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A Beginner’s Guide to Hirokazu Kore-eda11 min read

13 September 2019 7 min read


A Beginner’s Guide to Hirokazu Kore-eda11 min read

Reading Time: 7 minutes

A while back, we took a look at some of Bong Joon-Ho’s previous works leading up to his 2019 Cannes Palme d’Or winner film, Parasite. Just a year ago, the accolade was taken by another Asian filmmaker who remains a cornerstone in contemporary Asian cinema. 2018’s winner, Shoplifters (2018) by Hirokazu Kore-eda, follows the story of an unlikely band of strangers put together under the same roof, eking out a life through low-wage jobs and petty crimes. Awarded the Asian Filmmaker of the Year at the 2019 Busan International Film Festival, Kore-eda has established himself as a notable contemporary director who simply cannot be ignored. 

So, what’s all the fuss? Why is Kore-eda the kind of name you can blurt out as your favourite director and receive murmurs of agreement? 

From film critics to art film buffs and even to average movie-goers, Kore-eda’s films are so wildly popular because there is something for everyone in them. They are consistently well-made, with each shot not just packed with meaning, but also pleasing to the eye. And of course, while the director himself admits to having his movies revolve around the themes of family, relationships, and death, the remarkable storytelling he engages us in ensures that the plots are never just about them. 

In his different permutations of looking at what it means to be family, it almost seems like a personal challenge for Kore-eda to see how many times he can tear apart the ideal that a family is made up of blood relations. And still be refreshing. 

The acclaimed director-cum-screenwriter has a new film coming out this year. Unlike his past pictures, The Truth (2019) is his first film that departs from the homes of Japan and lands in an upper-class French household. We’re talking about a complete change in setting and language. But considering that the established director has developed a unique style of his own through his oeuvre, it’s exciting to see how the Kore-eda elements translate in a new environment. 

The Truth (2019) has already premiered as the opening film of the 76th Venice International Film Festival, and I can’t wait for it to arrive on our local screens. So in an attempt to infect everyone else with the same anticipation, let’s take a look at some of the distinct traits that have persisted throughout Kore-eda’s body of impressive productions. 

Before his first feature film Maborosi (1995), which revolves around a widowed woman and her child adjusting to a new family, Hirokazu Kore-eda had worked mainly on documentaries. Upon moving to film directing, his works quickly gained recognition for their visual style and screenplays, with a number of them being nominees for the Palme d’Or. But it was only when Like Father Like Son (2013), a film revolving around two boys who were accidentally switched at birth, was awarded the Jury Prize in the 2013 Cannes Film Festival was he launched into the international spotlight. So, what’s the big deal about his films?

Why Kore-eda? 

His Visual Style

Constantly jumping from shots in darkness to those soaked in light, the seeming assault on the eyes with such a high-contrast juxtaposition reveals Kore-eda’s fascination with light. This comes across more obviously in his first ever feature film, Maborosi (1995), where he works exclusively with natural lighting. For him, “It’s not so much that the lighting is there to reinforce the theme, rather the gradual change in the light itself was a theme of the movie.” 

Though he has moved on from that purposeful endeavour, his films still continue to play with light in different ways. In After Life (1998), which envisions life after death in a production house, staged lighting is put in the foreground. With lightbulbs in full view in many of the scenes, the artificiality of film production is emphasised. 

But put next to the interviews conducted in the day, when the deceased are asked about what is one moment in their life they want to remember forever as warm sunlight leaks in through the windows, the happiness reproduced through recollection is far from being contrived. And in that contrast, in that soothing image, he ingeniously recreates the happiness amongst the audience. 

Perhaps Kore-eda’s background in making documentaries plays a hand in making his films so compelling. Seated opposite the characters, face-to-face, the classic interview-like mid-shot has us in the position of the unrelenting questioner. We become the power of authority – silent and judging – as the characters look right into our eyes and draw us into the films, as though they are directly sharing with us their real and personal stories. 

Enough about what he puts before us. Aside from the fact that Kore-eda’s films are so meticulously shot – basically a film analyst’s playground if one is into that – they are also simply, well, gorgeous. Behold: 

Does more need to be said? Kudos to the many cinematographers who have collaborated with Kore-eda and have made possible this vision of upholding both beauty and story. 

