Your Name (Japan 2016)

Mitsuha and Taki

Mitsuha and Taki

This new anime by director Shinkai Makoto has prompted comparisons with the great successes of Studio Ghibli and specifically with the work of Miyazaki Hayao. It isn’t difficult to understand the comparisons. The narrative deals with adolescents, both of whom have the potential for heroism. Mitsuha lives in a small town in the mountains but Taki lives in Tokyo. Mitsuha is a typical Ghibli young female, living with her grandmother and younger sister and estranged from her father, the town mayor. Her late mother had inherited her own mother’s spiritual powers and Mitsuha is expected to follow the family tradition, tending a shrine and helping her grandmother who weaves braids for ceremonies. But Mitsuha wants to try something different: she wants to experience Tokyo and the kind of lives that boys have.

In Tokyo, Taki is a high school boy with excellent drawing skills and a part-time job in an Italian restaurant where he has a crush on an older co-worker. Writer-director Shinkai Makoto has fashioned a narrative that enables these two adolescents to interact and learn from each other — using a mixture of romance, fantasy and adventure in new ways, even if the device of switching identities is familiar from universal romance/fantasy genres. But what starts and perhaps ends as one kind of film takes a very different turn part way through and moves into the kind of discourse familiar from manga and anime. As well as Ghibli, I was reminded of The Girl Who Leapt Through Time which is a case study film in The Global Film Book. That film used science fiction to create a narrative around one adolescent’s discoveries about herself. In Your Name, although it is first fantasy that brings the couple together, there is also a real interest in science — and in the natural disasters which befall Japan.

The animation is detailed and sometimes very detailed. I enjoyed the music too, though I know there are critics of the pop group Radwimps. It is no surprise that this has become one of the biggest box office hits of all Japanese cinema and the only anime to challenge Miyazaki. (I should be clear though — this is not a Ghibli film.) If this film could charm me on a long haul flight, I’m sure it would be an emotional storm on a big screen. If you haven’t seen it yet, look out for the Japanese language version.

Sweet Bean (An, Japan-France-Germany 2015)

The three principal characters: (from left) Wakana (Uchida Kyara), Tukue (Kiki Kirin) and Setaro (Nagase Matososhi)

The three principal characters: (from left) Wakana (Uchida Kyara), Tokue (Kirin Kiki) and Setaro (Nagase Matososhi)

For reasons I don’t fully understand, the Japanese director Naomi Kawase divides film critics and audiences. A regular presence at Cannes, her films have until recently been seen only at festivals in much of the English-speaking world. It wasn’t until Still the Water from 2014 that she achieved a UK release. Despite all her international festival prizes (or perhaps because of them?), Kawase’s films often attract descriptions such as ‘pretentiousness’ and ‘lacking in narrative drive’. Critics also seem to be put off by her interests in ecology and spiritual connections (which with my limited knowledge I see as traditionally Japanese). Some critics have also put her alongside Terrence Malick in respect of these traits. Her new film has attracted some of the same comments and at 113 minutes its telling of a simple story does suggest a slow pace. However, it didn’t feel slow to my viewing companion and me. We loved the film and both shed some tears – it has also been deemed ‘sentimental’ by detractors, but many in the general audience for the film will like it very much.

The film begins with the morning ritual of a solitary man in his late 40s who is preparing to open his small shop selling dorayaki – sweet red bean paste (the an of the title) sandwiched between simple sweet pancakes. His loyal customers are mainly local schoolgirls but this morning Tokue, a woman in her 70s, drops by enquiring after the part-time job he has advertised. The man (whose name is Sentarô, but who is most of the time simply ‘Boss’) attempts the classic ‘put-off’ strategy to avoid offending Tokue, telling her there is heavy lifting, long hours, low pay etc. She accepts a sample dorayaki and reluctantly leaves only to return the next day with a sample of her own home-made bean paste which she has been making for fifty years. He eventually tastes it and discovers that it is delicious and far superior to the factory-made stuff he buys in. From here on the storyline will be familiar up until the point when we begin to find out more about the three main characters. The backstories are perhaps rather unexpected and though the film’s resolution is fairly conventional, the second half of the film does deliver some insights into Japanese culture as well as exploring more universal concerns.

