La vérité seems to have received a relatively cool reception by international critics and those few audience members who have managed to see it in the UK and the US where it has only been released online because of Covid-19. A general reaction is that it is witty with great performances but doesn’t have ‘depth’ and is perhaps a disappointment after the international success of Shoplifters (Japan 2018). I don’t agree with this. I did find the film a little difficult to get into but I think that was partly to do with watching it on my TV set on a Summer’s evening rather than in a darkened cinema. Once I was past the first 20 minutes or so I became engrossed and now I want to watch it again. Fortunately it is now on MUBI.
For those who aren’t Kore-eda Hirokazu fans, I should point out that this is an interesting hybrid – a film by the current international arthouse champ from Japan, made in France with two of the most important French actors, Catherine Deneuve and Juliette Binoche. And, just to make it extra tricky, there are several scenes in English with the presence of Ethan Hawke (who probably speaks reasonable French given his films with Julie Delpy and Kristin Scott-Thomas). This is Kore-eda’s first production outside Japan and he follows two other Asian directors in making a film in Paris. One of Kore-eda’s inspirations, the Taiwanese director Hou Hsiao-hsien, made Le voyage de ballon rouge (France-Taiwan 2007) (also with Juliette Binoche) and Iranian Asghar Farhadi made The Past (France-Italy 2013) with Bérénice Bejo. In both cases, the directors introduced characters from their own national cinema contexts into a French setting. Kore-eda is much more subtle in his references to ‘Japaneseness’ I think.
This film is an interesting mix of family melodrama (Kore-eda’s own strength), comedy and a film about acting and filmmaking (i.e. dealing with ‘truth’). Catherine Deneuve plays Fabienne Dangeville, a veteran diva of French cinema who has just published an autobiography and when we first meet her she is giving an interview in her Paris home to a journalist. This is interrupted by the arrival of her daughter Lumir (Juliette Binoche), a scriptwriter living in New York, with her husband Hank ( Ethan Hawke) and their daughter Charlotte (Clémentine Grenier). It soon becomes apparent that Fabienne’s book is titled, ironically, ‘The Truth’ but is clearly fabricated in many ways, including important omissions of friends, relatives and co-workers. Fabienne is also working on a new film, a science fiction story which forms a mise en abîme – a story within a story which reflects back on the overall narrative of the film. Fabienne plays a woman approaching 80 who bizarrely becomes the aged daughter of a young woman holding back the ageing process by spending most of her time in space. The casting pits Fabienne against a young actor Manon Lenoir (Manon Clavel). Will Fabienne bring her own prejudices about acting styles into her playing of the woman in the film? Of course she will.
My own first reaction to the film was that Kore-eda was again exploring different genres as he did in the The Third Murder (Japan 2017), a film that did cause consternation among some of his international fans expecting more of the same. It’s always a brave move to try something new, especially with a new crew and working in a second and third language. I’ve had to re-think that a little because in the Press Pack Kore-eda tells us that the origins of the film go way back to a play script he started to write in 2003 about an actor in her dressing room one night as she is coming to the end of her long career. The push to develop this idea then came from Juliette Binoche as far back as 2011. Kore-eda suggests that something about the film may also derive from his feelings about the death of the Kirin Kiki, the veteran actor for whom he felt affection and respect for her acting qualities. He links this last point to his desire to make a film that has a lightness and an ending which he hopes will mean that audiences leave a screening with a “little taste of happiness”. This is also because he wants to express his appreciation of the work by Binoche and Deneuve. Ultimately this is another great Kore-eda film about a family.
Tony Rayns in Sight and Sound reminds us that the idea of performed moments of reflection on past relationships was also a feature of After Life (Japan 1998) and that the filmmaking scenes in this new film, because it is shot in a studio with green screen have a ramshackle quality and an artificiality which is reminiscent of the earlier film. He points out there is also a specific ‘memory object’, a crucial element in the earlier film, which is also important here. In this case it is a child’s toy, a theatre which has been broken but which will be mended during a fleeting visit by Pierre, Fabienne’s estranged husband and young Charlotte’s grandfather – the theatre was made for Lumir, the daughter who struggles with dreams of being an actor like her mother.
