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Kore-eda Hirokazu: Life as Art

Written by Mike Crandol Tell a Friend

Words somehow fail to do justice to the visual splendor and poetry of director Kore-eda Hirokazu's cinematic treasures. The piercing beauty of Maboroshi no Hikari, the quiet introspective drama of After Life and Nobody Knows, even the satiric samurai comedy of Hana simply must be seen to be properly appreciated. Japan's most acclaimed art-house darling of the past fifteen years, Kore-eda may not have the mass marketability of Miike Takashi or Kitano Takeshi, but his unmatched eye for crafting visually sumptuous and emotionally profound pieces of celluloid easily qualifies him as one of Japan's greatest living filmmakers. More so than any of his contemporaries, Kore-eda invokes the spirit of the great golden age directors such as Ozu Yasujiro and Mizoguchi Kenji. But the magic that ends up onscreen is uniquely his own.

The word most often used to describe Kore-eda's body of work is "human," but once again words fail to convey the full weight of his achievements. Practically all works of film are about the human drama. Kore-eda's films aren't merely about humanity; they very much are humanity, captured in all of its raw wonder and mystery. Kore-eda's background in documentary filmmaking no doubt infuses his movies with much of their stark sense of realism, but it's the director's ability to craft fictional narratives into windows on the human soul that makes his films truly wondrous experiences.

Lights in the Darkness

Kore-eda Hirokazu was born in Tokyo in 1962. Intending to become a novelist, he enrolled in the literature program at Waseda University, but a growing interest in film led him to pursue a career in television after graduation. Quickly proving his talent behind the camera, Kore-eda was soon directing a series of made-for-TV documentary shorts for a small independent production company. Fascinated by iconoclasts and social misfits, Kore-eda began his lifelong cinematic obsession with humanity by documenting the everyday life of those on the fringe of Japan's notoriously conformist society.

In the early 1990s he made the leap to documentary features, where he continued to illuminate Japan's darker corners of daily existence. However, following 1994's August without Him Kore-eda began to grow frustrated with the storytelling limitations of the documentary format. As an objective yet intimate chronicle of AIDS victim and activist Hirata Yutaka's final months, the award-winning picture is an unqualified success. But Kore-eda felt that, paradoxically, the very nature of reality filmmaking injected a sense of superficiality into the final product. Commentating that "subjects in documentaries are always reacting to the camera, so their behavior becomes artificial," the veteran documentary director decided to next try his hand at a fictional piece.

But Kore-eda didn't simply throw out his bag of reality moviemaking techniques, and it's his documentary filmmaker's eye that makes Maboroshi no Hikari (1995) such a visual marvel to behold. Miyamoto Teru's novel might easily have been turned into a straightforward, Hollywood studio-style adaptation, but in Kore-eda's hands the material takes on a cinematic form that is truly unique. The story of a young mother's attempt to rebuild her life following her husband's inexplicable suicide, Maboroshi eschews many of the tenets of traditional moviemaking. For the demanding lead role, Kore-eda cast newcomer Esumi Makiko, and took a similar gamble in giving the small but crucial role of the husband to an as-yet unproven talent by the name of Asano Tadanobu. Although the film's use of long takes, carefully-staged mise en scene, and low-angle shots owes a clear debt to Ozu, Kore-eda's decision to use entirely natural lighting represented a bold and daring artistic risk.

The results are astonishingly successful. Filmed along the rugged coastline of the Sea of Japan, Kore-eda's camera captures scenes of unsurpassed natural beauty. The murky, naturally-lit interior scenes throw the gorgeous landscapes into stark relief while contributing to the sense of mingled hope and despair with which the young mother continually grapples. Indeed, Kore-eda carefully constructs all of his shots to reflect the inner emotional turmoil of his protagonist. It's all anchored by Esumi, whose unconventional beauty and guileless grace draw the audience into Maboroshi's world. The film brought Kore-eda instant fame and acclaim at home and abroad, taking top honors at the Chicago International Film Festival and a Golden Lion nomination at the Venice Film Festival, as well as an award for Best New Director at the Cannes Film Festival.

