Contemporary Film Directors: Kore-eda Hirokazu

Marc Yamada


Beyond Ozu and Loach: Kore-eda Hirokazu in Japanese and World Cinema

This book provides an intervention in the English-language criticism on one of the most acclaimed international auteurs working today, Kore-eda Hirokazu (b. 1962). During his thirty-year career, Kore-eda has directed over fifteen feature films, as well as numerous television documentaries and programs, many of which are commercially available around the world. As of 2022, Kore-eda’s works available on disk, through streaming services, and online include Lessons from a Calf—Record at the Spring Class at Ina Elementary School (Mō hitotsu no kyōiku—Ina shōgakkō haru gumi no kiroku, 1991); August without Him (Kare no inai hachi- gatsu ga, 1994); Maborosi (Maboroshi no hikari, 1995); Without Memory (Kioku ga ushinawareta toki, 1996); After Life (Wandāfuru raifu, 1998); Distance (Disutansu, 2001); Nobody Knows (Dare mo shiranai, 2004); Hana: The Tale of the Reluctant Samurai (Hana yori mo naho, 2006);Still Walking (Aruitemo aruitemo, 2008); Air Doll (Kūki ningyō, 2009); I Wish (Kiseki, 2011); Like Father, Like Son (Soshite chichi ni naru, 2013); Our Little Sister (Umimachi diary, 2015); After the Storm (Umi yori no mada fukaku, 2016); The Third Murder (Sandome no satsujin, 2017); Shoplifters (Manbiki kazoku, 2018); La vérité / The Truth / Shinjitsu (2019); and Broker (Beurokeo, 2022). Since launching his career in the early 1990s as a documentarian, Kore-eda has won dozens of awards for his films at festivals around the world, particularly at the Cannes Film Festival, where he took home the Jury Prize for Like Father, Like Son in 2013 and the Palme d’Or for Shoplifters in 2018.

While a steady stream of criticism on Kore-eda’s work has appeared in Japanese, English, and other languages over the past few decades, much of this scholarship reinforces the identification of his films as manifestations of the values of traditional Japanese cinema.1 The extensive use of static camerawork and austere shot compositions in his first feature film, Maborosi, prompted inevitable comparisons to traditional Japanese aesthetics. Japanese and non-Japanese critics alike ascribed the values of minimalism and a sensitivity to ephemerality to Mabo- rosi, reinforcing timeworn ways of viewing Japanese culture through traditional perspectives.2 Japanese filmmaker Higuchi Naofumi, for instance, recognizes in Maborosi and other Kore-eda films an exemplification of the aesthetic value of mono no aware, or a sensitivity to the transient nature of things (“Narushishizumu”). For his part, Kore-eda claims not to have consciously based the cinematic style of Maborosi on the aesthetics of traditional forms such as Zen Buddhism: “When I went to European film festivals with Maborosi, people often spoke about Zen. They asked me about the relationship between the film and Zen. That was something I never thought about” (Schilling and Kore- eda 15). Considering these early characterizations of his work, critics often place the director in a lineage of filmmakers from the golden age of Japanese cinema in the 1950s and 1960s such as Ozu Yasujirō (1903–63), the famed director of Tokyo Story (Tokyo monogatari, 1953) and other classics of Japanese cinema whose meditative works were also associated with traditional aesthetics and religious perspectives by film critics such as Paul Schrader, who likens Ozu’s films to Zen concepts.3 Critic Yoshimoto Mitsuhiro comments on the essentializing tendencies of American critical approaches to Japanese film: “Very schematically, the history of American scholarship on Japanese cinema can be divided into three phases: (1) humanistic celebration of great auteurs and Japa- nese culture in the 1960s, (2) formalistic and Marxist celebration of Japanese cinema as an alternative to the classical Hollywood cinema in the 1970s, and (3) critical reexamination of the preceding approaches through the introduction of discourse of Otherness and cross-cultural analysis in the 1980s” (8).

