Japanese cinema enjoyed much overseas acclaim in the late 90s and early 2000s, with the likes of Takashi Miike and Hideo Nakata producing cult hits that kept critics and a reasonably sized audience happy (or more often terrified) in the West. Although those directors have remained active, Japanese cinema seems to have drifted out of public favour over here in the last decade or so, when compared to its popularity back then. One director that has been enjoying increased critical adoration in the 21st Century though is Hirokazu Koreeda. His debut fictional feature, Maborosi, won him Best Director at the Venice Film Festival back in 1995 and he’s become a regular fixture at Cannes since, taking home the Jury Prize for his 2013 film, Like Father, Like Son. Although he’s written and directed a range of work, he’s largely known for his subtle family dramas and, as such, he’s often compared to fellow countryman Yasujirô Ozu. Arrow Academy have collected together three of Koreeda’s family dramas in this set entitled Family Values: Three Films by Hirokazu Kore-eda, so, being a fan of Ozu, as well as the few Koreeda films I’d seen previously, I thought I’d check it out for myself. Below are my thoughts on the three films included in the set, I Wish, Like Father, Like Son and After the Storm (which is also being released separately).
Director: Hirokazu Koreeda
Screenplay: Hirokazu Koreeda
Starring: Kôki Maeda, Ohshirô Maeda, Nene Ohtsuka, Joe Odagiri, Isao Hashizume, Kirin Kiki
Running Time: 128 min
I Wish (a.k.a. Kiseki), the earliest film in the set, sees two young brothers, Koichi (Kôki Maeda) and Ryunosuke (Ohshirô Maeda) separated from each other. Their parents have divorced and Koichi lives with his mother Nozomi (Nene Ohtsuka) in Kagoshima, near the active volcano Sakurajima. Ryunosuke lives with his father Kenji (Joe Odagiri) back where the family used to live, in Fukuoka. The brothers keep in touch via their mobile phones, but their parents’ differences and distance between each other means they haven’t met up since the separation. Both boys have been making new friends and getting on with the usual ups and downs of growing up, but Koichi in particular is missing life with his brother. One day in school though, he learns of a myth that the energy produced by two bullet trains passing each other will grant those nearby whatever wish they desire. So Koichi organises a trip to the spot where two new trains will first pass, with his brother and friends, with the idea to wish for his family to be reunited.
Koreeda has a great knack for capturing the essence of natural life and I Wish gives him a chance to show the world from the perspective of children. The adults take a bit of a side seat to the central brothers and their friends. We discover the wishes and desires of the children and the advice given by the ‘grown-ups’ is often lost on them
The advice and messages of the film about appreciating what you’ve got aren’t lost on the audience though as they’re clearly portrayed in the film’s fairly simple narrative. It takes a short while to get your bearings as the film jumps between the worlds of the two brothers, but you soon learn to recognise the characters within them and the ever-present volcanic ash in Kagoshima helps set that half aside. The final message and scenes are perhaps a little sentimental and neatly tied up, but Koreeda manages to narrowly avoid getting too syrupy.
Like the rest of the films in the set and Koreeda’s recent Our Little Sister, I Wish is another sweet, gently rolling family yarn. It’s possibly the lightest film of the set and the one that most closely leans towards sentimentality, but it’s still beautiful and delicately made.
Like Father, Like Son
Director: Hirokazu Koreeda
Screenplay: Hirokazu Koreeda
Starring: Masaharu Fukuyama, Machiko Ono, Yôko Maki, Lily Franky, Keita Ninomiya, Shôgen Hwang, Kirin Kiki
Running Time: 121 min
Like Father, Like Son (a.k.a. Soshite chichi ni naru) sees the hard working Ryota (Masaharu Fukuyama) and his wife Midori (Machiko Ono) discover that their 6 year old son Keita (Keita Ninomiya) isn’t actually their natural son. He was swapped in hospital shortly after birth with another boy. Their ‘real’ son is actually Ryusei (Shôgen Hwang), who had been brought up by Yudai (Lily Franky) and Yukari (Yôko Maki), Keita’s ‘real’ parents. The two families meet up to spend time together and figure out what to do about the tragic error. They are told that the majority of couples decide to simply ‘swap’ back, but neither family are sure this is the best option. Ryota seems most troubled however by the fact that he had grand plans for his son, working him hard from an early age to be able to get into a prestigious public (or private if you’re American) primary school and from there become as successful and hardworking as he is. Ryota can’t decide on the best option for this plan though, as Keita was underperforming a little and Ryusei seems to have been ‘corrupted’ by the free-spirited, lazy Yudai. Over time the families do come to an arrangement and swap children, but things don’t run smoothly, with Ryota struggling to fit Ryusei into his strict regime and the two mothers finding living apart from the boys they’d nurtured for years too hard to handle.
