Maborosi (Japan, 1995)

Darkness at noon

Kore-eda Hirokazu has been a very late discovery for me and I feel like a teenager having so many great unseen films available to me. Maborosi, which can be loosely translated at ‘vision’ or ‘illusion’, was his first fiction film but it is the work of a fully fledged genius. The Japanese title, ‘Phantom Light’, is better as it refers to a key idea at the end of the film as well as drawing attention to the cinematography, which is often working in very low light levels. In once scene, the protagonist Yumiko (debutant Esumi Makiko) sits in a bus shelter barely visible; the shot is a metaphor for how she feels when trying to deal with the apparent suicide of her husband.

Despite the gloom, many of the images are painterly whether it’s a weathered postbox or a window opened out onto the sea. Despite its slow pace there is so much to think about. At one point, when Yumiko is painstakingly scrubbing steps, I wondered why Kore-eda was showing the scene in such detail; then she bows her head in existential distress and it’s clear why.

Peter Bradshaw noted the absence of close-ups for the first part of the film; in addition, Kore-eda uses a long lens to force the perspective in many shots which gives an expressionist feel to the mise en scene. So despite the slow pace and portrayal of the minutiae of everyday life the film is weighted with symbolism. For example, the image below is the last shot of the film and its meaning is whatever the audience thinks in the context of what’s gone before. Proper arthouse filmmaking.


The screenplay’s by Ogita Yoshihisa, based on Miyamoto Teru’s novel, but what became characteristic Kore-eda is present in terms of the visual style, particularly the tatami mat level shots, and his marvellous use of children. Overwhelmingly in his work there is a humanist perspective that delves into what is important in life. As the film reaches a climax we see a funeral procession in extreme long shot, framed against the sea. It is an extraordinary image and scene that has the bleakness of Bergman but Kore-eda is more optimistic.


Happy Hour (Happî awâ, Japan, 2015)

Happy hours?

I’ve been laid low with a virus for a week and that seemed to be a perfect time to watch a five hour-plus film. Streamed on MUBI, I watched it in two parts and can seriously recommend it if you have five hours to spare. Director, and co-writer, Hamaguchi Ryûsuke takes his time laying out the lives and… well, not ‘loves’ because the four thirtysomething friends are all faced with stupid men.

Some reviews have compared it to television narrative which, despite watching it in two ‘episodes’, it resolutely is not. If it had been made as an episodic narrative for television the whole structure would have been changed as each episode would need to be internally coherent and finish with a cliffhanger of sorts. Without having five arbitrary endings Hamaguchi is free to let scenes run for as long as necessary; and some are very long: one, for example, a sort of New Age workshop about communication, lasts about an hour. It becomes clear that communication is a key theme, alongside friendship, of the film. Apparently the film was released in France in three parts over three weeks. ‘Vive la France’ for distributing it as there would be virtually no audience in the UK for such a long film.

Unsurprisingly the film is resolutely Japanese. The British are often ‘famed’ for their reserve but we cannot compete with the Japanese. Their ingrained politeness means voices are rarely raised even when anger is at melting point; I imagine the screen would explode in equivalent scenes in telenovelas. Although this doesn’t facilitate over-the-top melodrama, the measured discussion, because it allows frankness (there’s little danger of being belted when telling someone a ‘home truth’) the issues between people can be laid bare. For example, Akari (Tanaka Sachie), the boldest of the friends, states she can’t stand being lied to and this causes ruptures between the four. In Britain, such feelings are probably more likely to fester unsaid.

Apparently the film was developed in workshops in Kobe, and the improvisatory quality shows through giving many of the scenes a vital immediacy. Astonishingly it is the first film of all the principals; they are superb. Only occasionally did I feel a drop in quality; on a couple of occasions bright light from windows in the background makes the foreground murky. Mostly, however, the direction is exemplary.

There is plenty of humour in the film; an overbearing live-in mother-in-law suddenly changes sides and thumps her son who is cowardly delegating a sensitive task to his wife. It is only rarely boring; I found the book reading irksome (indeed some of the audience appeared to be asleep). Overall it was well worth the effort of sitting in front of a television for hours. Hamaguchi’s representation of characters (and therefore people) as being not being as simple as we assume is engaging even if most of the blokes in the film need a rocket up their arses; some of them are self aware enough to know this. The failure to communicate properly in what would be ‘middle years’ (if it lasted) of a relationship, the deadening caused by routine, is superbly portrayed. MUBI.

