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-Ida 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.
Kore-eda Hirokazu is a Japanese auteur in the original sense of that term. In his films you can rely on recurring faces in the cast list, recurring themes and styles – all with a sense of a director’s ‘personal vision’ honed over twenty years of auteur production. Very occasionally, Kore-eda throws a curve ball, such as in his film Air Doll in which one character is a blow-up sex toy which comes to life, but even so the film has recognisable elements. After the Storm does have a slightly different feel in the character written by Kore-eda for one of his regulars Abe Hiroshi, but overall the narrative is familiar and has a direct relationship to Kore-eda’s 2008 masterpiece Still Walking, sharing both Abe and Kirin Kiki as his mother in both films.
Whenever a Kore-eda film appears, there are reviews that reference the Japanese master Ozu Yasijuro and in After the Storm there are several scenes featuring Japanese sporting/cultural pursuits such as cycle racing, baseball, pachinko and lottery tickets – the kind of activities that Ozu’s characters sometimes engage with. However, the way in which these activities form part of the narrative reminded me more of Kitano Takeshi or some of the Japanese New Wave films of the early 1960s. The ‘master’ Kore-eda usually refers to is Naruse Mikio and in an interview with Mark Schilling for the Japan Times, he does so again in discussing After the Storm. Naruse’s characters tend to come from the next social class below those of Ozu – they are in Kore-eda’s words ” . . . living with their backs bent. They aren’t standing straight and tall”. This is the shomin-geki in Japanese cinema, the film about ‘ordinary people’ (the lower middle-class/upper working-class).
The film’s narrative is based on Kore-eda’s own background. He wrote the script himself and its central location is the public housing complex or danchi where Kore-eda himself grew up. The film opens in the flat of Shinoda Yoshiko (Kiki Kirin), where she and her adult daughter Chinatsu (Kobayashi Satomi) are writing ‘thank you’ cards after the funeral of Yoshiko’s husband. A little later her adult son Ryota (Abe Hiroshi) visits his mother’s flat, bringing her a cake but hoping to rummage around and find anything valuable his father may have hidden. Ryota is a familiar figure in many films – the ‘man-child’ who has never quite grown up and who now in his early 50s is always broke and scrounging for whatever he can find. He once wrote a novel and won a prize but now his only source of income is as a seedy private detective following adulterous wives and husbands or looking for lost cats. Even in this job Ryota has to ‘play’ the system and in effect syphon off some of the client fees which he won’t declare to his employer. He needs the money partly to support a gambling addiction inherited from his father. All of this makes Ryota a slightly different character from Kore-eda’s recent family drama personnel. He allows the introduction of jokes and comic scenes as well as the wiff of something possibly dangerous.
Ryota’s other problem is that his ‘failure’ to earn money has led to divorce by his wife Kyoko (Maki Yoko) and only monthly access to his son Shingo (Yoshizawa Taiyô). The scenes away from mum’s flat see Ryota working with a junior partner and then spying on Kyoko when she is with with Shingo and her new partner. Ryota then meets his son for their monthly outing before father and son visit his mother’s flat and Kyoko (still waiting for her child support payment from Ryota) is persuaded to join them. The final section of the film then presents the three generations together for the night as Typhoon #24 of the summer is unleashed.
One perceptive reviewer remarked that in Kore-eda’s films it often feels as if nothing has happened until you realise that everything has happened. I agree. What is also surprising is that the more ‘Japanese’ the film gets, the more universal it feels. At one point grandma points out that the best meals improve if the food is left overnight to allow the flavour to develop. As all good cooks know this is absolutely correct. The focus on (home-cooked) food is another link to Still Walking. The other point I’d like to make is how well I think Abe Hiroshimi plays his role. It’s not easy for the very handsome 6″ 4′ Abe to play the seedy failure but somehow he manages to be a klutz but also very likeable. His pairing with 5″ 1′ Maki Yoko is also quite something. She is very beautiful and the family together is a winning combination. Kiki Kirin is wonderful – as she always is.
Kore-eda Hirokazu is now, for me, the most reliable auteur filmmaker in contemporary cinema. Every one of his films has been a winner. There have been several reports of Spielberg attempting to remake Kore-eda films. I fervently hope this never happens. Let’s just enjoy Kore-eda’s films as they are – perfection.
