Tag Archives: Kore-eda Hirokazu

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

I Wish (Kuseki, Japan 2011)

The children wait for the Shinkansen to pass.

The children wait for the Shinkansen to pass.

Here is a film from a director who deserves the title of ‘Contemporary Master’ because of his skill in constructing stories rich in everyday details. Several of his films have unusual stories at their centre, but each set of characters is presented without anything other than seemingly simple observation. We learn a great deal about life in Japan from these details and have our faith in the future re-established by depictions of family relations that promise nothing spectacular but still have a profound effect on most audiences – they make them feel better about the world.

Kore-eda Hirokazu’s films sometimes take a long time to get to the UK and some never get here at all. In this context it was good to see I Wish in UK cinemas in March (even if his new film was just about to be announced for Cannes in May). I was lucky to see the film a couple of times but unable at the time to post to the blog. Now it has been released on DVD in the UK I’ve dug out the notes I made for an introduction to a screening in Bradford.

Kore-eda Hirokazu (born 1962)

Kore-eda went first into television documentary production, eventually emerging as a director in 1991. It would be another four years before he made his first fiction feature Maborisi for cinema release in 1995. He has now completed seven further fiction features. His documentary training is evident in certain scenes in I Wish in which children seem to be answering an interviewer’s questions – this appears natural rather than artificial.

Kore-eda’s themes are primarily concerned with families and relationships. This and his seemingly slow contemplative approach have seen him compared to Ozu Yasujiro and it is certainly possible to spot similarities between the two directors’ work. But Kore-eda does not use the same stylistic features that are familiar from Ozu’s later work. A more useful comparison is likely to be with the two leading figures of the Taiwanese New Cinema of the 1980s, Hou Hsiao-hsien and Edward Yang. In particular, critics have discussed I Wish in terms of the Edward Yang film Yi Yi (A One and a Two, Taiwan 2000) which also focused on three generations of a family – with each family member facing their own problems.

The incident that ‘kicks off’ the narrative in I Wish is the separation of two brothers after their parents split up. The older Koichi lives with his mother and her parents and the younger Ryu lives with his father – the boys are separated physically by some 200 miles but they speak to each other by ’phone virtually every day. The title of the film in Japanese actually translates as ‘miracle’ but there is nothing religious about this. Instead it refers to a rumour about something that might happen when the first Shinkansen (‘bullet train’) service along the West coast of the island of Kyushu began in 2011. Kore-eda was approached to make a film using this event. This is reminiscent of the British film by Shane Meadows, Somers Town in 2008, which constructed its narrative around the opening of the new Eurostar station at St. Pancras. Kore-eda received some support from the railway company, but there is no suggestion that the film is a form of advertisement for the railway (something which dogged Meadows).

Family life in Japan

One of the clichés about Japanese culture as viewed from the West is that Japan is a mix of tradition and modernity – and that this extends into family relations. What is certainly true is that many of the films that reach the UK feature families that have ‘broken up’ and that this is represented as a social problem to a much greater extent than in the UK – partly because the different legal system in Japan means that one divorced parent is often excluded from a relationship with their child. The ‘Ring cycle’ of ghost stories focuses on the single mother – child relationship as does the associated film Dark Water (Japan 2002). In an earlier Kore-eda film, Nobody Knows (2004), a single mother tells one of her children that he must expect to be bullied at school because he doesn’t have a father. On the other hand, Japanese attitudes towards children and parental control often seem surprisingly ‘liberal’ compared to those in the UK.

The extended Japanese family

One of the fascinations for UK audiences in Japanese family-based films might be the sense that Japanese society has already begun to experience some of the profound changes in demographics and socio-economic factors that are likely to be so important in the UK over the next few years. As the UK enters a ‘triple-dip’ economic recession we might look at Japan where such conditions have lasted for over twenty years since the early 1990s. The result is a struggling generation of thirty to fifty year-olds with little job security and possibly a sense of wasted lives. At the same time, Japan has developed an ageing population structure with a low birth rate not balanced by the same levels of incoming migrants as the UK. Three generations face different problems but now find themselves in the same households, partly through economic necessity. Kore-eda provides us with narrative strands which at least open up some of these issues in relation to parents and grandparents, but still retain the central focus on the children. In I Wish we see the children and the grandparents as active and imaginative in the schemes they hatch (separately) while the parents are the ones trapped by their circumstances.

