The Japanese director Hirokazu Koreeda is best known these days for his family dramas, which have a wonderful warmth and naturalism that makes them very appealing to audiences, yet are thoughtfully and subtly made enough to endear to critics too. His films are hardly well-known in the West but in Japan they’re very successful, with his more recent titles bringing home the type of box-office figures Hollywood blockbusters might enjoy.
It wasn’t always like this though. He started out directing documentaries, often for TV, before venturing into directing fiction films with Maborosi. This was very much an arthouse film, released in 1995 at a time when Japan didn’t make many films outside genre moulds. When Maborosi and some other similarly non-mainstream Japanese films made waves on the festival circuit, however, winning some prestigious awards, we began to see a wave of arthouse titles coming out of the country, bringing back some of the worldwide respect Japan cinema had enjoyed in the 50s and 60s when Kurosawa, Ozu and Mizoguchi were being discovered.
Koreeda’s work gradually became more mainstream after that, aided by the success of his second film, After Life, but never at the expense of quality. The BFI have put together a wonderful set of four films, spanning the first half of Koreeda’s career so far. The titles include Maborosi, After Life, Nobody Knows and Still Walking. These aren’t all the films Koreeda directed in this period, but all four loosely share themes of loss and unconventional families so make for a perfect set.
I’m a fan of Koreeda’s work and very much enjoyed Arrow’s Family Values set (which I reviewed last year) so I was keen to delve into this one when I was offered a copy to review. Below are my brief thoughts on the films included in the set and a look at the features and transfers.
Director: Hirokazu Koreeda
Screenplay: Yoshihisa Ogita
Based on a Novel by: Teru Miyamoto
Starring: Makiko Esumi, Takashi Naitô, Tadanobu Asano, Gohki Kashiyama, Naomi Watanabe
Running Time: 109 min
Maborosi (a.k.a. Maboroshi no hikari) sees Makiko Esumi play Yumiko, a young woman whose husband Ikuo (Tadanobu Asano) commits suicide suddenly, with seemingly little reason, leaving her to look after their baby son alone. Devastated by the tragedy, she becomes a shell of her former self. After a few years, she remarries someone she’s never met before, through an arrangement. She heads off with her son to live with her new husband Tamio (Takashi Naitô) in a small coastal village, far from home in Osaka. She slowly warms to this new life but a trip back for her brother’s wedding brings back the pain, guilt and frustration concerning Ikuo’s death, so she retreats to an internal state once again.
I had actually seen Maborosi prior to this but it was a while ago, before I was aware of Koreeda’s work as a whole. As such, it was a surprise to see how much this differed from the rest of his films. On paper, it sounds like another family drama from the director, but in focusing so intently on Yumiko it’s more of a personal story than an ensemble family piece. More notably though is the difference in style. Whereas most of Koreeda’s work has an organic, naturalistic feel with a relatively conventional cutting style, Maborosi is much more stylistically presented. It uses only natural light, so has a natural look at first glance, but every frame is very carefully composed and largely static using wide shots held for a long time. There’s a painterly, artistic quality to the visuals that isn’t as prevalent in Koreeda’s later work and is more reminiscent of some of the Taiwanese New Wave directors he has professed to initially modelling himself on.
This style means the film is a little more distancing and cold than the rest of the director’s work but this fits the themes and subject matter of the film, so it’s an effective approach, even if it makes it harder to warm to.
A lot of Koreeda’s regular qualities are already here though. His ability to get superb performances from his actors is clear in the film, with Esumi doing a particularly great job with a lead role lacking in dialogue but heavy on inner-turmoil. Koreeda’s ability to tell a story visually through small details and economic storytelling is prevalent too. The film may seem slight in story and slow-moving but you’d be hard-pressed to find a pointless scene. Everything has its place, even if its purpose isn’t immediately apparent.
Overall, it’s a wonderfully understated and quietly powerful drama. It keeps the audience at a slight distance so it isn’t as emotionally powerful as some similarly themed dramas but it’s incredibly beautiful and sensitively told. It certainly signalled a fine start for Koreeda’s fictional film career, even if his style changed quite dramatically following this.