Whether it is awe-inspiring wide shots of surroundings or satisfying perspective shots with beautiful symmetry, each shot of Kore-eda’s films is carefully composed to create masterpieces that can easily be taken to create mesmerising photo books. And a lot of times, these extreme long shots remain static and unmoving for extended periods, such as the almost 3 minutes long funeral procession scene in Maborosi (1995). (That doesn’t sound like a lot, but sitting there and watching people take slow steps for 3 minutes straight is really, really, long.)

And in that, in a world where picturesque shots are in abundance and where we can easily swipe through endless ‘aesthetic’ photos on Instagram, Kore-eda makes sure that we don’t mindlessly absorb what we see. With little action happening on screen, we are forced to pause and take in the foreboding dark clouds or the dancing green plants. 

Known to draw storyboards for his shots, Kore-eda’s setting is often so heavily incorporated in his films such that the environment becomes a crucial character itself. With characters effortlessly maneuvering about tiny spaces that have become almost an extension of themselves, it is no surprise that much attention is given to framing attractive shots that will be imprinted on the minds of viewers. 

 His Stories

Let’s play a little game. If you’re convinced to go on a Hirokazu Kore-eda movie marathon, or even to just watch one of them, take a shot every time one of Kore-eda’s films:

✓ Has a dining table scene

✓ Says bureaucracy is a bitch

✓ Shows a happy, carefree family moment (+1 if it happens at the beach)

✓ Deals with death

That pretty much sums up what you can expect from Kore-eda. His films may seem like just another story about family, but they almost always have an unexpected element to them which propels the narratives and allow them to surprise us over and over again. Whether you want father-son, mother-daughter, grandparent-grandchild relationships, or sister- and brotherhood, Kore-eda has them all. And despite the heavy issues that he seems to be constantly touching on, Kore-eda masterfully infuses comedy into his works to diffuse some of the tension. 

And if these aren’t up your alley, Hana (2006) is planted in the early 18th century of the Japanese Edo period, a historical piece involving samurais and revenge. There’s also Air Doll (2009), a science-fiction movie that tracks the life of a sex doll who gains sentience. 

But at the core of all of Kore-eda’s works is a strong directorial vision that clearly imparts whatever message he has. Cinematic parallels are aplenty: not only do they show thorough planning and execution, but are also successful in creating meaning and significance. As such, not much needs to be explicitly mentioned but we are able to feel the weight of emotions in its entirety, either from a suitcase or a new set of pyjamas. 

The natural scripting (or as Kore-eda practises, lack of scripting) of interactions amongst the actors he worked with is probably what makes his films so realistic and convincing. Much credit has also been given to the many child actors who have starred in Kore-eda films. Most prominently, Yūya Yagira (then 14 years old) is known to be the youngest winner of the Best Actor Award at the 57th Cannes Film Festival for his performance in Nobody Knows (2004). Based on a 1988 child-abandonment case in Japan that resulted from parental negligence, Nobody Knows (2004) places us in the shoes of the children who never lost hope, with Yūya Yagira’s role as the eldest son taking all our sympathies. 

Indeed, in paying special attention to acclimatizing debut young actors in front of cameras, even down to incorporating their vocabulary into dialogue, it is no wonder that the acting in Kore-eda’s films is so believable and engaging. 

In his strong humanist and realist takes on life, the stories he tells are able to transcend language and cultural boundaries to root themselves into the hearts of people all over the world. 

Maybe we don’t all know a family who is hiding from the law because of their convenient relations to one another. But we do know people who have lost a spouse or a brother. We do know loving parents and irresponsible ones. We do know about stigmas associated with divorced women and have probably been in awkward family reunions ourselves. And, we do know suicide. 

Through microcosmic looks at a single family unit, Kore-eda always manages to spin universal tales that can share the pains and joys of life, that can comfort and entertain, that can lull and provoke. 

So whether you are looking to observe how Hirokazu Kore-eda says things implicitly or what combination of the family unit he is exploring this time, whether you want to go in knowing your eyes will be in for a treat or a good story time, trust that the renowned auteur will deliver. While we await the arrival of The Truth (2019), throw yourselves into one of Kore-eda’s many stellar features and join the cult. It doesn’t even matter if you’ve already watched them, watch them again. Because his movies can only give more and more. 

Not sure where to start? Perspectives Film Festival 2019 will be screening After Life (1998) as part of its lineup of films that fit the theme of ‘Crossroads’. Find out more on the official website.

Always floating around, indulging in stories of all kinds. Please don't send me hate mail. I have low self-esteem.
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