(These notes were written for an Evening Class titled ‘All in the Family’ and covering ‘family dramas’ of different kinds, held at the National Media Museum in 2013)
Like Father, Like Son won the Jury Prize at the Cannes Film Festival and on its release in Japan became an instant hit with Japanese audiences, opening at No 1 and earning over $24 million in its first 17 days. This popularity at the Japanese box office surprised Western critics and the film, as well as being a genuine ‘family drama’, now stands as a case study in the difference between the responses of Western arthouse critics and Japanese popular audiences.
The Japanese family drama
The history of Japanese cinema reveals a studio system that was in many ways, especially in the 1930s and 1950s, as extensive and as efficient in meeting audience needs as that of Hollywood. Japan’s three main studios, Shochiku, Nikkatsu and Toho produced action films, comedies and social dramas and amongst these were films about families. In the West we tend to have seen only the ‘quality’ family films from the post-war period such as those of Ozu and the rather different family scenarios found in some of Kurosawa’s contemporary-set films.
Although there have been two-way ‘exchanges’ of films between Japan and the US in the sense of ‘remakes’ or ‘versions’ of films from one country in the other since at least the 1950s, there are definitely ‘differences’ for audiences in the West when watching Japanese family dramas. These are possibly enhanced by the approach taken by Kore-eda Hirokazu.
Kore-eda entered filmmaking as a documentary director and you may not find this surprising because of the way he effortlessly seems to observe his characters in everyday locations. When he moved into fiction films, he became more like a ‘festival film director’, admired and celebrated for his carefully organised dramas, often about children and families. Some of these films have featured quite ‘extreme’ settings. In Nobody Knows (2004), based on a news story, four young children, each with a different father, are abandoned by their single-parent mother. They attempt to stay together in a form of ‘secret life’, not attending school and staying hidden most of the time. Kore-eda tends to take quite a cool detached perspective on these events, choosing not to exploit the emotional possibilities of the narrative. This may, of course, enhance the emotional resonances for audiences – or it may leave them dissatisfied.
Kore-eda’s films before Like Father, Like Son have appealed mainly to the festival circuit and the international art cinema market. Earlier this year his film I Wish (2011), about two young brothers separated when their parents split up, was warmly received here at the National Media Museum. One comment was that the film was “gossamer light” in its handling of family relationships. Will we respond in the same way to a similarly complex family drama? I Wish revealed to us that Japanese laws about divorce, separation and custody are different to those in the West. The same is true about adoption and the care of children generally. Like Father, Like Son does to some extent explain the background to a story in which babies in a maternity ward end up with the wrong mothers – a mistake which is not discovered until six years later. Certain issues about how this is resolved are important and you may wish to reflect on how they are represented in the film.
The two families in the film come from different class positions as signified by the father’s occupations – an architect and a local shopkeeper. This class difference is emphasised in many ways. In both families, however, the wife and mother seems to have less status in what is still a more patriarchal society. Japan ranks close to the bottom of indicators for gender equality across the more advanced economies. The middle-class family of the architect (and son of a businessman) is quite austere and emotionally cold, although the mother’s mother tries to inject some warmth. The other family is more anarchic. The father minds the shop and ‘fixes’ electrical gadgets. He is clearly an engaging dad – but also quite materialist in his attempt to always get the best deal. His wife is the most hard-worked and possibly the most loving. Kore-eda is careful to make each character ’rounded’ with good and bad points. This is a subtle and probing film narrative.
The other tension in Japanese society has often been quoted as being between ‘tradition’ and ‘modernity’. Ironically, in the film’s narrative, the seemingly most ‘modern’ character behaves in perhaps the most traditional manner re the ‘proper’ upbringing of children. It is one of the older characters who observes that questions about parentage, adoption, ‘blood relatives’ etc. were all put aside during the early post-war years under US Occupation because so many children had lost parents. But since then the trend to smaller nuclear families has increased the importance of ‘blood ties’.