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

Happy families

Another day, another Kore-eda. If I’d thought about it at the time, the idea that the child I’d been bringing up for the past six years was not actually ‘mine’ would have been a ‘worst nightmare’. That’s the premise of Kore-eda’s quite brilliant Like Father, Like Son. Add to that the theme of alienation (in common with yesterday’s Air Doll) this time caused by corporate culture, and you have a film that’s not only intellectually fascinating but grips the viewer as the consequences unfold.

To add to the melodramatic mix, as the hospitals tell the parents it’s usual to swap the children, Kore-eda makes the other family in many ways the direct opposite of the one we meet first. Lily Frank’s apparently feckless, smalltime shopkeeper is in total contrast to Fukuyama Masaharu’s organisation man, Ryoto (which in Japan requires you give your soul, though this is tempered by a sympathetic boss later in the film). I found the narrative appalling in the sense I was appalled by Ryoto’s behaviour and found myself squirming as much as I would watching a brilliantly made thriller.

In common with all the films I’ve seen by Kore-eda, he casts a compassionate eye so that even Ryoto isn’t simply a villain. Unlike, say, in Hollywood cinema, the director doesn’t require a good-evil opposition and his melodramas are thus infused with a humanity rather than the need to take sides. However his films are indisputably melodrama, which is a genre not a term of abuse. In an otherwise sympathetic review, Glenn Kenny makes a common mistake:

Every now and then, Kore-eda will overplay his representations a little bit; there’s a scene in which Ono’s character contemplates an escape from the torment of potentially trading the son she loves for a child she doesn’t know, biology or not; this takes place on a train, and as her thoughts grow darker, the shadows of the station that the train is pulling into throw her and the child actor into literal darkness. It’s a well-orchestrated effect that hinges on obvious.

For me the scene was absolutely brilliant as the change in lighting externalised Ryoto’s wife (Ono Machiko) anguish which her position in patriarchal society made it very difficult for her to verbalise.

The actors are brilliant, especially the children who Kore-eda has no peers in directing. The child playing Ryotor’s son, Ninomiya Keita, seems have preternaturally black eyes, which give him an alien presence perfectly in keeping with his position in the family.

Japanese culture seems to be so buttoned up that it makes the British seem to be as extravert as a Latin stereotype. However, the undercurrent of emotions that Kore-eda reveals in his films are, of course, as deeply human as any nation. His film unearth the psychological damage such a repressed culture can cause. Our Little Sister, the first Kore-eda film I watched, differs from the others as it bathes the viewer in the warmth of a matriarchal family that has little conflict. Shoplifters, too, focuses on a loving family but in the wider context of poverty and uncaring officialdom.

Air Doll (Kûki ningyô, Japan, 2009)

Take me to my maker

Kore-eda Hirokazu took an idea from a manga (by Goda Yoshiie) a sex doll comes alive, and does what Kore-eda does: make a marvellously humane film. What is a potentially exploitative idea offering the titillation of transgression (sex with a doll) and female nudity becomes instead a rumination on modern alienation, particularly in Japan. It has been reported, with I guess some bemusement in the west, that Japan’s falling birth rate is linked to young people’s indifference to sex. Kore-eda’s films suggests, as the doll, Nozomi (Bae Doo-na of Sympathy for Mr Vengeance), says at least a couple of time, she exists because people (men) don’t won’t the complexity of relationships. Peripheral characters who pass Nozomi emphasise the absence of love in urban life.  She works in a video store, ironically given we’re watching a film, which seems to suggest that people use films as a way to vicariously experience the whole range of human emotion.

As in his other films, Kore-eda produces moments of cinematic magic (by which I mean film is the only medium the scene would work so effectively) when Nozumi floats amongst the balloons that look like planets that her owner has adorning his room. It’s both funny and life affirming as it shows a blow up doll understanding our place in the universe. Of course, the idea is absurd and there is no explanation for Nozumi suddenly waking up, finding a heart, but that would only matter to those without imagination.

I must admit the ending confused me slightly (no spoilers) but the final scenes are devastating and, along with another disturbing scene, are in direct contrast to the light-heartedness of much of the film’s mood. The casting the brilliant Bae Doo-na, a Korean, in the role was presumably to enhance the otherworldliness of Nozomi; I’ve no idea to what extent her Japanese is accented. The way she moves is sufficient to signify difference and the scene when she goes to the sex doll manufacturer (above) reminded me of Blade Runner. I suspect it’s a deceptively complex film that will need at least another viewing.

Kore-eda has been my greatest discovery this year (OK I’ve been miles behind aficionados) and he reminds us about the thrill of cinema and the thrill of life.