From the cover of the novel 'Les délices de Tokyo'

From the cover of the novel ‘Les délices de Tokyo’

This is the first time Naomi Kawase has adapted a novel, I think. Many Japanese films are literary adaptations and Durian Sukegawa’s novel was published in France under the title of Les délices de Tokyo (also the film title in France). As with many film festival regulars, Naomi Kawase finds her major overseas support in France and An, like Still the Water is a French co-production. The novel seems to fit Kawase’s overall approach and her interest in the moon and trees seems perfectly in tune with the main story. The film is located in a Tokyo district with enough spare ground for a plantation of cherry trees and the narrative opens (and closes) with a display of cherry blossom. As many reviewers have noted the cherry blossom signifies both the passage of time (a wonderful shot when the roads are covered in blossom fall) and also something about the importance of seasons and the true bond between humans and the natural world. My favourite line in the film was a reference to a brand of sea salt, “dried under the moon on a southern island”.

Tokue makes dorayaki

Tokue makes dorayaki

The cherry blossom reminded me of the German film Kirschblüten (Cherry Blossom, Germany/France 2008) which shares some of the same elements – and received a similar mixed critical response. Like Kirschblüten, Sweet Bean is a film about (broken) family relationships. The third main character is a schoolgirl, Wakana who lives with her mother in a nearby apartment. Wakana is separated from the other girls at school who are cramming for entrance exams for college/university as her mother wants her to leave to earn money. The dorayaki shop is a refuge for her and eventually she will become the initially unwitting agent of the changes in the narrative. As the back stories emerge, we also realise that Tokue and Sentarô are in some ways in a surrogate mother-son relationship. The performances of all three central characters are excellent and the actors Kiki Kirin (Tokue) and Uchida Kyara (Wakana) are actually grandmother and grand-daughter. I was disappointed after the screening to discover that I ought to have recognised both of them because of the films of Kore-eda Hirokazu and that reference seems particularly apt as Sweet Bean would be likely to appeal to the (growing) audiences entranced by Kore-eda’s recent films including Our Little Sister (Japan 2015). Nagase Matososhi) who plays Sentarô is another very experienced Japanese actor and together the trio convey the precise mood that Kawase seeks to create.

Sentaro and Wakana

Sentaro and Wakana

I won’t spoil the second half of the narrative by explaining the social issue involved. It was a surprise to me – but then aspects of Japanese society are often surprising. I’ve seen Sweet Bean dismissed partly because it is seen as an example of ‘food porn’. This strikes me as a particularly crass comment. My experience is that Japan (like several other non-Anglo cultures) has preserved an interest in traditional food culture (as well as embracing a bewildering array of convenience foods) and that these are appreciated by the majority of the population. Japanese culture is also strong in terms of presentation, so there is a desire to make even inexpensive foods attractive. In Sweet Bean we have both alcohol in plastic from a vending machine and sweet cakes dispensed from a traditional shop space – the old and the new together. I seem to remember that there is a big emphasis on food as part of family and friendship culture in Kore-eda’s films as well. If critics don’t like Sweet Bean, I suspect that their take on food is not very reliable either.

Only Yesterday (Omoide Poro Poro, Japan 1991)

A pensive Taeko on the night train taking her to the country.

A pensive Taeko on the night train taking her to the country.

This is one of the Studio Ghibli anime that despite huge popularity in Japan seems to have been sidelined in UK and US distribution. I wasn’t aware of the film when it appeared in Film 4’s Ghibli season earlier this year. Most of the films in the season were dubbed but this one, playing very late at night, was subtitled. I’m assuming Disney never bothered to find an English language cast for it. Why has it been overlooked? The most obvious answer is that it doesn’t fit the Western expectations for an anime. Even though it features a small girl for much of the time this is in fact a ‘romantic drama’ for older audiences. It was the highest grossing Japanese film of 1991.

Based on a manga by Okamoto Hotaru and Tone Yuko, Only Yesterday was written and directed by Takahata Isao. Co-founder of Studio Ghibli with Miyazaki Hayao, Takahata is probably best known in the West for Grave of the Fireflies (Japan 1988), the heart-wrenching tale of two children escaping the fire-bombing of Kobe in 1945. Only Yesterday is not dramatic in the same way but it is equally moving.

Taeko is a young single woman working in a Tokyo office in 1982. When the other workers plan exotic summer holidays she decides to visit the countryside and stay with distant relatives. She’s been before and this time she wants to pick safflowers – traditionally used for making dyes and cosmetics. Taeko has already heard the comments that at age 27 she should be married and this trip seems to trigger very strong memories of how she felt as a 10 year-old being taken to a spa town on holiday. Takahata then constructs the whole narrative as a series of flashbacks to 1966 interspersed with ‘life on the farm’ where Taeko’s ‘time off’ is spent with Toshio, a young man who tried working in Tokyo but decided to return to the land as an organic farmer.