The Japanese references come mainly from the setting in Autumn and the use of the location of Fabienne’s house. Kore-eda tells us:
I wanted the story to take place in autumn because I wanted to superimpose what the heroine goes through at the end of her life onto the landscapes of Paris at the end of summer. I hope people will see how the greens of the garden change subtly as winter approaches, accompanying the relationship between mother and daughter and colouring this moment of their lives. (Press Pack statement.)
Much of this is achieved by overhead shots of the garden but there is also a stunning image of a single tree seen, through the windows of the house, that is inserted almost like an Ozu pillow shot. This leads in turn to Fabienne’s solo walk with her little dog to a small East Asian restaurant (Chinese, I think?) in which she sits feeding her dog and watching a small family gathering celebrating something with an older woman as the centre of attention. This whole sequence seems very much part of Kore-eda’s world and its effects/affects are enhanced by the cinematography of Éric Gautier whose extraordinary list of credits includes recent work with Jia Zhang-ke on Ash is Purest White (2018) and Summer Hours (2008) by Olivier Assayas with Juliette Binoche in a family melodrama which some have seen as another comparison candidate. I was equally impressed with the music in the film by the Russian composer Alexei Aigui. Kore-eda tells his story through subtle mise en scène and music nearly as much as through his direction of his wonderful cast. I must also pick out the young girl playing Charlotte. One of Kore-eda’s greatest strengths is his direction of children. Charlotte is a very important character and Kore-eda generously recognises Ethan Hawke’s contribution in helping Clémentine Grenier, who never been on a film set before, play the role so effectively.
There is a great deal more to say about the film but I don’t want to spoil your pleasure. This is a perfectly-formed work of art by one of the very best living filmmakers. I hope you can get to see it. Here’s a short clip from early in the film which includes a reference to Fabienne’s great rival as actor and star, Sarah Mondavon.
Kore-eda Hirokazu’s fifth fiction feature finds him writing and directing what first appears to be a genre film for the major studio Shochiku. Is this going to be a chanbara, a swordfight film, often termed a ‘samurai film’ in the West? It was shot in Kyoto, the traditional home of studios specialising in jedaigeki or ‘period films’. This is, I think, the only time Kore-eda has ventured into historical drama so far. But having established that, the film seems to develop rather differently than might be expected although it does haves something in common with Killing (Japan 2018), the recent chanbara from genre master Tsukamoto Shin’ya.
The setting is a street of hovels on the edge of Edo (later Tokyo) in 1702. Soza (Okada Jun’ichi) is a young and inexperienced samurai who has been charged by his clan with avenging his father, killed in a dispute during a game of Go. But Soza is not an aggressive young man and doesn’t consider himself a skilled warrior. He lives a relatively quiet life in the slums, running an impromptu school in which he attempts to teach young people the rudiments of writing. He is also developing a relationship with Osae (Miyazawa Rie) a woman who appears to have been abandoned by her husband and who is bringing up her small son. It’s already apparent that there is a new potential family here, a recurring narrative element across Kore-eda’s films. There is also a larger ‘communal family’ with a wide range of characters. This group makes fun of Soza but also in its own way takes care of him.
The ‘difference’ in Hana is that Kore-eda provides a parallel narrative in the background. This is introduced by title cards which set the exact date of events as 1702, one year after a dispute in Edo castle in which a court official was killed by a lord who was then forced to commit seppuku. The lord’s lands were taken by the Shogun and his retinue, including his samurai were dispersed. The now ‘masterless’ samurai or ronin stayed grouped together and determined to avenge their late master. These were the ’47 ronin‘ whose story would become legendary in Japan. The many fictionalised versions of the story use the title Chūshingura and it has become one of the best known stories across all forms of Japanese theatre, literature and art. A 1941 film version was directed by Mizoguchi Kenji in two parts in 1941/2. In Kore-eda’s film a small group of the ronin are hiding close to Soza’s dwelling and working on the plan. Kore-reda wrote the script himself and he makes a number of cross-references between Soza’s actions and those of the ronin. The references to the story of the 47 ronin would be well-known to Japanese audiences but outside Japan may lead to bafflement. Because of my struggles to watch a Spanish Blu-ray of the film with downloaded English subs I didn’t fully appreciate the opening titles and I had to rewatch parts of the film. All this perhaps explains why the film itself struggled to obtain a wide international release.
