The Evolution of Hirokazu Koreeda

Hirokazu Koreeda receives the Palme d'Or
Picture for the Los Angeles Times

This has been a great year for film buffs so far. Earlier in Cannes, we were blessed with strong comebacks from master filmmakers Lee Changdong, Jia Zhangke, and Nuri Bilge Ceylan, to name a few. One mustn’t forget the magical cinematic experience from Alice Rohrwacher’s Happy as Lazzaro, the elegant musical elegy Cold War by Pawel Pawlikowski, and of course the stunning debut of Lukas Dhont with his exceptional Girl which clinched the Camera d’Or as well.

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However, the Palme d’Or, coveted by all directors around the world, ended up in the hands of Japanese auteur Hirokazu Koreeda, deservingly to say the least. The director, who received polarised reviews for his legal mystery, The Third Murder, last year, won the hearts of his fans and critics once again with the touching and thought-provoking family drama Shoplifters.

I would like to introduce some of Koreeda’s early features to an English-speaking audience which is probably more familiar with his later films, such as Like Father Like Son (2013), Our Little Sister (2014) and After Storm (2016), which formed the second stage of his career, beginning with his masterpiece Still Walking (2008). These films shared the common genre of family drama, and while they introduced the auteur to a more mainstream audience, at the same time they also caused a somewhat misleading impression that Koreeda was only interested in the domestic drama of familial relationships, like Yasujiro Ozu.

Indeed, Koreeda has long been dubbed the heir to the great Japanese master for his persistent exploration of the family genre since the beginning of his career. However, it would be unfair to dismiss the diversity in genre and the experimental style of filmmaking employed by Koreeda showcased in his extensive filmography. Audiences are now given the opportunity to revisit his less well-known but equally exquisite films. Following his win in Cannes this year, the early films of Koreeda were released in Japan on Blu-ray for the first time, as well as given limited release in art cinemas in Hong Kong, Taiwan, and China, where he enjoyed immense popularity among younger generation cinephiles. During this year’s Shanghai Film Festival, there was even an urban legend circulating online that an offer had been made to exchange a flat in Shanghai for a ticket of the post-screening talk with the director.

Koreeda, in his writings, has cited his experience as a television documentary director and his admiration for the Taiwanese New Wave as the major influences to his filmmaking. This can be seen in his preference for casting amateur actors, as well as shooting with a documentary-like hand-held camera in the films following his debut with Maboroshi in 1995. As many critics and scholars have remarked, Maboroshi, the tale of a young widow struggling to recover from her first husband’s suicide while tending her child, step-daughter, and father-in-law in the barren fishing village far away from Osaka after remarriage, shared certain distinctions with Ozu’s films. Yet even to this day, Maboroshi remained an exceptional, almost unclassifiable work in Koreeda’s filmography. The mature skills he demonstrated in his first feature, with its gorgeous cinematography capturing the interplay of light and shadows, embodied by long shots resembling the style of Hou Hsiao-Hsien is simply remarkable. However, Koreeda himself has dismissed the film as a student’s attempt to imitate his idol’s work. A somewhat harsh comment on a film that managed to grab a prize for best director in the Venice Film Festival. Nevertheless, as a fan of Koreeda, I, too, agree that the film’s deliberate detachment from the characters’ feelings left one unable to connect with the heroine’s tragedy, as compared to Koreeda’ more emotionally powerful masterpieces. However, it certainly formed the basis for Koreeda’s investigation on the themes of family, traumatic loss and abandonment, further explored and deconstructed in his later films.

Two characters talk in Koreeda's 2017 After the Storm
Image from the Los Angeles Times

After Life (1998), Distance (2001), and Nobody Knows (2003) were important works that signified a significant departure of style for Koreeda from his debut film. The first two both shared a similar cast, which included young models and amateurs acting along with professional actors, while the latter featured children who actually spent a whole year shooting in the actual apartment where the story was set. They were encouraged by the director to improvise on the script, combining personal experience from reality into the fictional narrative of the film.

After Life is one of my personal favourites of Koreeda’s work. He employs a documentary-like style with the main characters, a group of interviewers who are stuck in a transit station afterlife, where they are given the task to shoot films that imitate the treasured memories of the dead. The films then became mini parallel universes where the interviewees will relive that moment forever (a synonym to heaven in a certain sense). What’s refreshing about Koreeda’s treatment of the afterlife topic was that instead of emphasising the dilemma of sin and salvation, as is common in Western Christian narratives, Koreeda chose to explore the meaning of life by addressing the transience of time and the nature of memory. Whether it was a nostalgic meditation on unrequited love across centuries, or a father’s bittersweet lament on playing the role of invisible guardian angel to his young daughter in another world, Koreeda expresses his understanding of the co-existence of beauty and sorrow through the meta-cinema framework of this beautiful tribute to life and love.