Kore-eda’s approach

Kore-eda Hirokazu is an ‘artisanal’ filmmaker who has a small group of collaborators and who makes his films over a long period rather than working for a major studio. He uses many of the same actors in each film with occasional better-known lead figures. Odagiri Jô, who plays the musician father, is an actor from independent and international cinema. These actors will be more prepared for the Kore-eda approach. His work with children requires a long casting period. I Wish depends to a great extent on the performance of the real life Maeda brothers – who were already established as a comedy duo when Kore-eda found them. He subsequently re-worked the script to make the most of their exceptional qualities.

Railways

Kore-eda accepted this project partly because of his interest in films about children and partly because of a love of railways, He also had a great-grandfather from the city of Kagoshima at one end of the line. The Japanese are proud of their railway system (developed as an amalgam of British and American ideas – Japan drives on the left and trains similarly run on the left) and it is another feature of Ozu’s cinema. The first Shinkansen trains ran in 1964. “I Wish” UK governments had had the same foresight!

I was entranced by this film. I think most people who have seen will agree that however you felt when you started watching it, by the end you will better about yourself and about the world. One of my friends described it as ‘gossamer light’. I know what he meant but this isn’t something that would blow away in a wind. Somehow it is both ‘light’ and ‘substantial’.

At some point I’m going to try and go back and watch the earlier films that I haven’t had time to watch properly. Still Walking and Air Doll are both on the blog already. Kore-eda has few equals in contemporary cinema, so don’t miss out!

Air Doll (Kuki Ningyo, Japan 2009)

Bae Doo-na as Nozomi on her first trip outside

Bae Doo-na as Nozomi on her first trip outside

Kore-eda Hirokazu is one of the major directors in contemporary Japanese cinema and Air Doll is an extraordinary film that I thoroughly enjoyed on many levels. With stunning cinematography from Mark Lee Ping-bing (best known for his work with Hou Hsaio-hsien), a captivating score by  ‘World’s End Girlfriend’ (the one-man band of Maeda Katsuhiko) and a fabulous central performance from Bae Doo-na, it’s a surprise that it has taken three years for the film to reach the UK in the form of this release on a Region 2 DVD from Matchbox films. Perhaps it is the subject matter that has been seen as a problem?

Air Doll has been adapted by Kore-eda from a 20-page short manga The Pneumatic Figure of a Girl by Gouda Yoshi. Kore-eda has taken the original narrative concept and explored it in some depth, expanding it significantly. The central character is indeed an ‘air doll’, a blow-up plastic woman who comes to life and begins to investigate the world just outside her door in a district of Tokyo where there are still old low-rise houses, known as shitamachi in Japan. The doll has been bought by Hideo, a waiter in a fast food restaurant who has named her Nozomi. She is his ‘girl-friend substitute’ and each night he bathes her, dresses her and has a meal with her before making love to her in his cramped apartment in which he also indulges his hobby of astronomy. Together, man and doll look up at the stars.

The idea of the doll that comes to life has been around for a long time. Discussion around the film has centred around Pinnochio and Spielberg’s AI as well as the replicants in Blade Runner (the author Philip K. Dick introduces what he calls ‘simulacra’ in many of his stories). In most cases these and similar stories have been developed either as fairy stories for children or as contemporary action stories. Kore-eda has said that he was attracted by the erotic potential of the story and what he has done, at least from my perspective, is to achieve something remarkable in melding a science fiction/fantasy narrative with a romance, a philosophical treatise and a social commentary. (Metropolis with its female robot came to mind and this whole area is one that manga and anime have explored widely.) There is a great deal in this film which I think repays careful viewing. I would love to see the film on a big screen but in a way I think I got a lot from viewing it in several separate chunks on the DVD, allowing me to reflect on where it was going and how the story development was opening up ideas. I’m still not absolutely clear what Kore-eda means by the eroticism inherent in the idea, but the film certainly moved me in many ways. (There is one scene which is remarkably intimate and which does I think open up the erotic.)