What kinds of audience response was Kore-eda hoping for? The film opened in Japan on 178 screens and crept into the Top Ten in June 2006 making over $400,000 in its first weekend but then seemingly disappearing. Spain seems to be the only other market in which the cinema film was released. Predictably the American fans of Japanese action films who came across the DVD generally didn’t like it. Given that there is no swordplay in a film featuring samurai these fans felt short-changed. However, those who knew Kore-eda and his films were generally appreciative. The film offers many pleasures. Okada Jun’ichi was known in Japan mainly as a pop star in 2006. He has continued to have a film career and has been used to voice characters in anime hits such as From Up on Poppy Hill (Japan 2011). Ironically his bio suggests he is also a martial arts instructor. Hana looks great with the authentic looking settlement of suitably grimy hovels on the outskirts of the city and close to the river and the woods. There is plenty of humour in the daily goings-on of the street (especially around the communal toilet and use of ‘night soil’) and in the local celebrations of festival days. By creating an implied contrast between Soza’s reluctance to carry out the revenge attack decreed by his clan and the plotting by the 47 ronin, Kore-eda appears to be inviting the audience to consider what the ‘samurai code’ means at a time of peace. He may also be making a comment about masculinity in Japan more broadly, given that one of his familiar concerns is to explore social issues in contemporary Japanese life.
The film was shot by Yamazaki Yutaka who was Kore-eda’s regular DoP at the time (he shot six of Kore-eda’s films). The look of the film is also attributable to costume design by Kurosawa Kazuko, daughter of the master of jedai-geki and also to production designers Baba Masao and Isomi Toshihiro. I really enjoyed the music in the film. It seems that Kore-eda decided he wanted something ‘completely different’ so he put together a group of European musicians playing 18th century instruments and asked them to improvise. It works very well (see the clip below).
One dissenting voice that I saw in a review compares Hana to Twilight Samurai (Japan 2002) a film by the genre master Yamada Yoji with some similar plot details but set in the 19th century when the samurai life is coming to a climactic point with the approaching opening up of the country during the Meiji Restoration. I think this writer has a point but it doesn’t negate what Kore-eda is doing here. Shochiku also funded Twilight Samurai which was a huge commercial success in Japan (and a relatively big budget film) and a critical success internationally, getting an Academy Award nomination.
If you can find Hana (US DVD and Spanish Blu-ray) I think it works very well and shows both Kore-eda’s adaptability and his commitment to humanist values.
Kore-eda Hirokazu’s second fiction feature came after he had returned to his documentary roots to make the feature length TV documentary Without Memory in 1996. This featured a study of a man with a condition which prevented him from creating any new memories. It was caused by a failure of hospital procedures following an operation (actually a decision to withhold medication for budgetary reasons) and Kore-eda and his crew became involved with the man and his family in a form of participatory documentary. See this Senses of Cinema outline (with further links). The 84 minute documentary is available on YouTube with English subs and an introduction in English. Taking a camera crew to visit this young family man, Kore-eda discovered that each time they met him, Sekine Hiroshi would have no memory of their previous visit. By making the film, Kore-eda was in effect providing a form of memory for him. From a Guardian piece from 1999 by Jonathan Romney we learn that, from the age of six, Kore-eda had experienced the impact of Alzheimer’s disease on his grandfather and how as a high school student he had fashioned a script based on Richard Fleischer’s Fantastic Voyage (1966) in which he would shrink himself and enter his grandfather’s brain to trigger his lost memories. It’s worth noting that the impetus to make a documentary about memory loss is prompted by a personal experience and a desire to expose a social injustice caused by government failure. These two starting points are common for many of Kore-eda’s later films.
