Category: Japanese Cinema

Maborosi (Maboroshi no hikari, Japan 1995)

Yuichi and his new grandfather

This first fiction feature by Kore-eda Hirokazu is currently on re-release in selected UK cinemas following the great success of Shoplifters in 2018. The BFI ran a full retrospective of Kore-eda’s fiction output during April and May and there is a Blu-ray release planned for this title in a package with After Life, Nobody Knows and Still Walking due for release in July. HOME in Manchester is offering a mini-season of the first five Kore-eda films in the second half of June entitled ‘Of Flesh and Blood’. Maboroshi is playing at HOME on the 16th June.

Yumiko’s grief means that her mother needs to look after Yuichi. This low-angle static shot is carefully framed and composed to include the mirror reflection

Maboroshi no hikari, to give the full Japanese title, is an adaptation by Ogita Yoshihisa of a novella/short story by Miyamoto Teru. For his later films, Kore-eda has often chosen news events or has been stimulated by his own life experience. In this case, though the source for the narrative seems ‘external’, it also seems in line with Kore-eda’s interests. The title translates roughly as ‘phantom light’, ‘shimmering light’ or perhaps ‘a trick of the light’ and it refers directly to the details of an anecdote told at the end of the film. We first meet Yumiko as a girl living with her parents and younger brother in a dismal building in Osaka. She is helpless to prevent her aged grandmother leaving the house and never being seen again – she has told the young girl that she is returning to Shikoku to die. Yumiko sleeps badly after this and her childhood friend Ikuo seems to offer her only distraction. When we meet Yumiko a few years later she is played by Esumi Makiko as a tall and graceful mother of a little boy (Yuichi), still living in Osaka and now married to Ikuo (now played by Asano Tadanobu before he became very well-known in Japanese films). Yumiko still dreams about her grandmother’s disappearance. The couple seem happy together but one night Ikuo is killed while walking home along the railway track. Yumiko is devastated and puzzled. Why do people think it was suicide? (This isn’t a spoiler – the only information on the BBFC certificate shown before the titles simply states ‘suicide theme’.) Eventually, a good neighbour acts as a traditional matchmaker and introduces Yumiko to a widower with a daughter a few years older than Yuichi and mother and son travel across Central Japan to a small fishing village on the West Coast near Wajima. How will this second marriage work out? Will Yumiko emerge from her long period of mourning?

A long shot of the coastal village as Yuichi and his step-sister go exploring

I will avoid too many spoilers from this point on. I want to comment mainly on the visual style of this first fiction feature (after the director’s work in television documentary) and also on the ways in which it presents ideas to which Kore-eda may return in later films. Unsurprisingly perhaps, there is more of a sense of the documentarist’s ‘observing’ eye in Maborosi, both in the street scenes, but also in the use of long shots and long takes. Towards the end of the film the long shots are expanded even further so we get to see a small ‘action’ within a long shot of the entire coastal village (from the heights above the settlement). Against these expansive shots, Kore-eda offers us interiors which all seem underlit and in which events often seem to play out very slowly indeed.

An Ozu ‘pillow shot’?

An example of a static shot of an empty room – possibly symbolic of loss?

Since he began making fiction films, Kore-eda has been subject to various suggestions by Western critics and scholars about his influences and particularly the possibility that he has been strongly influenced by Ozu Yasujiro. Kore-eda has responded by agreeing that he has studied Ozu but that he still isn’t sure what he makes of the films. Naruse Mikio has been the one of the 1950s ‘masters’ who Kore-eda himself has acknowledged. Kore-eda has also stated quite clearly that Hou Hsiao-hsien (an Ozu fan) and Ken Loach (as a filmmaker concerned with ‘social issues’) are two of his main influences. The social issue in Maborisi is the long-term impact of bereavement on the widow and her son. Yumiko cannot get past her memories of her grandmother and of Ikuo and this prevents her from helping Yuichi in his attempts to feel part of his new family. Fortunately he now has a step-sister a few years older and his new father seems a patient and loving man. He also has a new grandfather. The next door neighbour, a fisherman, is helpful too and in the village there is Tomeno, an older woman who still goes out to sea to catch crabs for her market stall. She is an important figure for Yumiko’s new family, but does she remind Yumiko of her grandmother? She is perhaps the first of the older women who populate some of Kore-eda’s later films.