Distance and Nobody Knows are both loosely based on real life events. While Distance alludes to the Aum Shinrikyo cult group which engineered the Tokyo subway sarin attack in the 90s, Nobody Knows takes inspiration from the tragedy of the Sugamo child abandonment incident. Obviously, one can see the influence of Koreeda’s past experience in filming documentaries, as he chose to shoot with handheld camera and natural light. His rejection of melodrama, and his refusal to pass judgement on certain characters, demonstrates his understanding of the complexity of human nature.

Distance is constructed of fragmented flashbacks as the surviving family members of a cult group gather together in the forest for their annual worship of the dead. Neither the characters nor the audience are ever given a clear explanation of the rationale behind the terrorist attacks conducted by the cult members, who committed mass suicide afterwards. Koreeda’s interest in investigating the traumatic experience of witnessing loved ones committing self-destructive acts leading to terrorist attacks, and the notion of collective guilt shared by family members in the Japanese society, struck a similar chord with his contemporary filmmakers, whose films also won acclaim in international film festivals since the late 1990s. For example the fragility of familial bonds and the rise of extreme cults featured in Distance bore resemblance to Kiyoshi Kurosawa’s postmodernist examination of alienation in contemporary society, while the transcendental beauty of the wilderness captured by the cinematography reminded one of Naomi Kawase’s trademark style.

Compared to the radical narrative structure of Distance, Koreeda employs a more traditional linear timeline in Nobody Knows, recounting the lives of four children surviving in Tokyo after their mother abandons them for her boyfriend, entrusting her 12-year-old eldest to take care of his siblings (all of whom have different birth fathers). Schoolless (as their records were never registered with the government), ignored by neighbors, and feeding on outdated food from the convenience store around the corner, Koreeda reveals a disturbing picture of the anonymous, voiceless children who were abandoned by both their parents and the modern society. The children’s eventual descent into poverty and despair over the year is depicted through the deterioration of their apartment, with an increasing sense of claustrophobia, imbalance and danger as they began to behave more like young cubs howling for their lost mother instead of the mature young adults they seem to be in the beginning. The sublime performance of Yuya Yagira, who played the eldest brother Akira (he went on to win the best actor prize in Cannes at the age of 14), was one of the most greatest child performances on screen. Forced to undertake parental responsibilities and witness the dark side of a materialistic society, the death of his youngest sister Yuki proves to be Akira’s final blow. Like her namesake, snow, the young girl’s existence melted into thin air with nobody except her siblings to remember her. To this day, Nobody Knows remains among the groundbreaking works of contemporary Japanese cinema, establishing Koreeda’s status as one of the most important filmmakers of his generation.

The children of Nobody Knows stand at a chain link fence.
Image from SenseCritique.com

Following the success of Nobody Knows in Cannes, Koreeda turned to his first commercial project, Hana (2006), a period drama featuring an ensemble cast of established veteran actors led by the teenage heartthrob Junichi Okada. It was a bold parody of the Bushido code and a complete diversion from the samurai epics of Kurosawa Akira and Takeshi Kitano familiar to Western audience. From the perspective of a gentle samurai who ultimately fails to complete his revenge mission, Koreeda expresses his rejection of the masculine code of honor in traditional Japanese culture and his admiration for the kindness and wisdom of the commoners. However, one must admit that Koreeda’s attempt at black humor comedy was not entirely successful, with the film suffering from a slow pace and too many plot lines with loose ends. Nevertheless, Hana shouldn’t be carelessly classified as one of the many embarrassing flops caused by the failure of independent directors transiting to mainstream cinema. Even with a popular idol as his leading man, Koreeda was still the humanitarian storyteller who believed in the power of goodness and love.

In fact, regardless of the increased budget of his subsequent films, Koreeda has always remained loyal to the spirit of the auteur theory. In fact, if one compares his only period drama up to date and his other features set in contemporary Japan, they all share the common motif of mistrust towards authority and questioning of values cherished by mainstream society. Koreeda’s persistent criticism of the system is embedded in his entire filmography, whether the story is set in Edo ruled by the Shogun, or modern Tokyo with its skyscrapers and bullet trains.

Shoplifters will be released in the US on 23 November.