Having received much praise at the Cannes Film Festival this title now graces the Official Selection at the Leeds International Film Festival. This is the most impressive film I have yet enjoyed at the Festival. Kore-eda Hirokazu has produced a series of fine dramas and this is as good as any of the earlier ones. Like his earlier films the concern here are family and family generations. The main focus is on the three sisters. The eldest, Sachi (Ayase Haruka), is a sort of matriarch and works as a nurse in the town hospital. Second is Yoshino (Nakasawa Masami) who works in a bank and is easily impressed by unremarkable men. The youngest is Chika (Kaho) who works in a sport shop, has a relationship with the manager there and is the most fun-loving of the sisters. As the film opens the sisters’ absent father dies, leaving a second wife and a 13 year-old stepsister, Suzu Asano (Hirose Suzu). Sachi invites her, with willing support from her sisters, to come and live with them in the old family home: a beautiful, traditional building with a garden. This involves Suzu changing schools and making new friends there.
They live in a small coastal town. Kore-eda is quoted in the Festival Catalogue commenting on the importance of the place in the film.
“What interests me greatly is not only the beauty of the scenery of Kamakura – or of the four sisters – but also the accepting attitude of the seaside town itself., absorbing and embracing everything. It is the beauty that arises from the realisation – not sorrowful but open-hearted – that we are just grains of sand forming a part of the whole, and that of the town, and the time there, continue even when we are gone.”
Places are important in Kore-eda’s films, as indeed are meals and rituals such as funerals. This film has a number of both: mealtimes tend to be informal and to allow the characters to interact and enjoy each other. Occasionally they are also the site of conflicts. Funerals provide the time and space for the Japanese formality which is still offers impressive rituals on screen. Characters in Kore-eda’s films often climb upwards – steps, slopes and similar. They do so in this film, though with noticeably more effort than in the other films. The reward, for them and us, is the view from on high: not only impressive but redolent of memories and experiences.
This is a slow film and runs 128 minutes. The ending in particular take its time as Kore-eda works his way through different aspects of the relationships: between the sisters, between the sisters and their dead father, living mother and ‘auntie’: and between their friends and the setting itself. But when the final sequence comes it is wonderful: along the beach as the waters lap the sand.
Kore-eda has some of the style and qualities associated with Ozu Yasujiro. There is the same meticulous mise en scène and framing. He frequently uses the low camera angle, especially in interiors. The music, while of a different style, serves a similar function. But rather than static shots he frequently uses minute and slow dollies. There are even less frequent crane shots, though one – as Suzu and a friend watch the town firework display from a boat – is superb. Thematically this film is closer to the work of Naruse Mikio, especially in its treatment of loss and resilience.
I found that Kore-eda’s recent films seem to have a slightly higher quotient of sentiment and use more music than an earlier film like Still Walking (2008). But this film combines sentiment, and the pleasures of the characters with an ironic view of their lives and relationships. The film is developed from a manga by Yoshida Akimi. The production is excellent in every department. The version on release is on DCP sourced from Kodak Super 35mm. There are English subtitles. Artificial Eye have the UK rights so it should get a reasonable distribution.
Here is a film from a director who deserves the title of ‘Contemporary Master’ because of his skill in constructing stories rich in everyday details. Several of his films have unusual stories at their centre, but each set of characters is presented without anything other than seemingly simple observation. We learn a great deal about life in Japan from these details and have our faith in the future re-established by depictions of family relations that promise nothing spectacular but still have a profound effect on most audiences – they make them feel better about the world.
Kore-eda Hirokazu’s films sometimes take a long time to get to the UK and some never get here at all. In this context it was good to see I Wish in UK cinemas in March (even if his new film was just about to be announced for Cannes in May). I was lucky to see the film a couple of times but unable at the time to post to the blog. Now it has been released on DVD in the UK I’ve dug out the notes I made for an introduction to a screening in Bradford.
Kore-eda Hirokazu (born 1962)
Kore-eda went first into television documentary production, eventually emerging as a director in 1991. It would be another four years before he made his first fiction feature Maborisi for cinema release in 1995. He has now completed seven further fiction features. His documentary training is evident in certain scenes in I Wish in which children seem to be answering an interviewer’s questions – this appears natural rather than artificial.
Kore-eda’s themes are primarily concerned with families and relationships. This and his seemingly slow contemplative approach have seen him compared to Ozu Yasujiro and it is certainly possible to spot similarities between the two directors’ work. But Kore-eda does not use the same stylistic features that are familiar from Ozu’s later work. A more useful comparison is likely to be with the two leading figures of the Taiwanese New Cinema of the 1980s, Hou Hsiao-hsien and Edward Yang. In particular, critics have discussed I Wish in terms of the Edward Yang film Yi Yi (A One and a Two, Taiwan 2000) which also focused on three generations of a family – with each family member facing their own problems.