Kore-eda himself in a newspaper interview for Asahi Shimbun explains that the idea for the film came from his own experience with his (then) 3 year-old daughter. He realised that because of his long trips away as a filmmaker his daughter was responding to him as a ‘nice visitor’ rather than her biological father. When he did some research he discovered that ‘mistakes’ in the maternity ward happened quite often in the 1960s and 1970s and that when they discovered this, parents invariably chose to ‘swap’ the children back on the grounds that blood was most important. During this research, he also became disturbed by the Japanese government’s plans to define a ‘family’ in law. Kore-eda argues that “A family is not something that any one person or group can define as being “this.”
What is also clear from the interview is that what actually motivated Kore-eda was thinking about his relationship with his own father. This perhaps explains why he chose ‘fathers and sons’ rather than daughters. The film narrative therefore really focuses on the middle-class father who has the means to make the most important choices which will affect everyone else. (The father is played by Fukuyama Masaharu, one of the many East Asian music stars who have graduated to film roles.)
Critical and popular response
As several reviewers have pointed out, Like Father, Like Son has a plot that could drive countless daytime soaps or 19th century novels and the TV serials or Hollywood melodramas based on them. Kore-eda’s ‘restraint’ in the way he handles the story has been seen by some as making the drama ‘light’ and the film far too long. Japanese popular audiences clearly disagree. This leads us to discuss Western (specialised cinema) and Japanese audiences and the differences between them. I recently undertook a very limited research exercise in which I looked at four films that featured in the Japanese box office chart for ‘domestic’ productions in 2010 and which subsequently were distributed in the UK in 2011. Two of the four films were moderate ‘hits’ in the UK – the adaptation of Murakami Haruki’s novel Norwegian Wood and the samurai film 13 Assassins from Takashi Miike. The other two films only received a handful of cinema screenings. One was an adaptation of a crime fiction novel with the English title Villain and the other was a stylish horror film set in a secondary school, Confessions. These films made very little money in the UK yet in Japan they were the two most praised films of the year, winning all the major awards – and in addition they were much more successful at the Japanese box office than the other two titles.
There are various factors about distribution that help to explain what happened in the UK to all four titles but even so, my conclusion is that audiences in the West have very fixed ideas about what a Japanese film is like and the more like ‘real life’ in Japan the film is, the less chance it has in the UK. Much of this is explained by the twin attraction of ‘extreme films’ on the one hand (e.g. from Takashi Miike) and the ‘exotic’ Orientalist attraction of certain kinds of Japanese literature and art. (This four film case study is discussed in Chapter 5 of The Global Film Book.)
I am intrigued to discover what we all think of Like Father, Like Son. Will we find it to be a sensitive look at another culture’s social issues, a weak version of a US TV movie or something else again? In terms of the Hollywood connection, I should tell you that Steven Spielberg was President of the Cannes Jury in May and that the company he founded, Dreamworks, has already bought the remake rights. Kore-eda appears to be directly involved in initial discussions for an American version.
[Most of the class liked the film a great deal. I liked it too, but I felt that it wasn’t as strong as some of his earlier titles – and indeed the previous film, I Wish. So now I am intrigued as to why it was so popular in Japan. Was it because it is about an important social issue as Kore-eda suggests or is it because the local distributor had more confidence in its appeal to audiences and promoted it more effectively? Please comment if you know about the Japanese release.]
Kore-eda interview (in English):
In the third week of this course we discussed Cherchez Hortense and then traced links through to other French comedies. We made various links, the most important of which was via the star of Cherchez Hortense, Jean-Pierre Bacri.
