Monthly Archives: June 2014

Like Father, Like Son (Soshite chichi ni naru, Japan 2013)

Fukuyama Masaharu and Nonomiya Keita as the father and son who discover they are not 'blood-related' ©2013-FUJI-TELEVISION-NETWORK-INCAMUSE-INCGAGA-CORPORATION

Fukuyama Masaharu and Nonomiya Keita as the father and son who discover they are not ‘blood-related’ ©2013-FUJI-TELEVISION-NETWORK-INCAMUSE-INCGAGA-CORPORATION

(These notes were written for an Evening Class titled ‘All in the Family’ and covering ‘family dramas’ of different kinds, held at the National Media Museum in 2013)

Like Father, Like Son won the Jury Prize at the Cannes Film Festival and on its release in Japan became an instant hit with Japanese audiences, opening at No 1 and earning over $24 million in its first 17 days. This popularity at the Japanese box office surprised Western critics and the film, as well as being a genuine ‘family drama’, now stands as a case study in the difference between the responses of Western arthouse critics and Japanese popular audiences.

The Japanese family drama

The history of Japanese cinema reveals a studio system that was in many ways, especially in the 1930s and 1950s, as extensive and as efficient in meeting audience needs as that of Hollywood. Japan’s three main studios, Shochiku, Nikkatsu and Toho produced action films, comedies and social dramas and amongst these were films about families. In the West we tend to have seen only the ‘quality’ family films from the post-war period such as those of Ozu and the rather different family scenarios found in some of Kurosawa’s contemporary-set films.

Although there have been two-way ‘exchanges’ of films between Japan and the US in the sense of ‘remakes’ or ‘versions’ of films from one country in the other since at least the 1950s, there are definitely ‘differences’ for audiences in the West when watching Japanese family dramas. These are possibly enhanced by the approach taken by Kore-eda Hirokazu.

Kore-eda Hirokazu

Kore-eda entered filmmaking as a documentary director and you may not find this surprising because of the way he effortlessly seems to observe his characters in everyday locations. When he moved into fiction films, he became more like a ‘festival film director’, admired and celebrated for his carefully organised dramas, often about children and families. Some of these films have featured quite ‘extreme’ settings. In Nobody Knows (2004), based on a news story, four young children, each with a different father, are abandoned by their single-parent mother. They attempt to stay together in a form of ‘secret life’, not attending school and staying hidden most of the time. Kore-eda tends to take quite a cool detached perspective on these events, choosing not to exploit the emotional possibilities of the narrative. This may, of course, enhance the emotional resonances for audiences – or it may leave them dissatisfied.

Kore-eda’s films before Like Father, Like Son have appealed mainly to the festival circuit and the international art cinema market. Earlier this year his film I Wish (2011), about two young brothers separated when their parents split up, was warmly received here at the National Media Museum. One comment was that the film was “gossamer light” in its handling of family relationships. Will we respond in the same way to a similarly complex family drama? I Wish revealed to us that Japanese laws about divorce, separation and custody are different to those in the West. The same is true about adoption and the care of children generally. Like Father, Like Son does to some extent explain the background to a story in which babies in a maternity ward end up with the wrong mothers – a mistake which is not discovered until six years later. Certain issues about how this is resolved are important and you may wish to reflect on how they are represented in the film.

The two families in the film come from different class positions as signified by the father’s occupations – an architect and a local shopkeeper. This class difference is emphasised in many ways. In both families, however, the wife and mother seems to have less status in what is still a more patriarchal society. Japan ranks close to the bottom of indicators for gender equality across the more advanced economies. The middle-class family of the architect (and son of a businessman) is quite austere and emotionally cold, although the mother’s mother tries to inject some warmth. The other family is more anarchic. The father minds the shop and ‘fixes’ electrical gadgets. He is clearly an engaging dad – but also quite materialist in his attempt to always get the best deal. His wife is the most hard-worked and possibly the most loving. Kore-eda is careful to make each character ’rounded’ with good and bad points. This is a subtle and probing film narrative.

The other tension in Japanese society has often been quoted as being between ‘tradition’ and ‘modernity’. Ironically, in the film’s narrative, the seemingly most ‘modern’ character behaves in perhaps the most traditional manner re the ‘proper’ upbringing of children. It is one of the older characters who observes that questions about parentage, adoption, ‘blood relatives’ etc. were all put aside during the early post-war years under US Occupation because so many children had lost parents. But since then the trend to smaller nuclear families has increased the importance of ‘blood ties’.