The incident that ‘kicks off’ the narrative in I Wish is the separation of two brothers after their parents split up. The older Koichi lives with his mother and her parents and the younger Ryu lives with his father – the boys are separated physically by some 200 miles but they speak to each other by ’phone virtually every day. The title of the film in Japanese actually translates as ‘miracle’ but there is nothing religious about this. Instead it refers to a rumour about something that might happen when the first Shinkansen (‘bullet train’) service along the West coast of the island of Kyushu began in 2011. Kore-eda was approached to make a film using this event. This is reminiscent of the British film by Shane Meadows, Somers Town in 2008, which constructed its narrative around the opening of the new Eurostar station at St. Pancras. Kore-eda received some support from the railway company, but there is no suggestion that the film is a form of advertisement for the railway (something which dogged Meadows).
Family life in Japan
One of the clichés about Japanese culture as viewed from the West is that Japan is a mix of tradition and modernity – and that this extends into family relations. What is certainly true is that many of the films that reach the UK feature families that have ‘broken up’ and that this is represented as a social problem to a much greater extent than in the UK – partly because the different legal system in Japan means that one divorced parent is often excluded from a relationship with their child. The ‘Ring cycle’ of ghost stories focuses on the single mother – child relationship as does the associated film Dark Water (Japan 2002). In an earlier Kore-eda film, Nobody Knows (2004), a single mother tells one of her children that he must expect to be bullied at school because he doesn’t have a father. On the other hand, Japanese attitudes towards children and parental control often seem surprisingly ‘liberal’ compared to those in the UK.
The extended Japanese family
One of the fascinations for UK audiences in Japanese family-based films might be the sense that Japanese society has already begun to experience some of the profound changes in demographics and socio-economic factors that are likely to be so important in the UK over the next few years. As the UK enters a ‘triple-dip’ economic recession we might look at Japan where such conditions have lasted for over twenty years since the early 1990s. The result is a struggling generation of thirty to fifty year-olds with little job security and possibly a sense of wasted lives. At the same time, Japan has developed an ageing population structure with a low birth rate not balanced by the same levels of incoming migrants as the UK. Three generations face different problems but now find themselves in the same households, partly through economic necessity. Kore-eda provides us with narrative strands which at least open up some of these issues in relation to parents and grandparents, but still retain the central focus on the children. In I Wish we see the children and the grandparents as active and imaginative in the schemes they hatch (separately) while the parents are the ones trapped by their circumstances.
Kore-eda Hirokazu is an ‘artisanal’ filmmaker who has a small group of collaborators and who makes his films over a long period rather than working for a major studio. He uses many of the same actors in each film with occasional better-known lead figures. Odagiri Jô, who plays the musician father, is an actor from independent and international cinema. These actors will be more prepared for the Kore-eda approach. His work with children requires a long casting period. I Wish depends to a great extent on the performance of the real life Maeda brothers – who were already established as a comedy duo when Kore-eda found them. He subsequently re-worked the script to make the most of their exceptional qualities.
Kore-eda accepted this project partly because of his interest in films about children and partly because of a love of railways, He also had a great-grandfather from the city of Kagoshima at one end of the line. The Japanese are proud of their railway system (developed as an amalgam of British and American ideas – Japan drives on the left and trains similarly run on the left) and it is another feature of Ozu’s cinema. The first Shinkansen trains ran in 1964. “I Wish” UK governments had had the same foresight!
I was entranced by this film. I think most people who have seen will agree that however you felt when you started watching it, by the end you will better about yourself and about the world. One of my friends described it as ‘gossamer light’. I know what he meant but this isn’t something that would blow away in a wind. Somehow it is both ‘light’ and ‘substantial’.
At some point I’m going to try and go back and watch the earlier films that I haven’t had time to watch properly. Still Walking and Air Doll are both on the blog already. Kore-eda has few equals in contemporary cinema, so don’t miss out!
Kore-eda Hirokazu is one of the major directors in contemporary Japanese cinema and Air Doll is an extraordinary film that I thoroughly enjoyed on many levels. With stunning cinematography from Mark Lee Ping-bing (best known for his work with Hou Hsaio-hsien), a captivating score by ‘World’s End Girlfriend’ (the one-man band of Maeda Katsuhiko) and a fabulous central performance from Bae Doo-na, it’s a surprise that it has taken three years for the film to reach the UK in the form of this release on a Region 2 DVD from Matchbox films. Perhaps it is the subject matter that has been seen as a problem?