In one sense the narrative seems to split in two with the interior world of Yumiko and the external world of the village in which Yuichi and his step-sister can play quite safely, protected by the other villagers. While Yumiko’s narrative is very dark, Yuichi’s looks forward to similar scenes by the sea in Our Little Sister (2015). Esumi Makiko as Yumiko made her first film appearance in Maborosi at 28. She had been a volleyball player and a model. She appears mainly in sombre clothes throughout the film with long, narrow skirts and long tops. She doesn’t say a great deal and mostly she wears her hair down. In the final sequence, Kore-eda seems to be playing with ideas about the traditional Japanese female ghost figure (though the figure of Sadako in Ringu was still a few years away from making such figures very familiar in the West). Watch out for Yumiko sitting in a bus shelter – you’ll need to look carefully!

Yumiko’s point of view as her grandmother leaves . . .

. . . and her last sighting of Ikuo

But the same shot here shows a happy Yuichi and his step-sister exploring the village

I can’t get too far away from the Ozu comments, especially since there are some shots in the film that remind us of Ozu’s ‘pillow shots’, especially those which are ’empty’ of human figures. But there are also static shots that tend to have a more symbolic or metaphorical function. For instance, there is a repeated static long shot of a figure walking away from the camera, either through a tunnel or under a bridge or arch. The figures are mainly silhouettes, moving from the dark into the light. There is an obvious connotation of a ‘portal’ to another world, but the third such shot shows Yuichi and his step-sister enjoying exploring the world of his new home village. Nakabori Masao is a cinematographer who seems to have worked over several years with the same director, Jissôji Akio, on a series of genre pictures before Maborosi. I haven’t seen any of these films but they don’t immediately suggest why he might be chosen by Kore-eda. I’m assuming that the director expressed his requirements very carefully and the results are astonishing. I’ve already hinted at the tone of the horror/ghost story film and there is a general sense of mystery surrounding the dominant feeling of loss, but also the strengths of family. Chen Ming-chang, who I assume to be a Taiwanese film music composer, is responsible for the film’s haunting score (apologies for the inevitable pun). He had previously composed scores for two Hou Hsiao-hsien films. Again, the score is unusual and seems to have generated a great deal of interest as a soundtrack album.

I think I’ve spent more time going over scenes from this film than any other I’ve seen for some time. I have the original UK DVD which in the early 2000s, before my immersion in Kore-eda’s later work, I found difficult to watch. Having now seen it on a cinema screen and researched the film’s background and reception I’ve come to the conclusion that this was an astounding fiction feature début. It’s now plain that Kore-eda’s interest in ‘family’ stories is introduced here, but there is also a focus on memory which will feature in the next two films (a documentary, Without Memory (1996) and After Life in 1999). I now realise too that the documentary August Without Him (1994) about the first Japanese man to announce he had AIDS was an important experience for Kore-eda, pushing him towards fiction as a form to allow him to explore his interest in humanist narratives. Kore-eda’s narrative control in Maborosi and the way in which sound and image are used is extraordinary. Although he didn’t write the script, Kore-eda appears to have embraced it as his own. His original aim was to become a writer before he switched his interest to visual arts. After this film he became both the scriptwriter and the editor of all of his films.

Maborosi is essential viewing as Kore-eda’s first fiction feature and as a standalone film narrative that demonstrates the director’s commitment to his work. In one of the most perceptive contemporary reviews, Mark Sinker in Sight and Sound, July 1996 suggests that Kore-eda presents a film with all the trappings of a severe art film – the long static shots, the use of only natural light, the very careful framings etc. – but sometimes shifts to the delights of the details of daily life for the family and the occasional glimpses of the comic possibilities of the presentation. In the later films, it seems to me that the visual signifiers become less pronounced and our empathy with the characters begins to develop more through the writing and the performances. With each film, it seems that Kore-eda hones his skills as one of modern cinema’s finest humanist directors.

The BFI’s new trailer for the film:

An Autumn Afternoon (Sanma no aji, Japan 1962)

The school reunion dinner with Chisu Ryu (extreme right). The character third from left is the old schoolteacher, now down on his luck.

