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.
There are relatively few global filmmakers who regularly release films of consistent high quality – and which make it into UK cinemas. One of the few is Kore-eda Hirokazu. His latest film, arriving here only six months after its Venice appearance, maintains this record. It will be seen, however, as a departure in some ways from the mainly family melodramas that have brought him the widest audiences.
It’s not immediately apparent what kind of film this is and some of the promotional material I’ve seen is quite misleading. It’s not primarily a crime film or a legal thriller. Perhaps it’s a kind of ‘philosophical protest film’. The protest is against the Japanese justice system and it is philosophical because it is very personal and not at all practical – only a handful of people have an inkling of what the protest is about. I don’t know that much about how the Japanese justice system works but one anomaly, given the other aspects of Japan’s modern democracy, is that the death penalty is still in operation. Wikipedia has a useful page detailing the very precise instructions for sentencing which could result in execution by hanging. It’s worth reading through these to understand the legal case that faces the film’s protagonist, the lawyer Shigemori. He’s played by Fukuyama Masaharu, who also played a lead role in Kore-eda’s earlier Like Father, Like Son (Japan 2013), his biggest hit in Japan. There is another link between the two films. Like Father, Like Son is about an attempt to resolve problems for both families when it becomes known after six years that two mothers in a maternity hospital were given each other’s babies. The discovery raises a host of legal questions as well as issues for the families. Kore-eda was told by his legal consultant that: “Court is not the place to determine the truth”. This observation (quoted in the film’s Press Pack interview) then drives the approach to The Third Murder.
The narrative of The Third Murder really begins with Shigemori’s legal firm being appointed to defend Misumi (Yakusho Kôji), accused of a murder to which he has confessed. Because he has already served time for a murder thirty years ago and because he is charged this time with murder plus burglary, the death sentence appears inevitable. Shigemori begins by following procedures designed to persuade the judge to reduce the sentence, but his meetings with his client and some of the facts he discovers about the case disturb him. It turns out that Shigemori’s father, now retired, was the judge who passed the sentence on Misumi for his crime on Hokkaido in the 1980s. Shigemori would have been a boy then and when he meets his father, the old man says he made a mistake – if he had sentenced Misumi to death, the second murder wouldn’t have happened. His intervention drives the narrative into another family drama. It transpires all three men (Shigemori, Misumi and the murdered man) have daughters and this leads Shigemori into new avenues of investigation which will eventually push him into a change of heart and a change of strategy, especially when he meets the victim’s daughter Sakie (Hirose Suzu, the titular character in Our Little Sister, 2015). However, Misumi seems to be playing his own games and begins to change his testimony. When the case finally comes to court, it isn’t at all clear what will happen. And this is the point of the narrative. The court will make a decision based on judicial procedures and it will not necessarily take note of anything Shigemori or Misumi might say.
Audiences may well resent the fact that we never find out who actually committed the murder, even though we think we’ve seen the act at the beginning of the film. We don’t know whether Misumi ever tells the truth. Is the ‘third murder’ really the death of Shigemori’s belief in the judicial system? At the start of the narrative he seems very efficient and conventional in approach. By the end he has changed considerably. How do we feel about the case now? (Or perhaps more importantly, how does the Japanese audience feel at the film’s conclusion.) Kore-eda succeeds in presenting Shigemori and Misumi as two men who are in many ways quite similar – but one began with certain advantages and was ‘judged’ and the other wasn’t. This ‘doubling’ of the two men is achieved visually in some astonishing scenes in the interview room culminating in a shot which manages to superimpose one head over the other. This was the first time that Kore-eda had used the ‘Scope frame of 2.35:1 and he and his cinematographer Takimoto Mikiya set out to shoot the film very differently compared to their earlier collaborations. They opted for the colder look of crime films and studied Kurosawa’s High and the Low (1963) for ideas about using the ‘Scope frame. There are many big close-ups in the interview room and the courtroom scenes are shot more to emphasise the procedures than to create drama. Kore-eda began his career as a documentary filmmaker and he carried out a great deal of research to represent the procedures faithfully.
There are several things about the plot and the use of imagery that I still don’t understand and which will have to wait for a second viewing. But this didn’t ‘spoil’ the narrative for me. I do recognise one of the complaints though and that is the way the central pairing of the lawyer and client comes to dominate and we lose track of some of the secondary characters. For example, Shigemori has two colleagues working with him. One is an older and perhaps more experienced former prosecutor and the other is a keen younger man (like Kurosawa’s young apprentice figures?). Both these characters seem to fade into the background after earlier providing important sounding-boards for Shigemori’s changing ideas about the case. I’m tempted to conclude that Kore-eda perhaps might have developed his narrative further. Some have complained that the film is too slow and already feels too long at 124 minutes. I could have taken another 30 minutes – or even a two or three part long-form TV production?
I should say something about the two leads in the film. Yakusho Kôji is one of Japan’s best-known and most celebrated actors with roles for major directors such as Imamura Shôhei and Kurosawa Kyoshi. His biggest film in the UK was possibly the romantic comedy Shall We Dance (1996). Fukuyama Masaharu has much less experience in films but he has the distinction of being one of the most successful pop singers ever in Japan with 25 No1 singles. For Kore-eda he seems to have played two roles that both see an uptight, ‘controlled’ man forced to change by the experience of meeting other kinds of men and learning their stories. As well as Takimoto’s cinematography, the score by Ludovico Einaudi also works well to convey the tone of Kore-eda’s film.