After Life in the Limelight

Following the international success of Maboroshi, Kore-eda began work on an original project that would blur the lines between fictional and documentary filmmaking. The result was After Life (1998), an utterly charming hybrid of otherworldly fantasy and candid interviews about the joys of existence. After Life's irresistible premise, in which a team of deceased souls reenact and record the most cherished memories of the recently departed, allowed Kore-eda the chance to work with a combination of veteran and amateur actors. The film's angelic memorial scribes are portrayed by professional performers, including ubiquitous Japanese star Terajima Susumu, who would go on to appear in all of Kore-eda's subsequent productions.

Working from a drab way station somewhere in the netherworld, Terajima's team spends each day interviewing the newly deceased about their favorite memory of life, which will become the one memento they take with them to their next existence. The interviewees are "played" by non-professionals, who honestly recount their most precious memories for the camera. This unique setup creates some wonderfully amusing moments; when a teenaged girl declares a day spent at Tokyo Disneyland to be her favorite memory, she is urged to reconsider, since so many girls pick Disneyland as their one memory to keep. Ultimately, the real-life memories of the amateur participants invite reflection on the past lives of Kore-eda's fictional angels, making After Life a truly delightful anomaly of modern cinema.

After Life's universal themes made it another international favorite. For his next picture, however, Kore-eda turned to a subject deeply tied to a recent Japanese tragedy. 2001's Distance crafts a thinly veiled allegory of the national trauma experienced in the aftermath of Aum Shinrikyo's 1995 sarin gas attack on the Tokyo subway system. Taking place on the third anniversary of a fictionalized biological terror attack by the "Ark of Truth" religious cult, Distance explores the lives of the cult members' surviving relatives, who struggle to come to grips with the emotional disconnect that led to their loved ones' fateful actions. As in Maboroshi, Kore-eda employs stunning shots of the rural Japanese landscape to reflect the inner turmoil of his characters. Yet the film also displays a growing level of confidence on the part of its director. Taking a cue from the multiple viewpoints of After Life, Distance paints an emotional tone poem of not just one but several distinct protagonists united by a common grief. The film earned Kore-eda his first nomination for the Golden Palm at the Cannes Film Festival.

By this time, Kore-eda had come to be seen as something of a vanguard of art house Japanese cinema, the nation's best hope for recapturing the glory days of Kurosawa Akira's and Mizoguchi Kenji's global acclaim. To that effect, Kore-eda took an interest in developing promising new talent to swell the ranks of the Japanese film industry. In 2003 he served as producer on a pair of pictures directed by two up-and-coming young filmmakers. Iseya Yusuke's Kakuto and Nishikawa Miwa's Wild Berries could never be mistaken for Kore-eda Hirokazu pictures, but that's not a bad thing. Kakuto, a stylish stoner action-comedy, owes a clear debt to similarly-themed American and British films of the 1990s. Miss Nishikawa's darkly comic Wild Berries deconstructs the modern Japanese dysfunctional family with a scathing satire that's loads of fun, but light years away from the simple sincerity of Kore-eda's own pictures. Both movies are ultimately successful in their own way precisely because Kore-eda lets his proteges speak with their own filmic voice.

Ronin-gai - Orphans and Samurai

For years Kore-eda toyed with the idea of making a feature about the so-called "Four Abandoned Children of Sugamo," an affair that shocked Japan in the summer of 1988. The drama inherent in the story of four children between the ages of three and fourteen surviving in a Tokyo apartment for months after being abandoned by their mother was a natural vehicle for the humanist Kore-eda. Nobody Knows (2004) proved to be his most acclaimed and internationally successful picture to date. While retaining the base facts of the case, Kore-eda finds in the daily struggles of four young children left to fend for themselves ample room for his own unique meditations on the simple joys and quiet tragedies of life.