The school reunion dinner with Ryu Chisu (extreme right). The character third from left is the old schoolteacher, now down on his luck.

(This post is based on my notes for an introduction to a ‘classic matinee’ screening of the restored print at Cornerhouse, Manchester in Summer 2014.)

An Autumn Afternoon was the last film to be completed by the Japanese master Ozu Yasujiro who died on his 60th birthday in December 1963. Not well-known in the West at that point he was revered in Japan and elsewhere in East Asia as the consummate director of films known as ‘home dramas’ or ‘tales of ordinary people’ (shomingeki). Since his death, Ozu’s reputation has gradually grown in the West, particularly in the US. Today it arguably surpasses that of Mizoguchi Kenji and Kurosawa Akira, the two directors whose international prizes in the 1950s introduced classical Japanese cinema to European and North American audiences.

Anyone who has seen several films by Ozu will be aware of the claims made about the director’s style and the assumptions made about what an ‘Ozu film’ is like. Given that Ozu made his first films in his mid 20s (i.e. in the 1920s) and that some of them have been lost and others from the 1930s and 1940s have been difficult to see outside Japan, it isn’t surprising that our assumptions about the films are based on what is sometimes called Ozu’s ‘late period’ from 1949-1962. This period begins with Late Spring in 1949, one of the most celebrated of his films and one which perhaps ‘informs’ An Autumn Afternoon. The period also includes the most well-known of all Ozu’s films in the West, Tokyo Story (1953), voted No 1 film by international film directors in Sight and Sound’s 2012 poll.

Visual style

If we focus simply on the post 1949 films, Ozu did appear to develop a very distinctive visual style. His aim seemed to be to strip away any expressionist flourishes associated with camera movement or framing. His camera (under the control of cinematographer Atsuta Yûharu) is usually stationary and fixed at a low height which means it nearly always looks up at characters and their actions. The camera also looks down corridors, through doorways and straight ahead in rooms – and occasionally obliquely like an observer. Each image is carefully composed within the frame with close attention to geometrical shapes and the positioning of simple objects. When characters speak, they are often given the whole frame in what would conventionally be a medium shot, but since they are often sitting or kneeling it becomes a long shot (i.e. we see the whole body). Ozu sometimes seems to dismiss the so called ‘rules’ of continuity editing found in Hollywood classical cinema. But in An Autumn Afternoon he actually uses the full range of conventional shots – it’s just that the unusual shots stand out.

An iconic interior shot with the golf clubs as part of the rectangular grid?

The human figure, to camera in mid shot . . . dressed in red

One of Ozu’s framings and compositions has been described as the ‘pillow shot’, a distinctive ‘cutaway’ that occurs between scenes  (and sometimes during scenes) and often shows a (deserted) street scene, a landscape or sometimes an empty corridor, a line of washing, a shop sign etc. What do these shots ‘mean’? There are many suggestions – just Google “Ozu pillow shots” and you will find discussions and examples. One thing we can be sure of. Each individual pillow shot is beautifully composed and no one is likely to begrudge Ozu the few seconds these images occupy the screen. Sometimes they just seem to allow us to ‘rest’ and contemplate what happens in the story – but sometimes they also seem to carry specific meanings and somehow they always seem to intensify the emotional quality of the narrative. In the later films Ozu’s compositions benefitted from better filmstock and then, from 1958, colour. All of the framings and compositions (i.e. the position of objects within the frame) are governed by Ozu’s use of the traditional ‘Academy’ screen shape (1.33: 1). Ozu stuck to this shape (like Satyajit Ray in India in the same period) despite a general move to the wider screen shapes of CinemaScope etc. in the West. Widescreen began to become common in Japan in the late 1950s, but Ozu’s meticulous compositions retained their own shape.

A pillow shot with square and rectangular shapes . . . less red, but still there

The bar scenes are included in the same style as the home but with a different emphasis on colours and music

The use of colour also allowed Ozu to supplement his focus on rectangular patterns with a similar focus on specific colours. There are many examples of bright red objects and blocks of colour in this film. The vivid colours and the use of music, the jaunty strings in particular, give these later Ozu films a real sense of texture and a richness in the representation of ‘ordinary lives’.