Director: Hirokazu Koreeda
Screenplay: Hirokazu Koreeda
Starring: Arata Iura, Erika Oda, Susumu Terajima, Takashi Naitô, Taketoshi Naitô, Yûsuke Iseya
Running Time: 119 min
After Life (a.k.a. Wandafuru raifu) was Koreeda’s second fiction feature, with the documentary Without Memory coming in-between this and Maborosi. It’s a fantasy-drama set in an administrative facility that everyone goes to after they die before moving on to their eternal resting place. In this fairly dilapidated-looking building, the staff explain to each weekly batch of the newly-dead that they have a week to pick one memory they will live with for eternity. This memory will be turned into a film by the staff in the latter half of the week and the dead will move on to the next stage after viewing their film on the final evening.
It’s a wonderful concept that feels miles apart from the realistic family dramas Koreeda is best-known for. However, there are more similarities than you might imagine. For one, his naturalistic style is still present. The dead aren’t floating around with halos in shiny, magical surroundings or covered in gory scars indicating their demise. The facility looks like a beaten up old school building and staff and the dead all look healthy and wear basic everyday clothes. There are no special effects, just a couple of practical tricks such as a bright light coming from outside the entrance as people first enter the building or having people not present in their cinema seats once the lights come up after they’ve watched their memory-films.
Also grounding the film and keeping it in line with most of Koreeda’s work is the treatment of the team of staff members. They become a type of family in the film with their worries, little squabbles and nurturing relationships. Their story provides the backbone of the otherwise gently meandering structure, particularly after you learn the reason why the staff have been chosen to deliver this service.
This brings me to one of the other things I like about the film. Although it is very much a high-concept piece, it doesn’t get bogged down in explaining every detail of its world. Those who prefer fully-realised, complicated fantasy creations may be disappointed but I admired the simplicity. It allows the film to focus on the hugely thought-provoking ideas of what might constitute the perfect memory, how people take stock of their lives and whether or not you’d want to live with just one memory for eternity.
The concept also works as a study of filmmaking, due to the idea that these memories are filmed re-interpretations of life rather than having the dead re-live the actual chosen moment. It plays with the idea of films never quite being the real thing but intended to trigger sensations of memory.
Simply hearing the stories of people’s widely varied memories is captivating and often touching too. Koreeda interviewed some random people as well as his actors about the subject before writing the script, so the memories are a hybrid of ‘real’ stories and fictionalised interpretations. It gives the film an extra dimension and a wonderful naturalism in an otherwise fantastical tale.
It’s an absolutely wonderful film in every way. Unique, sweet and deeply thought-provoking, it’s philosophical without ever feeling like a lecture and gently enjoyable throughout. It’s a memory I’d love to keep for as long as I can and I’m sure I will.
Director: Hirokazu Koreeda
Screenplay: Hirokazu Koreeda
Starring: Yûya Yagira, Ayu Kitaura, Hiei Kimura, Momoko Shimizu, Hanae Kan, You
Running Time: 141 min
The script for Nobody Knows (a.k.a. Dare mo shiranai) was reportedly the first Koreeda wrote, but it took him many years to finally get to make it. Loosely based on an actual news story, it tells of four children who live in a cramped apartment with their mother Keiko (You – yes that is her full stage name). In order to avoid paying more rent or getting in trouble for having too many kids in the room, she doesn’t let them leave, other than Akira (Yûya Yagira) the eldest boy who goes out for food and such when needed. We soon see that Keiko leaves the children to their own devices most of the time, with them doing the shopping, washing and cooking whilst she’s out ‘working’. This expands further as she disappears for longer periods, eventually abandoning them altogether. The 12-year-old Akira is forced to provide and care for his siblings but there’s only so much a young boy can do and their situation grows ever direr.