Nobody Knows is that rarest of films; profoundly moving, it is heart-wrenchingly emotional yet never stoops to melodrama. Once again, Kore-eda's background in documentary filmmaking plays a key role in the film's success. The use of handheld cameras and natural lighting infuses the picture with a sense of immediacy that dispassionately chronicles the children's deteriorating lives. Kore-eda thereby allows the drama to speak for itself; rather than manipulating his audience's emotions, he offers a candid snapshot of a human tragedy more powerful than any theatrical contrivance. Due praise must also be given to the charm of the movie's young stars, particularly Yagira Yuya, whose role as the eldest child forced to care for his three younger siblings earned a deserved Best Actor win at the 2004 Cannes Film Festival. Pop star You also gives a brave performance as the children's mother, whom the film envisions as a loving but scatterbrained and beaten-down woman who ultimately fails her family. Nobody Knows was nominated for the Golden Palm at Cannes, but lost out to political posturing when Fahrenheit 9/11 took top honors.

Kore-eda raised more than a few eyebrows when he announced that his next film after Nobody Knows was to be a samurai movie. Director Yamada Yoji's recent Twilight Samurai had of course made jidaigeki respectable cinematic territory once again following decades of grindhouse-style offerings. But a historical genre picture seemed at tremendous odds with Kore-eda's contemporary, in-the-moment brand of filmmaking. To be sure, Hana (2006) turned out to be the director's most atypical and commercial offering to date. By abandoning his usual documentary-style cinematography in favor of a more straightforward, studio-style approach - and filling the frame with big-name box office draws like Okada Junichi and Miyazawa Rie - Kore-eda might've been perceived as finally selling out.

Hana's tale of a reluctant samurai who finds greater satisfaction in life's simple pastimes than in avenging his father's murder is nonetheless solidly in the spirit of the director's previous works. The great golden age director Kobayashi Masaki had made a career of critiquing the institution of the samurai in pictures like Harakiri (1962), but the disarming situational comedy Kore-eda evokes in Hana - which includes deflating that noblest of samurai revenge tales, the 47 Loyal Ronin - is an invigorating contrast to Kobayashi's stern and didactic deconstructions of the Way of the Samurai.

Half period comedy, half Kore-eda brand humanism, and wholly unexpected, Hana unfortunately failed to become the popular crossover hit everyone hoped it would be. For his next project, Kore-eda would retreat to more familiar territory. 2008's Still Walking recounts one day in the life of a Japanese family brought together on the anniversary of their son's untimely death. Kore-eda based the film on his own novel, which was in turn inspired by the passing of his mother a few years before. The lighthearted and comedic Hana had been made specifically for her enjoyment, but Kore-eda never got to show his mother the finished picture. Appropriately, Still Walking incorporates moments of wry humor amid its serious meditations on life and death, as the dysfunctional family (led by Abe Hiroshi as the surviving son) tries to carry on with their daily lives. Such moments of levity are scarce in the similarly-themed Maboroshi and Distance, but the post-Hana Kore-eda isn't afraid to lighten up.

2008 also saw the director return to his documentary roots. After following J-pop singer Cocco around Japan on a recent tour, Kore-eda assembled the footage he shot into Cocco: Endless Journey. Following almost two decades spent at the artistic forefront of art house cinema, is the director once frustrated with the limitations of the reality format readying a full-time documentary comeback?

Expanding Horizons

Not just yet. For Kore-eda, it seems there's always a new mountain to climb. His latest project may be even more unexpected than Hana. Titled Air Doll, the film stars Korean favorite Bae Du Na as an inflatable sex doll that magically comes to life. Kore-eda's first manga adaptation (and his first adapted screenplay since Maboroshi), the film might sound like an otaku's wet dream, but in Kore-eda Hirokazu's hands, expect thoughtful commentary on love and human relationships in an alienating 21st-century world.

Living sex dolls, pacifist samurai, and a team of angels may seem odd company for the orphaned children and victims of loss that feature in the director's more "typical" works, but that's part of the magic of Kore-eda Hirokazu's cinematic vision. By using his unique filmmaker's eye to penetrate to the very heart of the human condition, time and again Kore-eda uncovers the same unifying thread of humanity in the unlikeliest of places. Rest assured he will continue to find it wherever he chooses to look.

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Published May 5, 2009

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