Although Japanese filmmaker Hirokazu Koreeda has been working for decades, and although his films have been celebrated across the festival circuit, he is not yet a household name. That kind of international acclaim – of which he is entirely deserving – would, in some respects, dampen the spirit of his work. Koreeda’s diligent observation of the tenderness of family life, with all its understated, overlooked moments is, when discovered, a quiet revelation; a secret best left unshared.
Koreeda reveals the theory behind his intimate household dramas in his thought-provoking 1998 breakthrough After Life. The film begins with a supernatural premise but retains the naturalistic style he is so proficient in. A masterful, existential study of memory and loss, the story of After Life imagines the newly dead arriving in a heavenly waiting-room where they can choose one memory to eternally relive on film. Those who cannot decide on one remain in the halfway house indefinitely, watching videotapes of their life to help them decide. There is an ostensible correlation between the premise of this film and the theory of Koreeda’s work: how the living, breathing moment of the quotidian becomes significant when immortalised on film, after life.
After Life is not the only one of Koreeda’s films in which the context of death enriches the trivialities of life. His second most well-known film Still Walking (2008), a film that bears a resemblance to Yasujirō Ozu’s Tokyo Story (1953), portrays the homecoming of a son whose parents are still mourning the drowning of their favoured child, his brother. The 15-year-old unresolved grievances manifest themselves in ways that reveal the painful truths of family life such as the tensions between the father and his disinherited son, the unfilled absences in the space of the family home, and the desire for continuity but the inevitability of change.
If After Life is predicated on the idea of endless repetition, and Still Walking turns around the inability to stop mourning the dead, Koreeda’s more recent Like Father, Like Son (2013) – a film about a couple’s discovery that their six-year-old child was swapped at birth – also explores the devastating consequences of the disruption to linear time. The simplicity of this predicament is genius; Koreeda’s story speaks for itself. His direction never feels intrusive. Instead, we witness the difficulty children face in adapting to new environments and we learn that it is not just the parenting but the space of the household that shapes a child. As with the majority of his work, Koreeda explores the rituals of domestic activities: grandparents passing down of methods of food preparation, for instance, as well as the superstition than pinching moles might eventually make you rich.
The two films in which Koreeda departs from domestic harmony are Nobody Knows (2004) and I Wish (2011). In Nobody Knows, a mother abandons her four young children in a city apartment. A difficult watch, the film skilfully combines its portrait of the world from a child’s perspective with many elements common to social realist documentary. There is almost something Dickensian about how Akira, the prematurely aged 12 year old, carries the weight of the world on his shoulders. He finds himself conflicted between the hopeless desperation of his situation and a recognition of his mother’s unhappiness. Nobody Knows is illustrative of Koreeda’s ability, as a humanist above all, to captivate his audiences through their concern for the dispossessed.
I Wish is arguably the best of Koreeda’s filmography. The story of two young brothers and their refusal to accept the separation of their recently divorced parents is told alongside the opening of the Shinkansen Bullet Train service that connects Hakata to Kyushu, and thus the brothers in the northern city of Fukuoka and the southern terminus in Kagoshima. The Japanese title, Kiseki, refers to the boys’ belief that at the moment two bullet trains first pass each other at top speed, a miracle will happen. If the expansion of the railway network marks a turning point in the history of the country, then the representation of a broken family unit marks a turning point in the syntax of Koreeda’s film grammar.
The lack of any real sense of home in I Wish distinguishes it from the rest of his work. The camera moves between shots of Fukuoka and Kagoshima, often without notice. These are, as many have identified, the pillow shots reproduced in the style of Yasujirō Ozu. The film pauses to linger on seemingly random cutaway shots, held for several settings, to help establish place. Often of the sea or the volcano, of school buildings or private interiors, these shots help produce a sense of cinematic verisimilitude. Koreeda’s fixation with pillow shots of planes and trains demonstrates how in I Wish he is challenging himself – as the children do – to breach the unknown, choosing – as his protagonist does – “the world over family”. Fetching top speeds of 250km per hour, characters often refer to the bullet train as taking flight. Since the child’s coming-of-age experience prevails above all else, might we think of this as Koreeda flying the nest himself?
At one point in I Wish, Koichi is asked to taste the karukan cake his father has made. The verdict: it’s only slightly sweet. And it’s true to Koreeda’s subject matter: in anyone else’s hands such saccharine sentimentality would be unpalatable – but the master of the realist gaze resists that sickly taste again and again.