In 1966 a pineapple is still an exotic fruit and the family doesn't know how to serve it.

In 1966 a pineapple is still an exotic fruit and the family doesn’t know how to serve it.

There are a couple of informative and very interesting reviews of Only Yesterday on the Studio Ghibli wiki at nausicaa.net. One notes that the Japanese title translates as ‘Memories of Falling Teardrops’ and that this is much more evocative of the mood and tone of the film. I agree and, although I’m wary of referencing Ozu at every turn, I also have to agree that the film has the same careful investigation of family relationships found in Ozu’s films. Takahata even presents the film’s credits against the kind of hessian background used by Shochiku and other studios for their 1950s and 60s dramas. There is the same nostalgia for Japan in the 1950s that appears in Miyazaki’s My Neighbour Totoro. Taeko is the youngest of three girls and experiences a combination of love, bullying and high expectation from her stern father, no nonsense mother and grandmother and older siblings obsessed with the Beatles and the ‘new Japan’. Takahata shows in great detail how Taeko is affected by seemingly trivial incidents and how they build up into almost traumatic episodes – a first crush, embarrassment over discussion of menstruation, an inability to understand division of fractions, a dream about becoming an actor. Some of these are bad memories but they all need to be worked over by the adult Taeko.

The field of safflowers and the distant hills.

The field of safflowers and the distant hills.

In aesthetic terms this is a ravishing film with two distinct animation styles. 1966 is detailed in simply drawn and coloured scenes whereas the landscapes of rural Japan in 1982 are exquisitely beautiful. There is a focus on music, including several East European songs that Toshio tells Takeo that he likes because they are ‘peasant songs’. Like Miyazaki, Takahata seems to have been a big promoter of ecological concerns and there are detailed conversations about organic farming and the relationship between humans and the rural landscape.

The film is primarily about Takeo’s choices and after spending a summer holiday in which Toshio has helped her think through all her childhood concerns it seems fairly obvious that he might be ‘the one’. But Taeko has always been stubborn and self-willed. Will she finally go with what seems a sensible option?

This is a lovely film that ought to make any audience feel better about the world. There is a UK Region 2 DVD and a US Blu-ray, I think – but no English dub (hooray!). Many reviewers have said this is their favourite Ghibli DVD. I think I might still go for My Neighbour Totoro but this is seriously wonderful. Please seek it out – you won’t regret it.

Manga and anime are discussed in The Global Film Book in Chapter 5.

Rurôni Kenshin (Japan 2012)

Kenshin arrives in town and learns about Kauro's dojo

Kenshin arrives in town and learns about Kaoru’s dojo

Rurôni Kenshin is that rare beast, a contemporary popular Japanese film that received a UK release in 2013. A famous manga series in Japan in the 1990s which became a popular TV anime series, the live action film was produced by Warner Bros. for a local release in Japan where it opened at No. 1. A year later it went into 8 UK cinemas with no mainstream publicity that I could see and flopped. I watched it on a rented Blu-ray. Apart from the usual South-East Asian territories such as Singapore, Thailand, Philippines etc. it doesn’t seem to have been released elsewhere in cinemas but still seems to have made more than $60 million. The success in Japan meant that following recent Hollywood practice, two sequels were made in a joint production and both were released in 2014.

For anyone not already a manga fan (I’ve only read a few), the generic mixes of these films developed from manga series can present problems. The original here was written as a shonen manga – targeting a male audience, mainly of teenagers. Ostensibly this film references the classic genre of the chanbara or swordfight film. But this isn’t quite what that term might suggest, although there are important links. The lead character is a young and extremely talented swordsman. In the opening sequence he’s fighting for the forces who overthrew the Tokugawa shogunate and restored the Emperor in 1868. Still a teenager, but having already killed many men, Himura Kenshin gives up his title as an assassin – ‘Battosai’ – and becomes a ‘wandering samurai’ with a sword that has the blade on the inside of the curve (the leading edge being blunt). This means he can still dominate in swordplay but he won’t kill any opponents. Since the restoration he has vowed to help people and communities.

Ten years later Kenshin finds himself helping out Kaoru, a young woman whose father has died leaving her the control of his dojo – a martial arts school, fencing in this case. The young woman is threatened by a samurai who has adopted Kenshin’s old identity and is murdering people and leaving Battosai’s calling card.The dojo also becomes a target for a corrupt business man who is pushing opium and building up an army of fighters. Kenshin is going to be involved in many fights.