Air Doll has been adapted by Kore-eda from a 20-page short manga The Pneumatic Figure of a Girl by Gouda Yoshi. Kore-eda has taken the original narrative concept and explored it in some depth, expanding it significantly. The central character is indeed an ‘air doll’, a blow-up plastic woman who comes to life and begins to investigate the world just outside her door in a district of Tokyo where there are still old low-rise houses, known as shitamachi in Japan. The doll has been bought by Hideo, a waiter in a fast food restaurant who has named her Nozomi. She is his ‘girl-friend substitute’ and each night he bathes her, dresses her and has a meal with her before making love to her in his cramped apartment in which he also indulges his hobby of astronomy. Together, man and doll look up at the stars.
The idea of the doll that comes to life has been around for a long time. Discussion around the film has centred around Pinnochio and Spielberg’s AI as well as the replicants in Blade Runner (the author Philip K. Dick introduces what he calls ‘simulacra’ in many of his stories). In most cases these and similar stories have been developed either as fairy stories for children or as contemporary action stories. Kore-eda has said that he was attracted by the erotic potential of the story and what he has done, at least from my perspective, is to achieve something remarkable in melding a science fiction/fantasy narrative with a romance, a philosophical treatise and a social commentary. (Metropolis with its female robot came to mind and this whole area is one that manga and anime have explored widely.) There is a great deal in this film which I think repays careful viewing. I would love to see the film on a big screen but in a way I think I got a lot from viewing it in several separate chunks on the DVD, allowing me to reflect on where it was going and how the story development was opening up ideas. I’m still not absolutely clear what Kore-eda means by the eroticism inherent in the idea, but the film certainly moved me in many ways. (There is one scene which is remarkably intimate and which does I think open up the erotic.)
In the UK, the DVD has an 18 certificate. I’m not sure why. There is a fair amount of female nudity and some simulated sexual activity – undercut to some extent by the ‘matter of fact’ washing of the doll’s removable vagina – but this all seems less offensive than some of the violence (and sexual violence) allowed in 15 certificate films. The other ‘barrier’ to audience accessibility has been the length according to some critics. The DVD runs for just over 111 minutes which equates to around 116 mins at 24 fps. This appears to be the international cut (the Japanese version is listed as 125 mins). I don’t find the film excessively long, but it is a slow-moving narrative and if audiences concentrate just on the central narrative I can see it might be frustrating.
Kore-eda manages the transition from plastic doll to the live performance by the remarkable Bae Doo-na very well without the aid of visible CGI as far as I could discern. When Nozomi leaves the house (dressed in her maid’s costume, complete with short skirt), she comes across a number of local characters with various problems, an elderly man who was once a ‘substitute teacher’, a woman fearing the loss of her youthful looks, an anorexic, a small girl often on her own when her single parent is working, an older woman who confesses to crimes to gain attention. Each of these characters features in a short vignette about alienation in the city, about consumerism and a throwaway culture. In some ways these might seem like clichéed characters and situations, but they are handled with such skill by Kore-eda and his collaborators that they work in both philosophical and sociological terms. I was reminded of other Japanese films that focus on the ‘alternative world’ of the unemployed and the lonely during the long years of recession in Japan, e.g. Tokyo Sonata by Kurosawa Kiyoshi.
Nozomi eventually finds her way to a video store called ‘Cinema Circus’ and lands herself a job and the possibility of a ‘real’ relationship with the store clerk Junichi, a young man who claims to be ‘like she is’. This relationship provides the romance narrative with familiar generic elements. It also supplies intriguing moments of eroticism and the prospect of an unhappy ending – Nozomi is after all a doll striving to think and ‘feel’ like a human. Meanwhile she has to return to her apartment each evening and pretend to be an inanimate doll again for Hideo – this too must lead to a change since the pretence can only last so long.
I’ve already noted the very high standard of the creative inputs to the film. Bae Doo-na looked familiar to me and later I realised that she had starred in two of my favourite Korean films, The Host (2006) and Take Care of My Cat (2001). She is soon to get a much higher international profile via the Hollywood release of Cloud Atlas (2012). I’ve seen discussion about the casting of Bae and the suggestion that because she is Korean, there is some kind of comment on Japanese treatment of Koreans and in particular a reference back to the exploitation of Korean ‘comfort women’ by Japanese troops in the Second World War. Kore-eda has said that he had been an admirer of Bae’s performances for some time and that she was the only performer he could think of who was capable of filling such a demanding role. The film overall perhaps has less to say directly about the objectification of women than viewers might expect at first glance. I’ve seen one reviewer who suggests that women may be attracted to the emotional content of the film, but also at least one blogger who disliked the film – but who does so only after a careful explanation of why its not for her.