As you might imagine, this doesn’t match Koreeda’s sweet-natured sentimental side some of his later films share, such as Our Little Sister. It’s a horrific story, made ever-more disturbing by the fact it’s based on reality. However, Koreeda fills the film with enough warmth and humanity where possible to prevent it from being a punishing watch. I found the film’s devastating climax difficult to get through and the situation the children are in is undeniably heartbreaking, so Koreeda doesn’t shy away from the harsh reality, but equally he doesn’t paint in blacks and whites and there are glimmers of hope throughout. Even Keiko isn’t made out to be a monster. Her actions are never forgiven, but we get hints of the difficulty she faces looking after and financing four children without any support from their various fathers. She’s made out to be immature rather than evil, making for a believable and rounded character.
It’s a long film that relies on repetition to tell its story, highlighting small differences as the children’s routines are steadily affected by their ever-more desperate circumstances. As such, Nobody Knows may seem daunting to approach but the performances and natural interactions between the young leads are captivating (Yûya Yagira even won the Best Actor award at Cannes for his efforts). Koreeda once again proficiently tells his story through visuals rather than clunky dialogue so it’s a wonderfully cinematic production, despite the minimal locations and lack of grand, attention-grabbing visuals. This approach and the pull of the characters and performances mean the near-two-and-a-half hour running time never feels drawn out.
Not a lot happens in fact, on the surface, but small moments become very powerful within the situation the film sets up. The joy of all the children leaving the house for the first time in months for instance, or the devastation of the scene where Akira’s supposed new friends won’t play with him because his house smells. The build-up of details add to make a rich and powerful experience.
It’s a film that never aims to milk tears from its audience but is achingly sad as it goes on. It leaves you numb by the end rather than dewy-eyed. As ever, Koreeda directs with great sensitivity and subtlety and does an incredible job with the young cast. It’s a tough film and not one I’ll rush to see again, but I’m certainly glad I have seen it as it’s astoundingly well-crafted.
Director: Hirokazu Koreeda
Screenplay: Hirokazu Koreeda
Starring: Hiroshi Abe, Yui Natsukawa, You, Kazuya Takahashi, Shohei Tanaka, Kirin Kiki, Yoshio Harada
Running Time: 115 min
The most recent film in the set is 2008’s Still Walking (a.k.a. Aruitemo aruitemo). It’s set largely over one summer day when the two siblings (Hiroshi Abe and You) and their families meet with their ageing parents (Kirin Kiki and Yoshio Harada) to commemorate the death of Junpei, who was their elder brother. There is much friction among the family as the father, Kyohei, believes Ryota (Abe) abandoned them when he moved away, choosing not to study medicine and take over his GP practice when the elderly man retired, as Junpei planned to do. Kyohei has no respect for Ryota’s chosen profession as an art restorer either and neither he nor Ryota’s mother Toshiko fully accept their son’s marriage to a widow with a child from her first marriage.
Ryota’s sister Chinami doesn’t get off lightly either. She lives more locally and is married with her own children but has her heart set on moving into the family home, ready to have it for herself when her parents die. Toshiko doesn’t fancy the idea of Chinami muscling in on her territory though and bringing her noisy children and lazy husband along. So the group bicker throughout the day, with the spectre of Junpei, who both parents idolise, looming over everything.
Despite my longer-than-usual two-paragraph synopsis, this is a film where very little happens, on the surface at least. It’s largely just a series of conversations taking place over a day. The characters don’t even change dramatically over the course of the film, though there are subtle arcs. The film instead works by allowing us to reflect on family dynamics. It observes the differences between traditional and modern approaches to parenting as well as how alternative family units (e.g. step-families) might operate and develop.
This may not sound appealing or substantial but the film is utterly captivating and fully relatable. It feels quite personal in fact. A lot of the content was reportedly taken from Koreeda’s own past. He lost his mother 2 years before making the film and has said this influenced it greatly and was the main reason why he wanted to do it.
Once again Koreeda’s approach is wonderfully humane, with believably flawed characters you can easily sympathise with. There’s a lot of gentle humour too alongside the hidden and not-so-hidden barbs thrown between family members. Much of the characters’ true feelings can be seen through subtle glances too and details picked up by the camera and Koreeda’s sharp editorial eye (he’s edited most of his films).