After Life was a surprise hit in North America and other international markets, possibly because of its presentation of a recognisable genre scenario – i.e. compared to most other Kore-eda films it seems immediately ‘universal’ as a narrative (and because it seems to refer back to Hollywood titles- the Japanese title is ‘Wonderful Life’). The film presents a ‘speculative fiction’ in which whenever somebody dies they find themselves in a ‘way station’, a kind of purgatory in the Roman Catholic sense, but without the connotations of suffering and usually confined to just seven days. Although there is no suffering as such, there is a task with deadlines. Each person is interviewed by one or two bureaucrats who require the newly deceased to select one important memory from their life. This is a memory that they will take with them into the after life. It will be their only memory, all others will be erased. They arrive on a Monday and they must decide by Wednesday. The staff will then produce a short film of the memory and these films are shown on the Saturday before the deceased are finally sent on their way. As reported in the Romney piece, Kore-eda explained that After Life is different from similar films in the West because there is no sense of ‘judgement’ at the time of death in Japan. This led to Kore-eda to find several non-professional actors and to treat them like documentary subjects. So in some cases the newly deceased characters are speaking for ‘real’ about their memories.
Kore-eda locates his way station in an old, nondescript institutional building, perhaps a school, on the outskirts of a city. The first arrivals walk up the steps, out of the mist and into the hallway where they are registered and asked to sit in the waiting room. I was reminded of two British films. Powell and Pressburger’s 1946 A Matter of Life and Death (known as Stairway to Heaven in the US) has a similarly bureaucratic welcome to heaven after the deceased have come up a long moving staircase. The very different and less well-known J. B. Priestley adaptation They Came to a City (1944) is not necessarily dealing with the deceased but takes a motley group of characters who climb through the mist to a gateway through which they are invited to visit a wonderful new city – a metaphor for a new (socialist) post-war world. Will they go to look? What will they think of it? Will they stay? In some ways this is linked to Kore-eda’s ideas.
While the idea of creating a film of a memory clearly derives from the Without Memory documentary, there are several other ideas being addressed in After Life. There is a limited number of characters in the cohort of the newly deceased (22) and they range from young to old, with a wide range of backgrounds, personalities and attitudes. What the narrative is really ‘about’ is a teasing out of what it means to be human or what it means to have ‘lived’. It’s difficult to imagine that anyone could watch this film without ever thinking, however fleetingly, “Which memory would I choose?”. The corollary might then be: “But whatever I choose, if that is the only memory I have for eternity, it’ll be hell!” But Kore-eda doesn’t really follow that through. What he does do, though, is to focus equally on the recently deceased and the bureaucrats who have to deal with them. I’ve termed them bureaucrats but really they are more like guides/helpers/counsellors. Eventually, you will start to wonder who these people are who carry out the interviews and organise the filming. All will be revealed if you haven’t guessed already.
The films that are made from the memories are interesting not just for the kinds of memories that are represented but also for the way in which the film production process is presented. A typical commercial science fiction or fantasy film would probably present these in ways which emphasised their generic qualities with special effects, music and extravagant art design. Kore-eda chooses instead to present a documentary-style glimpse of film production by a group akin to students shooting a film school studio exercise. Similarly, we get to see the ‘audience’ of the deceased and the counsellors trooping into a cinema to watch the results.
What is the overall impact of After Life? I think it very much depends on how an audience reacts to the quite personal challenges that the narrative poses and which of the characters and their thoughts about memories resonate most. There is also the parallel narrative about the bureaucrats/counsellors to consider. One outcome may be that we learn something about ourselves from seeing what happens to individuals and learning their stories. In that sense this is a deeply humanist film. I should also say that the film isn’t morbid in any way. It has sequences that are comic, some that are romantic. It might be summed up by a device in the ceiling of a corridor which uses different cut-outs in the sky-light to change the view of the sky. Some reviewers have suggested that the film is actually a study of filmmaking with Kore-eda deliberately using the juxtaposition of documentary and the artificiality of studio filmmaking to make us aware of how we engage with ideas on film and how films help us to develop memories.
This was the first of Kore-eda’s films to prompt an American remake, suggesting it has mass universal appeal. This would happen again with the later films, especially Like Father, Like Son (2013) but I’m not aware of any remakes actually emerging as yet. I realise I haven’t mentioned the performances (all good) or the crucial coming together of stories in the latter part of the film. I won’t spoil that moment but look out for the retired office worker Watanabe (Naitô Taketoshi) who can’t choose a memory, causing problems for the counsellor Mochizuki (Iura Arata) and his assistant Satonaka Shiori (Oda Erika), the young woman who seems to have a crush on him.
Here’s an unofficial trailer for the film:
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.
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?
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.
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!
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:
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.