I recommend the film strongly. It’s beautiful, subtle and provocative – as long as you are prepared to engage with it. Kore-eda brings his documentary experience into play in the representation of Tokyo’s lesser-known areas and creates a fantasy which is also very ‘real’. The film may sound like a change of direction but I think it is clearly the work of the same director who made Still Walking (2008). His new film I Wish (Japan 2011) is expected to get a UK release soon, so this DVD sets it up nicely and gives us all the chance to explore the work of a modern master.
Useful web reviews:
Here’s the official trailer – I think it gives away/spoils some of the crucial narrative developments, but if you are unsure about the film, it does give a good idea of what it’s like:
The DVD was released by Matchbox Films on 26 November and is available from Amazon.
Still Walking is a beautiful film made by a filmmaker at the top of his game. Kore-eda Hirokazu wrote, directed and edited this film, a traditional shomengeki – a film about lower middle-class people, a ‘family drama’. The events unfold over 24 hours with a brief coda. It is the 12th anniversary of the death of the elder son of the Yokoyama family and the two surviving siblings return to the family home in a small town on the coast outside Tokyo. The younger son Ryo is with the young widow he has recently married (at the age of 40) and her young son. His sister is with her husband and two children. Ryo has travelled from Tokyo and his family stay the night. The various conflicts within the family relationships mainly derive from Ryo’s father’s increasingly difficult behaviour. Part of this is his refusal to properly acknowledge Ryo as next in line after the death of his older brother. Ryo’s mother’s behaviour is more ambiguous as it oscillates between welcoming the young widow and being rather negative towards her and her son.
[A note on social class: in today’s newspaper, Japan and Germany are quoted as much more equal societies than the UK or the US. This may explain why the house of a retired doctor (a GP) in Japan seems less ostentatious than the middle-class houses of doctors over here.]
There is no conventional action as such or much in the way of plot in Still Walking. We gradually begin to understand what has happened in the family and by the end of the film we are much closer to understanding how Ryo feels. In the main we experience the aftermath of actions and contemplate what might happen in the future. The film is highly personal and Kore-eda tells us on the beautifully designed official website that he made the film following the death of his own parents and that sense that he hadn’t told them everything that he wanted to say.
The film has been very well-received (so it’s a puzzle why it took so long to get to the UK) and inevitably perhaps it has been compared to the common perception of the films of Ozu Yasujiro. There are obvious similarities in theme to Tokyo Story (even if it is the children who travel rather than the parents) and we might also see an Ozu connection in the well-observed younger children. Yet in style terms, Kore-eda has relatively little in common with Ozu apart from the occasional low camera position (around the dining table) a train shot or two and perhaps a couple of street shots. Kore-eda began in documentary and his camera seems more ‘observant’ in its fluid movements around the house and the neighbourhood – i.e. it is as if the camera sometimes goes looking for scenes to observe rather than being placed in order to record them as they happen. Omar on his blog refers to Kore-eda as being of the same generation as Kurosawa Kiyoshi and it is certainly interesting to compare this film with Tokyo Sonata – another family drama, but in a very different style. I’ve also seen a reference to Naruse, but I think that I need to see a few more of Naruse’s 1950s films to assess what the link might be.
Still Walking is beautifully written and for me the film is stolen by Kiki Kirin as the mother, Toshiko, who is given many of the best lines. She is in turn the most cruel, the most coldly calculating and yet the most emotional and yes, the most loving. She also delivers one of the few ‘shocking’ moments (i.e. in narrative terms) of revelation. She also cooks a great deal and this is one of the real pleasures of the film – whether she is deep frying corn tempura, preparing large prawns, shelling fresh soya beans (?) or simply mixing ingredients there is a real sense of preparing for a family celebration. If you ever wondered about the minutiae of family living in small-town Japan, it’s all laid out here. Having said that, the scenes did seem to me to be a little old-fashioned. It’s over 30 years since I was in a Japanese family house and nothing seems to have changed. In fact the little boy with his hand-held computer game was the only real sign of modernity in the household. (The shrine to the older brother includes a Joy Division poster.) My impression from contemporary Japanese literature is that there is a difference in modern homes. Perhaps Kore-eda is purposely offering a slightly anachronistic view of family life? There is a lot of talk about what is ‘normal’. On the other hand, Ryo’s father seems to have switched from baseball to football – that seems ‘modern’ (but mother still plays pachinko).
I’m not sure why Japanese directors are so much better at making these kinds of films than directors in other countries. Is it something about the design of Japanese houses and the formalities of Japanese social behaviour? Despite the lack of overly dramatic moments, this film is riveting for its whole running time of 115 minutes. If you get a chance to see it in a cinema, grab it with both hands.