An Introduction to the Emotional Storytelling of Hirokazu Koreeda


Tara Judah, Cinema Producer at Bristol’s Watershed, explains why she loves the Shoplifters director’s films, and offers a guide for anyone new to Koreeda’s films.  

Hirokazu Koreeda is my favourite living filmmaker, and after winning the Palm d’Or for Shoplifters, he joins that select group of internationally recognised masters that already boasts Akira Kurosawa (Kagemusha, 1980) and Shohei Imamura (The Ballad of Narayama, 1993 and The Eel, 1997). Koreeda crafts considered, intimate cine-worlds that gently sear themselves into your soul. Each and every one of his films has not only found home in my heart, but has opened me up emotionally, wedding itself to the very fibres of my being. Such is the power of his uniquely emotional storytelling.

Anywhere is a good place to start with Koreeda. Because his films are led by emotion instead of plot, watching them is like amassing an empathy mountain, as each film builds upon the feelings and moods of his other works. They can be experienced in any order and, like the plum wine in Our Little Sister (2015), are no less delicious whether they sweeten or sour over time. Causal narrative becomes incidental in the wake of a far more meaningful affect drawn from these cinematic worlds.

Starting out as a documentarian, and with great admiration and influence from Japanese master filmmakers Mikio Naruse (whose working-class dramas span silent and sound cinema) and Yasujirō Ozu (whose films focus on the family), Koreeda’s camera clearly cares about his complex band of characters, capturing their vulnerability and even their betrayals gently instead of judging.

Shoplifters, like Nobody Knows (2004), was loosely inspired by real-life social issues in Japan. While all of his films are concerned with familial structures and dynamics, he also aims to look deeper at social situations that are often ignored. Nobody Knows explores the premise of Japan’s infamous Sugamo child abandonment case, where a mother left her five children in a Tokyo apartment for around nine months to fend for themselves. Though Koreeda’s depiction is far more hopeful than the real-life events, leaving out some of the more deplorable details, it asks the viewer to really think about how these situations arise and, more significantly, how they persist.

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Nobody Knows

With Shoplifters, it was the more general news stories on pension fraud and several instances of parents making their offspring steal for them that helped build a narrative paradigm.[1] High concepts like these and Like Father, Like Son (2013), where two families learn that their now six-year-old sons were swapped at birth, afford Koreeda with the simple scenarios on which to hang fantastically complex emotional canvases.

This is especially evident in After Life (1998), one of the most popular titles among Koreeda devotees. Here, the recently-deceased are asked to choose one memory from their life to re-enact, which will then serve as their final memory for all of eternity. Though it sounds almost surreal, the film is full of naturalism. A far cry from the stuff of angels and pearl gates, Koreeda’s afterlife is every bit as admin heavy as life on earth, with people’s memories and eternities subject to due process. But what really lends the film its sense of tangible reality, is that the stories told on screen are both of actors performing and of the recounting of real-life memories, by Japanese people Koreeda interviewed.[2]  

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Like Father Like Son

No matter how disparate the premise for each of his films may be, there remains a seamless interactivity between them. Whether it is through hanging thematic threads, common character traits, or contemplations around a paradox like nature versus nurture or how to reconcile past family trauma, each of his films acts as a lesson in how to feel about the most piercing instances of everyday life.

Sometimes Koreeda makes the connections explicitly through casual dialogue; one character in Our Little Sister wonders what they’ll “remember in the end”, alluding to After Life’s single memory for eternity. At other times, he uses similarity to signal follow up; After the Storm (2016) is an unofficial sequel to Still Walking (2008), where actors Kirin Kiki and Hiroshi Abe are reunited onscreen as mother and son. Their character names have just one Japanese romaji character changed: Ryota becomes Ryôta and Toshiko is now Yoshiko.

Koreeda also uses repetition in symbolism and recurring visual motifs to signal emotional continuity across his body of work. Cooking and eating together is more than just a shared pastime, it is when some of the most earnest exchanges between characters take place, especially in the winter scenes where members gather round the kontatsu (low table with blanket and a heater underneath) for warmth. In After the Storm, Yoshiko tells Ryôta, “A stew needs time for the flavours to sink in: so do people.” It’s no surprise, then, for Koreeda fans, to see that Yuri’s (Miyu Sasaki) induction into her new role as family adjunct in Shoplifters is at the behest of Osamu, (Lily Franky) offering her a croquette. In the very next scene she is sitting in their living room, wondering if she can sit at the kontatsu for family dinner.

Osamu, like many of the fathers in Koreeda’s films, is well meaning at heart but remains an unfit patriarch, failing as both figurehead and role model. In fact, actress Kirin Kiki is probably the most reliable staple when it comes to wisdom in Koreeda’s films, even though her roles as grandmother and matriarch are also peppered with their fair share of naughty white lies. Kiki appears in six of Koreeda’s features; Still WalkingI Wish (2011), Like Father, Like SonOur Little SisterAfter the Storm and Shoplifters.

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I Wish

Ultimately, there are no easy answers in Koreeda’s films, no heroes or villains to cheer or heap blame on. There are only people, who are trying to make sense of complex and often painful realities. The legacy of trauma, a fear of separation and the strength of new family members arriving are also recurring themes in Koreeda’s films. Like Father, Like Son and I Wish both present the societal threats and potential impact of exploding the nuclear family. In Shoplifters and Our Little Sister, Yuri and Suzu are abandoned but, as they join existing family structures, their stories become hopeful. Both films further share a striking visual motif, of their ‘new’ families enjoying themselves at the beach. Though this may be, to a Western audience, a seemingly commonplace activity, it holds greater significance in both films: the “togetherness” of the families, standing in the shallow sea, becomes a symbol of strength for approaching recurring waves of loss and metaphorical ghosts. 

One of the most striking things, for me, in all of Koreeda’s films, is that it is most often through children, or at least the youngest members of the families, that we are able to understand what is truly at stake.

I have loved Koreeda’s films for years and I delight in knowing that he is prolific enough for me to have roughly one guaranteed truly moving cinema visit per year until he, one day, stops making films. But I think my greatest joy, even more wonderful than sitting in the dark to let my heart swell, has been in recommending his films to others – and, specifically, to families. I must have given I Wish to just about everyone who ever walked into 20th Century Flicks video shop in Bristol where I used to work, and I think it is the greatest gift I could have given, however different their lives may be. Seeing their children return the film with grins plastered across their faces is every bit as warming as seeing the children in the film itself race towards the crossing shinkansens (bullet trains) to make their wish.

This is how Koreeda’s films continue in emotion, far beyond the limits of the screen, until finally they set up a kontatsu in your heart, where a beautiful new family of feelings can grow.

Tara Judah,  Watershed Cinema Producer,  Twitter @midnightmovies

November 2018

 

[1] Adelstein, Jake, ‘Can Hirokazu Kore-eda’s success with ‘Shoplifters’ shed some light on poverty in Japan?’, The Japan Times, June 2 2018, https://www.japantimes.co.jp/news/2018/06/02/national/media-national/can-kore-edas-success-shed-light-poverty-japan/#.W_Ul0i2cbLZ, accessed 21 November 2018

[2] Ebert, Roger, ‘After Life’, RogerEbert.com, August 6 1999, https://www.rogerebert.com/reviews/after-life-1999, accessed 21 November 2018


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