Family drama

The stories of Ozu’s late period films are often very similar. They use a ‘stock company’ of actors from Shochiku, the major studio for whom Ozu worked for most of his career, playing similar roles in different films. The most familiar of these actors is Ryu Chisu who often plays the head of a family. The families in the stories sometimes have the same name but they are all slightly different – genre is often about ‘repetition and difference’. Over the 13 years from 1949 to 1962, Japanese society was transformed, moving from the misery and austerity of Occupation through rapid economic growth to the beginnings of ‘consumerism’. Part of that transformation involved changes in opportunities for young women in particular. These changes in society enable Ozu and his regular scriptwriter Noda Kogo to subtly alter the family dynamic from one film to another. An Autumn Afternoon has one narrative thread about the money problems of the oldest son in the family as he and his wife juggle their desires to buy essential household goods (a vacuum cleaner and TV set) or personal items (a leather handbag or a set of golf clubs). 

Social class is presented in a nuanced way. Social class descriptions are perhaps slightly different in Japan compared to the UK but they are just as important. In Ozu’s first films after 1945 his characters are sometimes struggling under the Occupation conditions but by the late 1940s the family groups have become quite ‘ordered’. Patriarchal families are headed by doctors or university teachers. These are not wealthy men as such but in the later 1950s films the central male characters have often become businessmen of various kinds. Mothers generally stay at home but gradually the younger women gain independence through employment in offices. While some of these characterisations might seem to be linked to the sociology of the modern Japanese family, Ozu and Noda also deal in nostalgia. Families often seem to have young boys, often cheeky and mischievous (e.g. in Early Summer (1951) and Ohayo! (1959) – harking back to some of Ozu’s earlier comedies. In the same way, the later films feature middle-aged men remembering their student days – and sometimes drinking too much in Tokyo’s little bars.

Ozu’s families don’t have ostentatious wealth but they are ‘comfortable’. In some ways the families might be compared to the ‘solid’ middle-class families of classical Hollywood in the 1950s. In An Autumn Afternoon, Mr Hirayama (Ryu Chisu) is an office manager of some kind and his oldest son has become a ‘salaryman’ – the new breed of office worker. But when Hirayama goes to meet his old schoolteacher he discovers that he now runs a noodle bar in a poor district – and this makes Hirayama uncomfortable. The tension involved in meeting people whose status has changed is palpable in these scenes. It’s also worth noting that the old schoolteacher enjoys eating a fish dish he hasn’t encountered before. Fresh fish has always been an important part of the Japanese diet and the Japanese title of the film, Sanma no aji, translates as ‘the taste of sanma‘, a type of mackerel particularly enjoyed in late Summer – suggesting a different tone to the film than the English language title.

Despite the economic changes, there is still an expectation that a father will help to find his daughter a suitable husband. In fact the story here is quite similar to that of Last Spring in 1949. Ryu Chisu as Hirayama faces some of the same questions about his daughter’s marriage as his 1949 character. But there is a change in that the representation of memories of the wartime period here are prompted by the ‘Warship March’ played in Tory’s bar (music and songs are important in Ozu’s films). There is a nostalgia here (partly for Ozu’s early films) but also an acceptance of recent Japanese history. Hirayama also comments on the relationship between Japan and America. Although Ozu’s style is seen as very different to the Hollywood films of the 1950s and 1960s, Ozu was in fact a big admirer of classical Hollywood. Ozu never really travelled outside Japan. He lived with his mother for most of his life and in his later years indulged his fondness for alcohol like his characters in the later films. The schoolboy humour of his own youth appeared in his early films and there are elements that re-emerge here in Hirayama’s meetings with his old school friends.

An Autumn Afternoon is a joy to watch, partly because everything functions so smoothly and the combination of camera, production design, performance and sound/music appears to be achieved effortlessly. There is humour in the film and an awareness of a changing society outside this controlled world, but also some sadness in the closing scenes.

(An Autumn Afternoon comes in a bfi Blu-ray dual format edition which includes Ozu’s 1948 film A Hen in the Wind (strongly recommended) and a print booklet with essays by Jonathan Rosenbaum and Hirano Kyoko

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?)