. The only thing I’d consciously absorbed about reactions to the film was that the final scenes presented a ‘twist’ on the narrative and that many audiences were emotionally overwhelmed by what they saw. Perhaps because I was waiting for the twist, I didn’t feel that it was really a twist at all – I’d been asking myself all along why social services hadn’t turned up or why nobody else in the neighbourhood had noticed the activities of the family. When the resolution came I found it sad and a little surprising in terms of what happened to the individuals in the family group, but not something overly dramatic. In an odd way, I found the situation vaguely familiar since similar settings and characters might be found in the J-horror films of the late 1900s and early 2000s (I’m particularly thinking of Ju-on (The Grudge 2002)). The one moment that struck me most was when the elderly shopkeeper, whose store was often the target for some petty pilfering, admonished Shota and pleaded with him not to teach his young companion the shoplifting tricks. Later, we see that the shop has closed.

Ando Sakura as Nobuyo with Yuri and Lily Franky as Osamu

But I’ve not answered my original question. Why has this film made more impact than earlier Kore-eda films, equally good in my estimation? Is it because this kind of almost social-realist melodrama is more familiar in the UK than some of the more subtle familial tensions in a film like Still Walking (2008)? Is the film read in some way as more ‘universal’ and less ‘Japanese’? The comparison then comes with Like Father, Like Son which is still apparently ‘meandering’ towards an American re-make (see this Slant Magazine interview for Kore-eda’s comments on this). Kore-eda tells us that many people around the world have told him that similar stories about these ‘invisible people’ could be found in many different countries. Perhaps because American films are so popular in Japan, Shoplifters and Like Father, Like Son, with their ‘universal’ and therefore ‘Hollywood relatable’ stories, have been Kore-eda’s biggest box office hits at home.

Kore-eda Hirokazu is a tremendously good filmmaker. I’m glad Shoplifters is so successful, but please dig out his back catalogue, much of which is available on DVD or digital download in the UK and US.

Like Father, Like Son (Soshite chichi ni naru, Japan 2013)

LikeFatherLikeSon1a-660x330

Happy families

If I’d thought about it at the time, the idea that the child I’d been bringing up for the past six years was not actually ‘mine’ would have been a ‘worst nightmare’. That’s the premise of Kore-eda’s quite brilliant Like Father, Like Son. Add to that the theme of alienation caused by corporate culture, and you have a film that’s not only intellectually fascinating but grips the viewer as the consequences unfold.

To add to the melodramatic mix, as the hospitals tell the parents it’s usual to swap the children, Kore-eda makes the other family in many ways the direct opposite of the one we meet first. Lily Frank’s apparently feckless, smalltime shopkeeper is in total contrast to Fukuyama Masaharu’s organisation man, Ryoto (which in Japan requires you give your soul, though this is tempered by a sympathetic boss later in the film). I found the narrative appalling in the sense I was appalled by Ryoto’s behaviour and found myself squirming as much as I would watching a brilliantly made thriller.

In common with all the films I’ve seen by Kore-eda, he casts a compassionate eye so that even Ryoto isn’t simply a villain. Unlike, say, in Hollywood cinema, the director doesn’t require a good-evil opposition and his melodramas are thus infused with a humanity rather than the need to take sides. However his films are indisputably melodrama, which is a genre not a term of abuse. In an otherwise sympathetic review, Glenn Kenny makes a common mistake:

Every now and then, Kore-eda will overplay his representations a little bit; there’s a scene in which Ono’s character contemplates an escape from the torment of potentially trading the son she loves for a child she doesn’t know, biology or not; this takes place on a train, and as her thoughts grow darker, the shadows of the station that the train is pulling into throw her and the child actor into literal darkness. It’s a well-orchestrated effect that hinges on obvious.

For me the scene was absolutely brilliant as the change in lighting externalised Ryoto’s wife (Ono Machiko) anguish which her position in patriarchal society made it very difficult for her to verbalise.

The actors are brilliant, especially the children who Kore-eda has no peers in directing. The child playing Ryoto’s son, Ninomiya Keita, seems have preternaturally black eyes, which give him an alien presence perfectly in keeping with his position in the family.

Japanese culture seems to be so buttoned up that it makes the British seem to be as extravert as a Latin stereotype. However, the undercurrent of emotions that Kore-eda reveals in his films are, of course, as deeply human as any nation. His films unearth the psychological damage such a repressed culture can cause. Our Little Sister, the first Kore-eda film I watched, differs from the others as it bathes the viewer in the warmth of a matriarchal family that has little conflict. Shoplifters, too, focuses on a loving family but in the wider context of poverty and uncaring officialdom.