We looked in some detail at Jean-Pierre Bacri’s work with his wife Agnès Jaoui via an extract from Comme une image (Look At Me 2004). The extract featured a succession of shortish scenes, at the centre of which was a family lunch at the country house of the publisher played by Bacri. This character is very different from the Bacri character in Cherchez Hortense. He’s waspish and cruel, always putting people down. But he is also generous in providing contacts and support, even if he doesn’t know how to help in a gracious way (and he is himself vulnerable). In fact most of the characters in the film are ‘flawed’ with various weaknesses and each is capable of forms of betrayal, hypocrisy etc. Yet Bacri and Jaoui manage to construct their narrative so that it performs a coherent social satire on families and relationships that is both socially accurate and very entertaining. There are few laugh out loud moments but this is a true comedy in the sense that there is a resolution which is happy for at least one couple.
We then traced Bacri’s career back to the 1990s noting how prolific he has been. We looked at two trailers. The first was for the film adaptation, by Cédric Klapisch, of the successful stage comedy that Bacri and Jaoui wrote in the early 1990s. The film of Un air de famille from 1996 provides another example of a ‘family dinner’ that goes wrong. This is more clearly a comedy, though still with a dark satirical edge. We noted the similarity to certain British theatrical comedies (and the play has recently been performed in London). Bacri and Jaoui have also worked with the director Alain Resnais on a musical comedy tribute to Denis Potter, Same Old Song (On connaît la chanson, 1997) – Resnais has also adapted Alan Ayckbourn (as Smoking/No Smoking in 1993). Finally on Bacri we looked at a trailer for Didier (1997), a very broad comedy including slapstick that demonstrates the range of Bacri’s roles.
In the latter part of the session we looked at the recent work of François Ozon on Potiche (2010), also an adaptation, this time from a ‘boulevard comedy’. ‘Potiche’ in its slang usage means a ‘trophy wife’ – in the unlikely shape of Catherine Deneuve, wife of a factory owner who takes over its operation when her husband is ill. ‘Excessive’ in its use of colour and design (the story is set in the 1970s) the film draws on elements of farce as well as serious social issues about gender equality. We just had time to squeeze in the trailer for the more recent Ozon comedy Dans la maison (2012) – a much darker (but also very witty) comedy starring Fabrice Luchini from Potiche and Kristin Scott Thomas.
Week 3’s notes to download: FamilyWeek3
In the first week of this Evening Class course we started with the first 90 seconds of The Searchers, featuring the melodrama tableaux of the family as John Wayne’s Ethan Edwards rides towards his brother’s homestead. I was surprised that quite a few of the students were unaware of The Searchers – or of its influence on later films. This extract and discussion helped us to think about the family as a symbol in that most American genre, the Western. Thinking about a classic Western in this way offers a completely different ‘way in’ to a familiar genre. The French title of The Searchers – The Prisoner of the Desert seems very appropriate when we consider that Ethan is a man whose bitterness means that he can’t enter the family home/the ‘community’ which represents the ‘civilising’ force in the West, but must instead roam the desert. There are so many connotations of the struggle over values in 1950s America here!
We then looked at three examples of different kinds of family films as a preparation for the full screenings on the course over the next few weeks. Pour elle is a French thriller in which a woman is imprisoned after a conviction for murder. Her husband, believing she is innocent, attempts to organise her escape so that the couple and their small son can be a family again, somewhere overseas. Khosla Ga Khosla is an Indian family comedy, one of the ‘new Bollywood’ films. A civil servant plans his retirement which will involve building a dream home just outside Delhi but the land he has bought is occupied by a local gangster – will the family rally round and find a way to oust the gangster? Finally we looked at Still Walking, the highly personal film by Kore-eda Hirokazu about the 24 hours of a family reunion. In each case we looked at just the opening 6 or 7 minutes in which the main narrative of the film is introduced. I hope that students will want to watch the remainder of three enjoyable and interesting films.
Week 1 notes (pdf) are downloadable here: FamilyWeek1
I introduced the Week 2 screening with the suggestion that the UK poster for Cherchez Hortense was grossly misleading, suggesting a romcom starring Kristin Scott Thomas. The French poster gives a much more accurate representation of what is actually in the film. Here is the UK poster:
I also introduced Pascal Bonitzer with some background on his earlier scriptwriting career and talked a little about Jean-Pierre Bacri, the lead in the film, and his partnership with Agnès Jaoui in other French comedies, some using a similar milieu.