So, once again Still Walking is a film that comes highly recommended. It seems to signal his move towards the more down-to-Earth family dramas he has become famous for, though the film is not as sweet or sentimental as it may first seem. It’s gentle and touching but also shows the ways families can hurt each other, making for a film with many layers despite its seemingly simple construction.
Of Flesh and Blood: The Cinema of Hirokazu Koreeda is out on 12th August on Blu-Ray in the UK, released by the BFI. The picture quality on all titles is fantastic, with a clean, detailed yet natural look. I compared Nobody Knows with a DVD version I had (from ICA) and the difference was staggering. The audio on all the discs is excellent too.
There are plenty of extra features included:
– Limited Edition
– Birthplace (2003, 30 mins): actress Makiko Esumi takes the viewer on a tour of the film’s locations, featuring behind-the-scenes stills and on-set footage
– Newly recorded audio commentary on Maborosi by filmmaker and writer Jasper Sharp
– Hirokazu Koreeda Screentalk (2013, 47 mins): the director in conversation with Jasper Sharp at the 2013 London Film Festival
– Interview with Arata (2003, 16 mins): an interview with the actor and star of After Life, Arata Iura
– Deleted scenes (1998, 17 mins): a selection of deleted scenes from After Life
– Newly recorded audio commentary on After Life by writer and curator Tara Judah
– Behind the Scenes on Nobody Knows (2004, 7 mins): Behind-the-scenes footage of Koreeda at work with his cast and crew
– Newly recorded audio commentary on Nobody Knows by Japanese-Australian filmmaker, writer and academic Kenta McGrath
– Making Still Walking (2008, 29 mins): a featurette showing the cast and crew at work behind the scenes
– Still Walking Q&A (2019, 33 mins): Hirokazu Koreeda in conversation with Michael Leader at BFI Southbank
– Newly recorded audio commentary on Still Walking by Alexander Jacoby
– Still Walking gallery
– 72-page book including new writing by David Jenkins, Jessica Kiang, Michael Leader, Alexander Jacoby and Jasper Sharp. Also includes interviews with the director, original reviews and full film credits
The commentaries are the stars here. Sharp’s track on Maborosi is excellent. He goes off on a lot of tangents about other films but it’s all of interest. He makes a great point about the importance of Japanese technology on the film industry too, as well as offering insight into Japanese history and how it influenced films in the country. Most of the commentaries delve into this in fact. Judah’s After Life commentary is great when she’s talking but there’s a lot of empty space where she takes a break, so it ends up being the weakest track. The Nobody Knows and Still Walking commentaries from McGrath and Jacob respectively both take a more consistently analytic approach to the film. These are highly effective in doing so without merely telling us what is clearly happening on screen. There’s little downtime either so they’re both engaging listens.
The London Film Festival and BFI conversations with Koreeda are both very interesting, delving into his methods and inspirations, as well as offering plenty of fun anecdotes. The couple of ‘making of’ documentaries are a good way of seeing the director at work, particularly the longer Still Walking one. The deleted scenes from After Life are worth a watch too. Most of them are more outwardly comedic than what stayed in the film, paying a lot of attention to a sex-crazed old man and his memories, and as such they’re a lot of fun but you can see why they didn’t make the final cut.
The remaining featurettes are a bit odd but worth looking at. The ‘Birthplace’ documentary feels a bit messy and drawn out but has some lovely moments here and there. The interview with Arata is a series of random questions about memories he has of generic places in his life. It fits the theme of the film I guess but it’s not all that interesting and soon loses steam.
I didn’t get a copy of the book to review unfortunately but at that length and with content from such an esteemed list of contributors, it’s sure to be a cinephile’s treat.
The set as a whole then is fantastic and I couldn’t recommend it more. I would be very surprised if it didn’t end up near the top of my releases of the year in January. With this and the Family Values set Arrow released last year, Koreeda fans are being spoilt in the UK. I hope next someone will release his early documentaries as well as the couple of titles missing from these sets that haven’t seen the light of day over here, such as Distance and Hana.