In the UK, the DVD has an 18 certificate. I’m not sure why. There is a fair amount of female nudity and some simulated sexual activity – undercut to some extent by the ‘matter of fact’ washing of the doll’s removable vagina – but this all seems less offensive than some of the violence (and sexual violence) allowed in 15 certificate films. The other ‘barrier’ to audience accessibility has been the length according to some critics. The DVD runs for just over 111 minutes which equates to around 116 mins at 24 fps. This appears to be the international cut (the Japanese version is listed as 125 mins). I don’t find the film excessively long, but it is a slow-moving narrative and if audiences concentrate just on the central narrative I can see it might be frustrating.

Kore-eda manages the transition from plastic doll to the live performance by the remarkable Bae Doo-na very well without the aid of visible CGI as far as I could discern. When Nozomi leaves the house (dressed in her maid’s costume, complete with short skirt), she comes across a number of local characters with various problems, an elderly man who was once a ‘substitute teacher’, a woman fearing the loss of her youthful looks, an anorexic, a small girl often on her own when her single parent is working, an older woman who confesses to crimes to gain attention. Each of these characters features in a short vignette about alienation in the city, about consumerism and a throwaway culture. In some ways these might seem like clichéed characters and situations, but they are handled with such skill by Kore-eda and his collaborators that they work in both philosophical and sociological terms. I was reminded of other Japanese films that focus on the ‘alternative world’ of the unemployed and the lonely during the long years of recession in Japan, e.g. Tokyo Sonata by Kurosawa Kiyoshi.

Nozomi eventually finds her way to a video store called ‘Cinema Circus’ and lands herself a job and the possibility of a ‘real’ relationship with the store clerk Junichi, a young man who claims to be ‘like she is’. This relationship provides the romance narrative with familiar generic elements. It also supplies intriguing moments of eroticism and the prospect of an unhappy ending – Nozomi is after all a doll striving to think and ‘feel’ like a human. Meanwhile she has to return to her apartment each evening and pretend to be an inanimate doll again for Hideo – this too must lead to a change since the pretence can only last so long.

I’ve already noted the very high standard of the creative inputs to the film. Bae Doo-na looked familiar to me and later I realised that she had starred in two of my favourite Korean films, The Host (2006) and Take Care of My Cat (2001). She is soon to get a much higher international profile via the Hollywood release of Cloud Atlas (2012). I’ve seen discussion about the casting of Bae and the suggestion that because she is Korean, there is some kind of comment on Japanese treatment of Koreans and in particular a reference back to the exploitation of Korean ‘comfort women’ by Japanese troops in the Second World War. Kore-eda has said that he had been an admirer of Bae’s performances for some time and that she was the only performer he could think of who was capable of filling such a demanding role. The film overall perhaps has less to say directly about the objectification of women than viewers might expect at first glance. I’ve seen one reviewer who suggests that women may be attracted to the emotional content of the film, but also at least one blogger who disliked the film – but who does so only after a careful explanation of why its not for her.

I recommend the film strongly. It’s beautiful, subtle and provocative – as long as you are prepared to engage with it. Kore-eda brings his documentary experience into play in the representation of Tokyo’s lesser-known areas and creates a fantasy which is also very ‘real’. The film may sound like a change of direction but I think it is clearly the work of the same director who made Still Walking (2008). His new film I Wish (Japan 2011) is expected to get a UK release soon, so this DVD sets it up nicely and gives us all the chance to explore the work of a modern master.

Useful web reviews:

Festival Without Borders

Asia Pacific Arts interview with Kore-eda

Here’s the official trailer – I think it gives away/spoils some of the crucial narrative developments, but if you are unsure about the film, it does give a good idea of what it’s like:

 

The DVD was released by Matchbox Films on 26 November and is available from Amazon.