Although we cannot separate Kore-eda’s work from the national lineage of which he is a part or redetermine how that lineage has been characterized in criticism, foregrounding the “Japaneseness” of his films misses an opportunity to consider the way his work is shaped by issues and conditions that extend across cultural boundaries and impact other capitalist traditions around the world. International audiences do not seek out Kore-eda’s films for their depictions of an exotic Japan, as they have in the past with directors such as Kurosawa Akira (1910–98); instead, audiences appreciate the films’ humanistic portrayal of families and individuals struggling to connect and survive in modern times. For this reason, the goal of this book is to introduce a fresh critical framework for viewing Kore-eda’s films within an international context, one that seeks to reinterpret the characteristics attached to his cinematic works by viewing them in relation to the contemporary socioeconomic concerns with which filmmakers outside Japan also engage in their work. This is not to say that Kore-eda deliberately conceals or obscures aspects of Japanese society and culture in his films; indeed, most of his films are set in recognizable areas in Japan and feature ethnically Japanese people speaking Japanese. Yet his films also do not perform Japanese culture to essentialize it as distinctive and exotic.

Focusing attention away from traditional aesthetics, this book argues that excess, not minimalism, is the central feature of Kore-eda’s brand of humanism. I use the term excess in accordance with its original meaning in film studies, as a key concept in the 1970s to describe the shift away from a critical focus on the unifying narrative of film texts toward a consideration of the opposing and heterogeneous forces that escape and exceed these narrative systems and organizational systems outside the cinematic text (Thompson 130). Conforming to this view of cinematic excess, Kore-eda’s films, I argue, manifest moments when a desire for human connection escapes the logic of the systems and policies formed in the implementation of neoliberal values, a process that has shaped social conditions and cultural expression—even filmmaking—in Japan over the last thirty years. These moments of excess are captured through images of bodies that form shared spaces as they move, perform, and assemble on both sides of the camera, bodies that manifest the humanistic impulse of Kore-eda’s films, which serves as the basis of his appeal around the world.

Kore-eda’s unconventional path to becoming an international filmmaker provides him critical distance from a national tradition that he both looks to for inspiration and seeks to overcome. Born in 1962 amid Japan’s meteoric rise to the status of a First World country after its defeat during World War II, Kore-eda was raised for the first few years of his life in the northern Tokyo city of Nerima, part of the larger metropolitan area of the Japanese capital. At the age of nine, he moved with his family to the Asahigaoka area of the neighbouring city of Kiyose, settling into one of the danchi (large public housing complexes) built between the 1950s and 1970s to accommodate the families of “salarymen,” or company workers who fueled Japan’s growth during this period. He lived in the complex throughout his college years, eventually moving out at age twenty-eight. Kore-eda’s recollections of his family life in the Kiyose complex reveal the challenges and dysfunctions that characterize many of the everyday families he features in his films and documentaries. The absentee father figures that appear in several Kore-eda films reflect the director’s ambivalence toward his own father, a veteran of World War II and a humble factory worker (Kore-eda, “Chichi no shakkin” 384). Born as a Japanese national in Taiwan, a colony under Japanese rule from 1895 to 1945, Kore-eda’s father fought for his country in China during the war. After the Soviet invasion of Manchuria in 1945, he was sent to a Siberian prison camp, where he endured three years of hard labour, abuse, and other horrors before making his way back to his defeated country. Though Kore-eda’s father rarely spoke about his experience in the war, PTSD impacted his reintegration into society and domestic life. He would often disappear from home for long stretches at a time, racking up gambling debts that burdened his wife and children with financial struggles (386). Kore-eda recalls creditors harassing the family during his father’s regular benders while his mother frantically scraped together enough cash to pay them off, relying on government welfare to make ends meet (387). Kore-eda’s financial struggles as a youth manifest themselves through his attention to issues of poverty and social benefits in the films Nobody Knows, After the Storm, and Shoplifters and in his television documentary However . . . in the Time of Government Aid Cuts (Shikashi . . . fukushi kirisute no jidai ni, 1991).