Although this and the other titles here certainly fit the same mould, offering naturalistic family dramas that are subtly told, Like Father, Like Son surrounds a more extreme situation and as such feels a little more obviously dramatic, moving and complex. I found the setup fascinating and it offered many ‘what if’ questions as I watched. Many avenues of the difficult dilemma faced by the characters are explored, making for a rich and emotionally complex film. It’s beautifully told again with Koreeda’s naturalistic style, brought to life by some wonderful performances. He must have been pleased with Lily Franky and Yôko Maki as he used them again in later films and Kirin Kiki is as wonderful as ever, playing the grandma role once again like she does in every film in this set and other Koreeda films.
My only problem with Like Father, Like Son was that the differences between the two families are perhaps a little too wide and clear, detracting from the otherwise subtle drama. The contrasting settings are even shot noticeably differently, with cold colours and sharp, clean and shiny surroundings in the Ryota/Midori scenes and warm, loose and busy frames when spending time with Yudai and Yukari. It meant that although a lot of complex issues are dealt with, the central message is a little simplistic.
That said, I still found the film morally fascinating and heartbreaking at times. It’s a beautiful film that examines the nature versus nurture argument in an extreme circumstance without getting bogged down in melodrama. Its messages may be a little obvious at times, but it’s still a film to give your brain and soul a workout.
After the Storm
Director: Hirokazu Koreeda
Screenplay: Hirokazu Koreeda
Starring: Hiroshi Abe, Yôko Maki, Satomi Kobayashi, Lily Franky, Sôsuke Ikematsu, Taiyô Yoshizawa, Kirin Kiki
Running Time: 118 min
The latest film in the set, After the Storm (a.k.a. Umi yori mo mada fukaku) follows Ryôta (Hiroshi Abe), a one-time author who’s now working as a private detective for ‘research’ for his next novel. He’s sinking pretty low, divorced from his wife Kyôko (Yôko Maki), who has custody of their son Shingo (Taiyô Yoshizawa) and struggling for money due largely to a gambling addiction. When we meet him his father has just died too. He doesn’t seem too troubled by this though, at first. His dad was a loser and a swindler too, and Ryôta seems more concerned with finding any valuables his father left behind rather than mourn over his death. He’s determined to turn his life around though and become a better role model to his son than his father, but his vices continue to get the better of him.
After the Storm is probably the most well rounded film of the set. Where I Wish teetered close to the edge of sentimentality and Like Father, Like Son had a few blunt edges, After the Storm largely gets the balance right. There are moments that threaten to get sentimental or hackneyed perhaps, but Koreeda is too talented a director to let his film actually fall into these potholes. The ‘grandma’ of the piece (Kirin Kiki once again) for instance often offers words of wisdom that wouldn’t look out of place on a Hallmark greeting card, but they’re delivered with enough humanity to pull them off and the character pokes fun at them at one point, saying “that was deep” and suggesting her son writes it down and puts it in his next book.
Once again, the subtle handling of drama and naturalism impresses, aided by a cast of Koreeda regulars. Abe manages the tough job of making his lead character likeable and relatable, even though he does some pretty despicable things throughout the course of the film.
All of the films in the set made me reflect on my own life and role as a father, but this did possibly more so than the rest. It made me want to be a better person as I saw some small similarities between Ryôta and myself.
This ability to make me ponder my own existence can only be seen as another positive in this fine film. Once again, it’s a quietly touching drama from the director. He has such a gift for taking a simple premise and letting it naturally play out whilst still forming a satisfying narrative arc. There are moments that could have derailed the film in lesser hands, but Koreeda avoids these stumbling blocks by keeping things believable and unforced.
Family Values: Three Films by Hirokazu Kore-eda is out now in a dual-format Blu-Ray and DVD box set in the UK, released by Arrow Academy. The films look decent. It’s a touch soft perhaps, but I guess this will be down to the source material. The soundtracks all perform nicely.
There’s a host of special features included in the set too. They include:
- Original Uncompressed audio
- Optional English subtitles
- Newly filmed introductions to all three films by noted critics including Tony Rayns (more to be confirmed)
- Brand new career-spanning interviews with director Hirokazu Kore-eda looking in depth at all three films
- A visual essay on Kore-eda’s films and style
- What Would Your Wish Be? – a documentary on I Wish
- Interviews with the Like Father, Like Son cast
- Feature-length documentary on making of After the Storm
- Promotional featurettes
- Original trailers
- Reversible sleeves featuring original and newly commissioned artwork by Corey Brickley
- 60-page Collector's book featuring new writing on all three films
It’s an impressive array of features, which is surprising for a set of such low key dramas of this kind. They provide an in depth look at the director’s work that is more than welcome, so Arrow must be applauded for pulling out all the stops. With all three films as strong as they are, on top of all the supplemental features, it’s an easy recommendation.