Kore-eda himself in a newspaper interview for Asahi Shimbun explains that the idea for the film came from his own experience with his (then) 3 year-old daughter. He realised that because of his long trips away as a filmmaker his daughter was responding to him as a ‘nice visitor’ rather than her biological father. When he did some research he discovered that ‘mistakes’ in the maternity ward happened quite often in the 1960s and 1970s and that when they discovered this, parents invariably chose to ‘swap’ the children back on the grounds that blood was most important. During this research, he also became disturbed by the Japanese government’s plans to define a ‘family’ in law. Kore-eda argues that “A family is not something that any one person or group can define as being “this.”

What is also clear from the interview is that what actually motivated Kore-eda was thinking about his relationship with his own father. This perhaps explains why he chose ‘fathers and sons’ rather than daughters. The film narrative therefore really focuses on the middle-class father who has the means to make the most important choices which will affect everyone else. (The father is played by Fukuyama Masaharu, one of the many East Asian music stars who have graduated to film roles.)

The two families (at the time when the mistake has been revealed)

The two families (at the time when the mistake has been revealed)

Critical and popular response

As several reviewers have pointed out, Like Father, Like Son has a plot that could drive countless daytime soaps or 19th century novels and the TV serials or Hollywood melodramas based on them. Kore-eda’s ‘restraint’ in the way he handles the story has been seen by some as making the drama ‘light’ and the film far too long. Japanese popular audiences clearly disagree. This leads us to discuss Western (specialised cinema) and Japanese audiences and the differences between them. I recently undertook a very limited research exercise in which I looked at four films that featured in the Japanese box office chart for ‘domestic’ productions in 2010 and which subsequently were distributed in the UK in 2011. Two of the four films were moderate ‘hits’ in the UK – the adaptation of Murakami Haruki’s novel Norwegian Wood and the samurai film 13 Assassins from Takashi Miike. The other two films only received a handful of cinema screenings. One was an adaptation of a crime fiction novel with the English title Villain and the other was a stylish horror film set in a secondary school, Confessions. These films made very little money in the UK yet in Japan they were the two most praised films of the year, winning all the major awards – and in addition they were much more successful at the Japanese box office than the other two titles.

There are various factors about distribution that help to explain what happened in the UK to all four titles but even so, my conclusion is that audiences in the West have very fixed ideas about what a Japanese film is like and the more like ‘real life’ in Japan the film is, the less chance it has in the UK. Much of this is explained by the twin attraction of ‘extreme films’ on the one hand (e.g. from Takashi Miike) and the ‘exotic’ Orientalist attraction of certain kinds of Japanese literature and art. (This four film case study is discussed in Chapter 5 of The Global Film Book.)

I am intrigued to discover what we all think of Like Father, Like Son. Will we find it to be a sensitive look at another culture’s social issues, a weak version of a US TV movie or something else again? In terms of the Hollywood connection, I should tell you that Steven Spielberg was President of the Cannes Jury in May and that the company he founded, Dreamworks, has already bought the remake rights. Kore-eda appears to be directly involved in initial discussions for an American version.

[Most of the class liked the film a great deal. I liked it too, but I felt that it wasn’t as strong as some of his earlier titles – and indeed the previous film, I Wish. So now I am intrigued as to why it was so popular in Japan. Was it because it is about an important social issue as Kore-eda suggests or is it because the local distributor had more confidence in its appeal to audiences and promoted it more effectively? Please comment if you know about the Japanese release.]

References/further reading

Kore-eda interview (in English):

http://ajw.asahi.com/article/globe/economy/AJ201310270004

The Wind Rises (Kaze tachinu, Japan 2013)

Horikoshi leads out his aircraft for a test flight

Horikoshi leads out his aircraft for a test flight

It’s sad to think that after The Wind Rises there will be no more films directed by Miyazaki Hayao. But it’s good that his last venture is also one of his best. I think that The Wind Rises is up there with Princess Mononoke, Spirited Away and My Neighbour Totoro as a film I will always want to see again. What is different about this last film however is that it features a ‘real’ rather than a fantasy scenario and that it mainly features adult characters and concerns. Those earlier films did, of course, explore important themes relevant for contemporary society, but The Wind Rises does so more directly and audiences are likely to respond differently. As several others have pointed out, some of the sequences in the film also suggest links to Grave of the Fireflies (1988), the great work of Miyazaki’s erstwhile colleague Takahata Isao. Both films refer to the catastrophe of the bombing of Japan in 1944-5.