Due to the lack of a consistent paternal presence in his home, Kore-eda was raised by his mother, grandmother, and two older sisters—an aspect of his youth, Kore-eda suggests, that gives his films a female perspective, including his most autobiographical offering, After the Storm (Kanazawa and Kore-eda 52). The film focuses on the middle-class Shi- noda family, consisting of a matriarch, Yoshiko, and her two grown children, Chinatsu, a mother of two, and Ryōta, a flash-in-the-pan novelist and degenerate gambler. Yoshiko’s late husband, like Kore-eda’s father, squandered his family’s income on gambling before he died, frustrating Yoshiko’s dream of moving out of her cramped apartment and into a proper house. To depict the restrictions of Yoshiko’s meagre lifestyle, Kore-eda accentuated the cramped conditions of her apartment, setting the film in the same Nerima complex of his youth (Ogawa and Kore-eda 60–62). Inspired by Kore-eda’s memories of growing up, profligate men are often treated as sympathetic characters in films such as After the Storm and Our Little Sister, taken care of by women who have a soft spot for the men’s struggles.

Kore-eda’s path to becoming a director was shaped more by happenstance than by a focused drive to make films early on. After high school, he attended Waseda University, a member of the elite Big 6 league of Tokyo universities, which equates roughly to the Ivy League in the United States. Renowned for its literary traditions, Waseda is the alma mater of several famous Japanese writers, including international best-selling author Murakami Haruki (b. 1950). With ambitions to become a novelist, Kore-eda entered the Faculty of Letters in the School of Arts and Sciences but was quickly drawn to the world of film and script-writing (Yamada and Kore-eda 263). Like other Japanese universities at the time, Waseda lacked a proper film program that could direct Kore-eda’s early training in the cinematic arts. Aspiring filmmakers from Kore-eda’s generation gravitated instead to college cinema clubs that produced Super 8 films or studied with luminaries such as film critic Hasumi Shigehiko, who guided the careers of many young directors from the 1990s, including Kurosawa Kiyoshi (b. 1955) and Aoyama Shinji (b. 1964), among others (Nolletti, “Introduction” 2). Instead of seeking out filmmaking clubs, Kore-eda spent his time at Waseda reading screenplays and skipping class to watch Japanese and international classics at art house theaters in Tokyo (Ogawa and Kore-eda 57). Sitting through three hundred to four hundred films a year, Kore-eda focused on the great auteurs; he was particularly drawn to the films of Federico Fellini (1920–93) and described the moment he discovered the films of the Italian great as a “turning point” in his growth toward becoming a director (Risker 42). Kore-eda’s sympathetic advisor allowed Kore-eda to write a screenplay, the first of many, instead of a thesis on literature, a requirement for graduation in his department (Ogawa and Kore-eda 57).

After graduating from Waseda in 1987, Kore-eda sought work as a scriptwriter—a profession in the film industry that he felt better suited his introverted nature than that of a director required to command a film set (Hokazono and Kore-eda 107). Realizing that it could take years to earn a stable living penning scripts, Kore-eda sought out every opportunity he could find to establish himself as a screenwriter, deciding on a whim to sit for an employment exam for television production, an industry that was more active in hiring than film at the time (Hokazono and Kore-eda 107). He landed a job with TV Man Union, the first independent television production company in Japan, as an assistant director of documentary programming. Before starting work with TV Man, Kore-eda had not had much interest in documentaries beyond the work of Ogawa Shinsuke (1935–92) and Tsuchimoto Noriaki (1928–2008), the two most well-known documentarists in Japan, and after only a year at TV Man, he was already languishing in his new trade. Unable to stomach the realities of an industry that required him to churn out content at breakneck speed, Kore-eda struggled to produce work in an expeditious fashion, becoming the target of ridicule by coworkers who grew impatient with his subpar work (107).