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Still Walking (Aruitemo aruitemo, Japan 2008)

Ryo and his mother return from a visit to his brother’s grave.

Still Walking is a beautiful film made by a filmmaker at the top of his game. Kore-eda Hirokazu wrote, directed and edited this film, a traditional shomengeki – a film about lower middle-class people, a ‘family drama’. The events unfold over 24 hours with a brief coda. It is the 12th anniversary of the death of the elder son of the Yokoyama family and the two surviving siblings return to the family home in a small town on the coast outside Tokyo. The younger son Ryo is with the young widow he has recently married (at the age of 40) and her young son. His sister is with her husband and two children. Ryo has travelled from Tokyo and his family stay the night. The various conflicts within the family relationships mainly derive from Ryo’s father’s increasingly difficult behaviour. Part of this is his refusal to properly acknowledge Ryo as next in line after the death of his older brother. Ryo’s mother’s behaviour is more ambiguous as it oscillates between welcoming the young widow and being rather negative towards her and her son.

[A note on social class: in today’s newspaper, Japan and Germany are quoted as much more equal societies than the UK or the US. This may explain why the house of a retired doctor (a GP) in Japan seems less ostentatious than the middle-class houses of doctors over here.]

There is no conventional action as such or much in the way of plot in Still Walking. We gradually begin to understand what has happened in the family and by the end of the film we are much closer to understanding how Ryo feels. In the main we experience the aftermath of actions and contemplate what might happen in the future. The film is highly personal and Kore-eda tells us on the beautifully designed official website that he made the film following the death of his own parents and that sense that he hadn’t told them everything that he wanted to say.

The film has been very well-received (so it’s a puzzle why it took so long to get to the UK) and inevitably perhaps it has been compared to the common perception of the films of Ozu Yasujiro. There are obvious similarities in theme to Tokyo Story (even if it is the children who travel rather than the parents) and we might also see an Ozu connection in the well-observed younger children. Yet in style terms, Kore-eda has relatively little in common with Ozu apart from the occasional low camera position (around the dining table) a train shot or two and perhaps a couple of street shots. Kore-eda began in documentary and his camera seems more ‘observant’ in its fluid movements around the house and the neighbourhood – i.e. it is as if the camera sometimes goes looking for scenes to observe rather than being placed in order to record them as they happen. Omar on his blog refers to Kore-eda as being of the same generation as Kurosawa Kiyoshi and it is certainly interesting to compare this film with Tokyo Sonata – another family drama, but in a very different style. I’ve also seen a reference to Naruse, but I think that I need to see a few more of Naruse’s 1950s films to assess what the link might be.

Still Walking is beautifully written and for me the film is stolen by Kiki Kirin as the mother, Toshiko, who is given many of the best lines. She is in turn the most cruel, the most coldly calculating and yet the most emotional and yes, the most loving. She also delivers one of the few ‘shocking’ moments (i.e. in narrative terms) of revelation. She also cooks a great deal and this is one of the real pleasures of the film – whether she is deep frying corn tempura, preparing large prawns, shelling fresh soya beans (?) or simply mixing ingredients there is a real sense of preparing for a family celebration. If you ever wondered about the minutiae of family living in small-town Japan, it’s all laid out here. Having said that, the scenes did seem to me to be a little old-fashioned. It’s over 30 years since I was in a Japanese family house and nothing seems to have changed. In fact the little boy with his hand-held computer game was the only real sign of modernity in the household. (The shrine to the older brother includes a Joy Division poster.) My impression from contemporary Japanese literature is that there is a difference in modern homes. Perhaps Kore-eda is purposely offering a slightly anachronistic view of family life? There is a lot of talk about what is ‘normal’. On the other hand, Ryo’s father seems to have switched from baseball to football – that seems ‘modern’ (but mother still plays pachinko).

I’m not sure why Japanese directors are so much better at making these kinds of films than directors in other countries. Is it something about the design of Japanese houses and the formalities of Japanese social behaviour? Despite the lack of overly dramatic moments, this film is riveting for its whole running time of 115 minutes. If you get a chance to see it in a cinema, grab it with both hands.