The full notes for the Week 2 screening of Cherchez Hortense are here: FamilyWeek2
All the material relating to this course is now tagged ‘All in the Family’
I’m looking again at some French ‘comedy’ films as part of work on Cherchez Hortense. In Comme une image, the partnership of Agnès Jaoui and Jean-Pierre Bacri offers the same milieu as Cherchez Hortense with Bacri himself as a very different leading character.
Comme une image refers to Lolita, a self-conscious young woman, who is attempting to become a (classical singer). She feels herself to be overweight and unattractive and suffers low esteem because her father Étienne (Bacri), a successful publisher and writer, doesn’t give her much encouragement. (The title could also refer, in a different way, to the father who has a very high opinion of himself – and somehow persuades several others to look ‘up’ to him.) Lolita’s singing teacher Sylvia (Jaoui) is more understanding and through her partner Pierre, also a writer, she meets the publisher. Lolita has a boyfriend who turns out to be interested in her only as a means of getting an introduction to her father. Meanwhile she accidentally meets Sébastien, a young North African-French trainee journalist who she in turn treats badly, though he seems to genuinely care for her. Finally, Karine is Etienne’s new, young and pretty wife, with whom he has a small daughter, step-sister to Lolita. Karine also struggles to maintain her esteem in the face of Etienne’s sarcasm and cruel wit.
‘Comme une image’ is also the title of the novel written by Pierre who becomes drawn into Etienne’s circle. The narrative actually follows the creative projects of Lolita (to sing in a group performance), Pierre (to promote his current title and to start the next) and Etienne (to get over his writer’s block). The strains between the characters culminate in the singing concert at a country church and an after-show party hosted by Eitienne in his nearby country house. The brilliance of the film, directed by Jaoui and co-written by her and Bacri, is in its humanist/realist approach to dialogue and settings. Its conventional staging directs our attention to the swift interchange of lines that seem believable rather than scripted for effect. Bacri is extremely effective as Eitienne who sometimes seems genuinely surprised that others find him cold, cruel, unfeeling etc. and indeed he often speaks and acts in ways that most of us would probably want to emulate at certain times, but are too polite to actually carry through. But if Etienne is at times insufferable, even the most sympathetic character, Sylvia, is capable of anger towards someone else – hurting their feelings (even though she is arguably justified in venting her anger). Most of the characters are simply too weak to risk Etienne’s displeasure – feeling that his patronage will benefit them.
I’ve seen Woody Allen mentioned as a reference point for the Jaoui/Bacri films and I can see some resemblances but overall I find the differences more striking. Comme une image is intelligent and serious, yet somehow also light and entertaining. It never strikes me (as Allen’s films sometimes do) as ‘smart’, ‘knowing’ etc. with the expectation of a possible gag or self-conscious aside. (But this may be because I’ve given up on Woody Allen films for many years now.) When I first saw this film on its cinema release I don’t think I was aware of Jaoui’s background which is in part Tunisian-Jewish (the North African Jewish connection is also evident in the backgrounds of Claude Lelouch and Joann Sfar). I don’t recognise any connection to the New York Jewish humour of Woody Allen (I’m sure somebody can correct me on that) but in Comme une image, there is a nicely judged pair of scenes in which Sebastién’s North African heritage is commented on and sensitively ‘dealt with’ as an issue.
Comme une image is a ‘comedy’ because it has a happy ending for two of the main characters. Some of the dialogue is witty but mainly the humour comes from the human frailties displayed by all the characters. I’ve seen the film described as social satire, but I think that usually satire is sharper and more exaggerated. This has an effective satire effect but it is more subtle. I think that the film is a triumph for Agnès Jaoui and Jean-Pierre Bacri. He is a very good actor and writer but she manages to sing and to direct as well. Formidable!
Here’s an American trailer (note that the film was a Cannes Prizewinner for the Script):