The focus on young characters and the theme of atonement and service marks the film out as having its shonen roots. It then acquires other influences. A set of different genre elements have been imported from Chinese martial arts. In his Film Business Asia review Derek Elley suggests that some of these come via action director Tanigaki Kenji who has worked in Hong Kong with leading filmmakers such as Donnie Yen. I was aware of the Hong Kong/Taiwan/Mainland China connection at different times just in the depiction of the late 19th century world. The two factors that were new to me in a Japanese film were the aerial leaps in the swordfights (wirework?) and the various references to ‘schools’ of swordmanship and specific moves – just as might be found in Chinese martial arts. These links suggest wu xia films and there is also the possibility of supernatural elements as the villain deploys a form of paralysing hypnosis. A final element is Japanese pop music which re-emphasises the shonen angle and the focus on youth. The lead is played by Satō Takeru, a young actor well-known for lead roles on television and in another popular TV/film franchise, the long-running Kamen Rider, another manga based series about a superhero. A good-looking and gentle young man, Satō becomes a very believable action hero in the choreographed fight sequences.

The film is long by Western standards with not enough plot and deep characterisation to sustain it, but I enjoyed the spectacle and was intrigued by the shonen angle. Young samurai are found in the classic Kurosawa swordfight films, but usually only as apprentices to the masters – though they are sometimes allowed to have romances. This film is set in a later period which has featured in both the Tom Cruise picture Last Samurai (US/NZ/Japan 2003) and Twilight Samurai (Japan 2002) by Yamada Yôji. One other link to Kurosawa is the performance of Aoki Munetaka as a ‘streetfighter’, a brave-hearted warrior wielding a huge old sword – and reminding us of Mifune Toshiro’s performance as the would-be samurai in Seven Samurai. He too will move into the fencing school to support Kenshin and the small community (two young men, two young women and a boy) provide the ready-made ‘family’ for the sequels.

This film would be useful to study in relation to the ideas about contemporary Japanese cinema in Chapter 5 of the Global Film Book.

The trailer:

A Hen in the Wind (Kaze no naka no mendori, Japan 1948)

Sano Shûji and Tanaka Kinuyo as the re-united husband and wife

Sano Shûji and Tanaka Kinuyo as the re-united husband and wife

This is the ‘makeweight’ title in the BFI’s double package of Blu-ray/DVD versions of An Autumn Afternoon, the last film by Ozu Yasujiro in 1962. Jonathan Rosenbaum’s essay included in the package makes clear that A Hen in the Wind has been neglected by many critics and considered one of Ozu’s minor works. Ozu himself is reported as describing it as a ‘bad failure’. It is certainly different from the later films and very different in some respects to its immediate successor, the highly celebrated Late Spring (1949). I personally find it a very moving film and it falls into my favourite period in cinema history in the late 1940s. I’ve just been back to look at what I wrote about Record of a Tenement Gentlemanthe first film Ozu made when he returned to work in 1947 after re-patriation. My viewing of A Hen in the Wind confirms everything I wrote about the earlier film, but there are differences as well. The similarities to Italian neo-realism are again evident and the film seems in tune with what is happening in film internationally in those difficult post-war years.

One noticeable feature of A Hen in the Wind is the presence of the great Tanaka Kinuyo in the lead role. Arguably the dominant female figure in classical Japanese cinema, Tanaka is one of our heroes. Although she was best known in her later career as an actress for Mizoguchi and as a director in her own right, she did make several films for Ozu (including some in the 1930s) and it’s hard to imagine any other star in this role as the central character Tokiko – even though she played the role of a 28 year-old when she was already 38. Tokiko is effectively a single mother with a small son. Her husband has not yet returned from the war. We are never told where the husband has been stationed – perhaps in China? Re-patriation did take a long time so in itself this is not unusual. Tokiko is a dressmaker by trade but she has to stay home with the boy and can only survive by gradually selling off her kimonos to raise money for food. When the boy falls ill and needs hospital treatment she has no other resources and she turns to the only solution – selling herself for one night only to pay the medical bill. Her close friend Akiko, is furious with her (for not asking her for the money) and criticises her quite severely. She advises Tokiko to tell no-one and especially her husband about what she has done. At this point we think we know what will happen when the husband returns – which he does soon after. We dread being proved correct.