Fearing he was losing focus on the types of stories he wanted to capture on film, Kore-eda began secretly producing his own documentary, Lessons from a Calf, while continuing his day job at TV Man (Hokazono and Kore-eda 107). Inspired by a story he had read a few years earlier about children who raised a calf as a class project during the school year at a progressive elementary school in Ina City, in the Nagano prefecture, Kore-eda sought permission from the teacher to film the students as they prepared to raise another calf. Equipped with an 8mm camera he borrowed from work, he spent three years, from October 1988 to March 1991, commuting back and forth between rural Nagano and Tokyo to shoot footage of the class whenever he could sneak away from his duties at TV Man (107–08). During the forty-four-minute program, the mostly handheld camera captures the children preparing months ahead for the arrival of the calf, Laura, on loan from a local farm, by raising funds to pay for her feed and building her a stable. During the nine months Laura lives at the school, the children take turns caring for her needs, tearfully saying goodbye when she returns to the farm as a fully grown adult. Making a film in the welcoming countryside of the Nagano prefecture was just what Kore-eda needed after the rejection he experienced in the cutthroat Tokyo television industry (107). His work on Lessons from a Calf revealed Kore-eda’s talents for capturing the world from a child’s perspective—an ability that would earn him accolades by critics who identify him as one of the best directors of juvenile actors (Rafferty). Airing on Fuji Television’s late-night documentary series, Nonfix, Les- sons from a Calf impressed TV Man bosses, who promoted Kore-eda to the position of director, allowing him more freedom in choosing his projects. Two documentaries about activists followed. However . . . in the Time of Government Aid Cuts, which also aired on Nonfix, examines the suicide of the former division chief of the Social Welfare Bureau of the Ministry of Health, Labour and Welfare, Yamanouchi Toyonori, who grew frustrated by the bureau’s refusal to authorize welfare assistance for those in need—a topic with which Kore-eda could relate, having grown up on government support. The documentary portrays the suffering of welfare recipients and the diffident attitude of administrators toward social benefits in an age of cutbacks. After shooting Lessons from a Calf on an 8mm camera by himself, Kore-eda was provided a crew for August without Him and other productions, allowing him to focus on his work as director and interviewer during productions. In August without Him, Kore-eda depicts the final months of Hirata Yutaka, the first openly gay AIDS patient in Japan, a marginalized figure in Japanese society at a time when the social stigma of homosexuality and AIDS was still quite strong.

Based on this early work, it is possible to situate Kore-eda in the tradition of Japanese documentary filmmaking. His work on Lessons from a Calf and the emphasis he gives to individuals with disabilities place his works in conversation with some of the early works of filmmakers such as Tsuchimoto, Hani Susumu (b. 1928), Hara Kazuo (b. 1945), and Satō Makoto (1957–2008). Yet Kore-eda’s innovation as a filmmaker is based in his blending of feature film and documentary stylistics. Accordingly, Kore-eda’s early work in documentary filmmaking influences his feature films, though the balance between his dependence on these two mediums changes with each new project (Kore-eda, “Dokyumentari” 82). In his second feature film, After Life, Kore-eda mixes elements of documentary production and feature filmmaking to see what kinds of stories emerge from the process (Jia and Kore-eda 16).4 After Life tells of a group of recently deceased individuals who spend a week at a waystation between life and death before moving on. At the beginning of this seven-day period, the deceased are greeted by caseworkers, who inform them that during the week they must choose one memory from their life that they will take with them to eternity. The caseworkers adapt the memory into a short film and screen it for the visitors at the end of the week. In making the film, Kore-eda hired several college students to conduct interviews with people on the street, asking them to describe one memory that they would choose to take with them after they die, just like the interviewers in the movie ask the guests at the way station (Sōda 104). Kore-eda used the five hundred interviews that his staff collected on videotape to form the screenplay of After Life, incorporating ideas for memories from the interviews and even casting a select group of subjects to play themselves in the film (104). Kore-eda followed the same process years later while creating The Truth; he conducted extensive interviews with both Juliette Binoche and Catherine Deneuve, who star in the film, before beginning to shoot (Arai 18). Some of the questions that he asked Deneuve—“What actress imparted to you her DNA?” and “To whom have you imparted your DNA as an actress?”—made their way into the final cut as part of an interview between Deneuve’s character, Fabienne, and a journalist that opens the film (18). Kore-eda shot 2004’s Nobody Knows, moreover, like a documentary. The film is based on an actual event that occurred in 1988: “Nishi-sugamo kodomo okizari jiken” (the affair of the four abandoned children of Nishi-Sugamo), in which five children were found in squalid conditions in a Tokyo apartment, having been abandoned by their mother for six months (two of the children were deceased—a baby, whose body was discovered in the apartment, and another child, who was discovered buried in the mountains). To capture the immediacy of events, Kore-eda paused after shooting each scene to edit the footage instead of waiting until all the shooting was wrapped, following a pattern he uses when making his documentaries (Jonze and Kore-eda 49).