For his last film Miyazaki focuses on his obsession for flying and aeronautics, offering us a fictionalised account of the life of the aircraft designer Horikoshi Jiro, designer of the fighter plane known in the West as the Zero. Beginning with Jiro as a young teenager dreaming of flying, the film narrative features two main personal stories. One involves Jiro’s fantasy relationship with the Italian aircraft designer Caproni and the quest to design the most beautiful flying machine – set against the reality of working for Mitsubishi to design fighters for the Japanese Navy. The other involves Jiro’s (real and tragic) relationship with the beautiful Nahoko. These two narrative strands are developed in the context of first natural disaster (the 1923 Kanto earthquake) and then the gradual ‘militarisation’ of Japanese society and eventually the outbreak of war.

Horikoshi arrives in Tokyo in the midst of the Kanto earthquake of 1923

Horikoshi arrives in Tokyo in the midst of the Kanto earthquake of 1923

The Wind Rises has been, like all the latter Studio Ghibli films, a box office smash in Japan and, supported by Disney, a sizeable hit in the international market, led by North America and France, the best two markets outside Japan for manga and anime. Much has already been written about the film and I want to just pick up two or three aspects of the story. First I need to comment on the problems associated with the life story of someone identified as contributing to the Japanese war effort. This film, like several others made in the last few years, ‘humanises’ figures who for some audiences will forever be ‘the enemy’. I don’t mean to belittle the concerns of these audiences – there are good reasons why it is difficult to forget the pain of war. Horikoshi Jiro travels to Germany to learn from designers at Junkers (who have a business relationship with Mitsubishi). He is disturbed by some things he encounters in Germany and is befriended at one point by a ‘good German’ – a critic of the Nazis and something of a stereotypical character. (This character is named Hans Castorp after the hero of Thomas Mann’s The Magic Mountain with the TB sanatorium as the link between Miyazaki’s narratives.) Miyazaki might be accused of trying to ‘find excuses’ for Horikoshi but I don’t think this is a problem as the focus is clearly on the obsessive designer who gives little thought to the military build-up in the 1930s because he is so focused on the technical problems of his design. It occurred to me that the strange sense of beauty associated with certain designs of military aircraft is not something unique to Miyazaki.

The British equivalent of Miyazaki’s aircraft designer might be R. J. Mitchell (1895-1937), designer of the Spitfire. Two British films immediately spring to mind. The first is Michael Powell’s A Canterbury Tale (1944) which opens with a sequence in which one of the original pilgrims to Canterbury releases his hawk to hunt for prey. As the bird flies high the scene changes to the present day with the watcher in uniform and the hawk transposed to a Spitfire high in the sky. The film about R. J. Mitchell is The First of the Few (UK 1942). Leslie Howard directs and plays Mitchell who died young soon after the prototype Spitfire first flew. Like The Wind Rises the story is fictionalised and it is interesting that there are some features common to both films. For instance, Mitchell is shown meeting the German designer Messerschmitt and there are suggestions that he overworks. There is also an Italian connection with Mitchell competing in the Schneider Trophy air races against Italian designers with his Supermarine S6. Miyazaki makes references to this competition in his 1992 film Porco Rosso. Because The First of the Few (titled after Churchill’s speech about the ‘Battle of Britain’) is a wartime film it is more propagandistic. David Niven plays a Squadron Leader relating Mitchell’s story to the younger pilots in his charge. I’m sure there must be other similar aircraft designer films – Martin Scorsese’s The Aviator (US 2004) includes aspects of Howard Hughes’ obsession with aircraft design.

My second major interest in The Wind Rises is its depiction of 1920s-30s Japan, including the devastation of the earthquake and the daily routines of Horikoshi and his friends and colleagues. In particular, I’m fascinated by his relationship with Nahoko. I’m very taken by the way Miyazaki is able to create such beautiful and evocative images of the world familiar to me from Japanese film melodramas of the period. And The Wind Rises is strongly influenced by the melodrama tradition in Japanese cinema. I noted the score by  Joe Hisaishi and I’m looking forward to watching the film again and focusing on the melodrama references. I found The Wind Rises to be just as beautiful in terms of drawn animation as the fantasy anime for which Miyazaki is better known. (There are references to those earlier films via the character of Jiro’s younger sister.) I hope that there are plenty of aspiring anime directors who want to develop Miyazaki’s ideas and carry on the tradition.