The camera follows Tokiko as she takes her son to the doctor

The camera follows Tokiko as she takes her son to the doctor

Tokiko and Akiko discuss their dreams as young women before the war while Hiroshi, recovered from his illness plays in the foreground.

Tokiko and Akiko discuss their dreams as young women before the war while the boy, Hiroshi, now recovered from his illness plays in the foreground.

A Hen in the Wind is deemed an anomaly – in both style and content. My reference to neo-realism refers to two separate issues. First of all Ozu and Shochiku were faced with logistical problems in making films at this point. A Hen in the Wind is short, 82 minutes and it avoids expensive sets or complicated location shooting. This supplies the production context (in effect the restraints) which ‘fit’ for a narrative focused on a single everyday event/social issue at a time of austerity. In plot terms the event is the sudden onset of sickness for Tokiko’s son. It is the need to find the money to pay for his treatment that creates the narrative drive (just as the theft of the bicycle propels Bicycle Thieves forward). In a sense, the same scenario could have been played out in Italy or Germany in 1948. The difference might be in the treatment of the shame attached to the act of prostitution. There is also a second social issue compounding the conflict created by the sickness – the slow repatriation of service personnel (and in the background the problems associated with the Occupation, not mentioned directly in the script). The same issues – health problems and re-patriation – are found in films by Kurosawa and Naruse during this period. What is also important is how Ozu shows us this world of austerity trying to ‘get back on its feet’. I was struck by two long tracking shots showing first Tokiko and then her husband moving through the streets of Tokyo. The evidence of bombing is still there and the urban scene can seem desolate with rubble and wrecked machinery by the side of the road. A moving camera in later Ozu films is so unusual that these shots are quite noticeable. They are also contrasted with more composed scenes set by the riverside. Both Rosenbaum and David Bordwell (Ozu and the Poetics of Cinema, BFI 1988) refer to the locations as ‘slum’ areas. I think perhaps ‘slum’ means something different in the US. Tokiko’s home is the top floor of a small wooden house rented from the family who live below. Nobody has much money but the connotations of slum housing – families crushed together in unhygenic mass dwellings etc. doesn’t apply. In fact I felt that somewhere in the film there was an attempt to present this as a transitional period when Japan is recovering. The scenes by the river seem more optimistic.

The second tracking shot follows Tokiko's husnand Suichi when he retraces her journey to the brothel. (A tram will pass him on this journey – the closest Ozu offers us to his favourite railway shots.

The second tracking shot follows Tokiko’s husnand Suichi when he retraces her journey to the brothel. (A tram will pass him on this journey – the closest Ozu offers us to his favourite railway shots.)

Sound in the film is also important. Several scenes in the house are accompanied by what sounds like the thud of a machine in a factory. This contrasts with the sound of children singing in a primary school close to the brothel where Tokiko received her ‘visitor’. The singing is heard when Suichi, the returned husband, goes to the brothel and meets the young woman who works there in order to feed her family. This whole sequence offers the possibility of ‘moving on’ in some way. Music also provides one of the (surprisingly few) references to American culture in the dancehall/nightclub next to the office where Suichi eventually gets work.

The other notable element in the mise en scène of A Hen in the Wind is the ‘pre-figuring’ of action focused on the staircase leading up to Tokiko’s apartment. Staircases are rarely shown in Ozu’s later films but here the staircase is introduced, almost like a pillow shot, early on. Later it will become the site of something even more unusual in Ozu’s later films – a sequence involving violent action. It is this violent action that will perhaps signal the biggest ‘difference’ to the films of Ozu’s late period and the way the staircase is used makes us think of Hitchcock thrillers or film noir melodramas.

David Bordwell’s chapter on the film refers to Sato Tadao’s 1982 Currents in Japanese Cinema. Sato suggests that the film is essentially progressive in moving away from using easy scapegoats to represent the state of Japan in the aftermath of war. Instead of villainous militarists or weedy collaborators, Ozu offers us a woman whose shame reflects the loss of ‘purity’ in the Japanese spirit while Shoichi’s aggression comes from the brutalisin experience of war. In Ozu’s vision (as perceived by Bordwell) these ‘ordinary’ and flawed people find a way to face the future without national or personal purity but with a sense of realism – Ozu the humanist?

Overall I found this a fascinating film which deserves to be more widely seen and discussed in the context of the ‘Occupation Cinema’ in Japan. Keith’s review of the film from the Tanaka Kinuyo season a few years ago at the Leeds International Film Festival takes a slightly different approach. He focuses more on Tanaka’s performance (and gives away more of the plot details).

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!)