Kore-eda lacks formal training as a cinematographer, but his understanding of the technical side of film production has grown with each movie he has made. Early on, Kore-eda often utilized techniques of cinema verité and direct cinema associated with documentary filmmaking to lend an aura of authenticity to his fictions. He used handheld footage in After Life and Distance to capture movement without smooth tracking to create the energy and immediacy of the home movie experience, but he also favors an observational style that manifests through static wide shots in films such as Maborosi, using naturalistic editing and lighting and a spare sound design to relay a sense of authenticity. He claims that producing documentary programming sharpened his skills in capturing the nuances of human interactions in his feature films (Hokazono and Kore-eda 107–08). After Nobody Knows, however, Kore-eda’s films have taken on more of a commercial feel. He still uses his trademark observational style of static wide shots mixed with handheld camera footage at times in his films, but he also incorporates effects such as sliding cameras and push-in shots to give his compositions a more dynamic feel in films such as Air Doll and includes more nondiegetic sound to accentuate emotional and dramatic moments in films such as Our Little Sister. In most of his feature films, Kore-eda favors shooting on 35mm lenses, though at times he uses telephoto focal lengths to capture characters in their larger environment. Preferring the texture and grain of film stock, Kore-eda has nevertheless acknowledged the rapid conversion to digital over the last ten years, opting to shoot his 2017 feature, The Third Murder, in digital anamorphic widescreen, though he argues that some of the poetry of film is lost due to this change (Chang).

After directing several documentaries in the early 1990s, Kore-eda leveraged the experiences and resources he garnered with his early success at TV Man to create his first feature film, Maborosi, which debuted at the Venice Film Festival in September 1995 and became the standard by which his feature film career would be evaluated. Maborosi would go on to receive critical accolades for its use of lighting and cinematography, earning Kore-eda some of his first awards as a filmmaker, including the Golden Osella for Best Cinematography at Venice and the Dragons and Tigers Award at the 1995 Vancouver International Film Festival. Reflecting Kore-eda’s original interest in literary fiction, the film takes as its source material a novella he read as a college student, Maboroshi no hikari (1983), by Japanese writer Miyamoto Teru (b. 1947). Having just dealt with the subject of grief in However . . . in the Time of Government Aid Cuts, Kore-eda felt that adapting a novel about enduring the loss of loved ones, a central theme of Maboroshi no hikari, seemed like a fitting way to transition between documentary and feature filmmaking (Feinsod and Kore-eda).

Although both However . . . in the Time of Government Aid Cuts and Maborosi feature the struggles of a single mother dealing with the loss of the family’s breadwinner, critics overlooked connections between Maborosi and the themes Kore-eda was developing in his socially conscious documentaries, seeking instead to locate the film within classical Japanese cinema by referencing Ozu’s Tokyo Story. Following Maborosi’s North American premiere at the Toronto International Film Festival in the fall of 1995, articles likening the film to Ozu’s works by David Desser, Christine Marran, and Bert Cardullo, among other critics, appeared in film publications. Comparisons to Ozu in early scholarship and criticism would follow Kore-eda for the next twenty-five years, becoming a customary way for critics to situate his work within Japanese and world cinema.

Marc Yamada

is a

Guest Contributor for Panorama.