Our Little Sister (Umimachi Diary, Japan, 2015)

Sisters’ serenity

Kore-eda Hirokazu wonderful melodrama had me virtually from the start. I’ve no idea why swelling music that accompanied a character going to work ‘got me’, but it’s a nice change from the sinking heart that has accompanied early scenes in films such as Phantom Thread where the film’s dead for me virtually before it starts. Kore-eda adapted this tale of sisterly love from Yoshida Akimi’s manga and although the drama is low-key throughout it is gripping.

‘Slices-of-life’ cinema tend to focus on grimness and have an educational value in showing the audience lives they (hopefully) are not experiencing. For many life is relatively comfortable (though as the UN’s rapporteur’s forthcoming report on the UK will show, the post-World War II gains in equality have been viciously reversed) and the drama in our lives tends to be infrequent and often benign. That’s not to say that tragedy and grimness can’t hit everyone, but it’s not an everyday occurrence for most. So how does Kore-eda grip us in a film were little happens? Immaculate direction and performance won’t be enough; we must be emotionally engaged.

It is the latter ‘trick’ that Kore-eda manages through the marvellously engaging performers of the sisters. The narrative disruption in their lives is an adoption of a teen half-sister who has none of the requisites to make drama (she ain’t going to be ‘sleeping around’ or ‘doing drugs’). Her arrival in their lives isn’t particularly ‘life transforming’ as they carry on with their loves (or lack of), work and sisterhood.

There are some transcendent moments in the peacefulness, the cycle ride in the ‘tunnel’ of blossom, for example. What strikes, overall, is the warmth of humanity when we can forget ourselves for a moment and put others first.

I’m going to enjoy catching up on Kore-eda.

Shoplifters (Manbiki kazoku, Japan, 2018)

Warts and all

I’ve only just understood Kore-eda Hirokazu’s brilliance having failed to get on with After Life (Wandafuru raifu, Japan, 1998) several years ago. The turning point was Our Little Sister (Umimachi Diary, Japan, 2015) – post to follow – which bowled me over with its sentimental portrayal of a loving family. ‘Sentimental’ is often a term of abuse, the rosy glow of life is emphasised too much, but Kore-eda manages to remain convincing due to his script, his performers and his direction.

His Palme d’Or winner Shoplifters is also about a family but one that is part of the underclass and not quite what it seems to be at first. They are not simply part of the underclass because they help themselves in shops, the two adults are employed, on a building site and in a laundry, but the work is poorly paid and precarious. The teenage girl works in soft porn. They are victims of the economic downturn, and unequal distribution of wealth, that has plagued Japan for decades. Also typically of Kore-eda is the focus on children and he has the ability to draw incredibly performances from minors who can often seem to be irritatingly precocious in film (I’m thinking Hollywood).

The first three quarters of the film are ‘slices from life’ of the family after they adopt a new member, a five year old girl being abused by her parents who live nearby. The final act of the film throws everything we’ve seen before into focus. The change of perspective at the end is a brilliant narrative device necessitating a rethinking of what we thought we knew.

Kore-eda develops his characters through slow reveals; just as we find out about people in life: few give us an expository monologue when we first meet them. The audience patches together the clues about characters’ motivations and, particularly in the case of Shoplifters, their morality as some of them are criminals. Lucky me as I have several more of his films to catch up on!

Inuyashiki (Japan, 2018) – LIFF4

A bad day at the office

Sato Shinsuke’s adaptation of Oku Hiroya’s manga utilises modern CGI to render the ‘impossible’ but the visuals rarely engross. The ‘underdog bites back’ is a well trodden narrative but there can be fewer lower canines that Kinashi Noritake’s titular salaryman who his family hates and for whom unemployment looms. There’s some pleasure in seeing ‘old dads as superheroes’ but it is a film of missed opportunities.

An unknown, presumably extraterrestrial, encounter transforms Inuyashiki into a sort of Tetsuo (a trilogy directed by Tsukamoto Shin’ya) with the iron bits built in; however there’s no body horror. Alienated teen, Shishigami Hiro (Satô Takeru), experiences the same transformation but decides to use his powers for evil whilst Inuyashiki frequents hospital corridors saving the terminally ill. A perfect set up to consider ‘evil’ and ‘good’ I thought but this is dispensed with in the pyrotechnics that follow an overlong set up. It’s not that the film isn’t enjoyable, but the potential of the narrative was unrealised.

Satô is brilliant as the cold-eyed killer but Kinashi is a little one-note as the turning worm. In fact, he doesn’t turn very much, he remains meek throughout and his reconciliation with his daughter was (to my western eyes) mawkish.

There’s a slightly ridiculous coda that’s intended to set up a sequel (apparently there are two in the works) and hopefully they offer something for the mind and not just the eye.