Nahoko and Jiro

Nahoko and Jiro

Sight and Sound (June 2014) has an extended set of articles on The Wind Rises which are informative and stimulating. Some of this material is available online, including a ‘gallery’ of stills from the film and a quiz – which Studio Ghibli character are you? (I’m Princess Mononoke apparently!)

A Touch of Sin (China/Japan 2013)

The man who 'can't take it any more' in A TOUCH OF SIN?

Jiang Wu as the man who ‘can’t take it any more’ in A TOUCH OF SIN

Jia Zhangke is one of the most important directors in China and within global cinema. He wrote and directed this film titled carefully to nod towards King Hu’s A Touch of Zen (Taiwan 1971) and his script won the major screenwriter’s prize at Cannes in 2013. Why then has it taken a year to get to the UK and still hasn’t got a Chinese domestic release?

The second question is perhaps easiest to understand since Jia paints a disturbing picture of contemporary China. The Chinese censors have succeeded in stimulating the circulation of pirate copies to significant audiences in China. The problems with UK distribution of anything other than Hollywood blockbusters are well known. I’m glad that Arrow managed to get the film into a few UK cinemas but I fear that they don’t have the muscle to promote it properly. But then Jia isn’t the easiest filmmaker to put before the public. The content of his films often appeals directly to popular audiences but the pacing and contemplative style sometimes cause barriers. But if you can get into the groove, Jia offers both great filmmaking and plenty to think about.

The motorcycle killer taking a boat trip – and reminding us of A STILL LIFE

The motorcycle killer (Wang Baoqiang, on the right) taking a boat trip – and reminding us of Jia’s earlier A STILL LIFE

A Touch of Sin is based on four news stories from the past few years, all discussed on the Chinese equivalent of Twitter (Weibo) but not so readily on official Chinese News channels. Importantly, the stories emanate from Shanxi (North), Chongqing (West), Guangzhou (South) and Hubei (Central) – and not from Beijing or Shanghai (or the most remote parts of the country). This is like a UK film featuring stories from Dundee, Southampton, the East Midlands and North Wales – but not London. The stories are also said to make references to traditional wu xia tales. Much has been made of this apparent shift towards genre filmmaking but the links to Jia’s earlier films are still strongly in place.

The four stories represent the lives of ‘ordinary people’. In one a worker in a town which has effectively been ‘sold’ by a local politician eventually flips and attacks what he sees as the parasites who are destroying opportunities for local people and stealing all the profits. In another, a man who travels hundreds of miles to find work in order to support his ageing mother decides that robbing (and killing) the rich on his travels is more profitable. A woman finds work in a sauna/massage parlour before the behaviour of the guests drives her to violence and in the final story a young man is driven to despair by the alienation of working in a typical Chinese factory making goods for the West.

Zhao Tao as the woman who also reaches the end of her tether in A TOUCH OF SIN

Zhao Tao as the woman who also reaches the end of her tether in A TOUCH OF SIN

Jia allows the stories to overlap (two characters from different stories might pass each other at a road junction or a railway station) so that we get the impression that we are on a roundabout constantly moving through stories about degradation in modern China. The settings for some of the stories are the mundane cityscapes and small town milieu familiar from Jia’s earlier films but they also include some of the more surreal settings Jia has also previously explored – a resort/nightclub with girls dressed in outlandish costumes recalls The World (2004). The inference seems clear – the negative impact of globalised forms of ‘recreation’ alongside the mind-numbing factory work courtesy of contracts for global corporations.

The moments of violence are presented in well-edited action sequences but the overall aesthetic is of the long take and long-shot composition. This, for me at least, is the most distinctive aspect of Jia’s style and I marvel at his ability to compose images with his regular cinematographer Yu Lik-wai. The protagonists of three of the four stories are actors I recognised from other Chinese films, including his partner Zhao Tao.

I have no doubt that there was much I missed in the representations of modern China in these four stories. I’m looking forward to seeing the film again when it appears on DVD (September in the UK). Please don’t miss it!