Tag Archives: Koreeda Hirokazu

Koreeda’s award-winning “Shoplifters”

For me, Kore-eda Hirokazu (1962-), the second best-known current Japanese film director (after Miike Takashi) is overrated. I was surprised that his sluggishly paced “Shoplifters” won the 2019 Palme d’or, although that is not the first head-scratcher choice of its top award from the Cannes Film Festival. (He had won the Jury Prize there in 2013 for “Like Father, Like Son,” a movie I like more). It was also Oscar-nominated in the best foreign-language movie category.

I was immediately put off by the opening scene in which the father-and-son shoplifting team of Osamu (Franky Lily, Like Father, Like Son, Our Little Sister) and Shota (Kairi Jyo) take a lot of stuff. Osamu’s rationalizations that it’s OK unless they take so much a store goes bankrupt and that items do not belong to anyone until they are sold irritate me, especially since they are not countered by the fact that theft raises the price for real buyers. (Admittdly, Osamu works as a day laborer when he can, but on-the-job injury is not convered by disability insurance.)

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On the way home, the exultant thieves buy five croquettes. Then they find a young girl locked out in the cold. They take five-year-old Yuri (Sasaki Miyu) home with them, feed three of the croquettes to her and begin treatment of the wounds from physical abuse.

When they go to take Yuri home, they hear Yuri’s parents arguing, with both exclaiming that they never wanted a child. So they take Yuri back with tme. By that time we have met the snappish grandmother, Katsue (Kiki Kirin, in her fifth Kore-eda film) is as close as there is to a mastermind for this group, and the one with isteady income (a widow’s pension) and the pretty Aki (Matsuoka Mayu), who works displaying herself to men (is this “sex work” with no sex involved?)

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It took me half the movie to realize that Shota is a boy, not a girl. He has carved out a space for himself in a closet, using a headlamp to illuminate the mangas he reads. The whole family goes to the beach (supplying the poster photo). But then things start to go wrong for the de facto family (family of choice), including the grandmother’s death.

That pushes the movie even more firmly into early Hou Hsiao-Hsien territory — especially “The Boys of Feng-guei” in which three boys staying with their grandmother do not know what to do when she dies, so do nothing, leaving her rotting on her sleeping mat. There is a nominal adult this time, but Osamu cannot do much to protect anyone. The police try to convince Shota that the others were going to abandon him after he was apprehended, though it is not clear to me that he believes them. Indeed, he calls Osamu “dad” for the first time.

The movie is softer than “Nobody Knows” (2004, his best film in my view, followed by “Like Father, Like Son”). and even slower. (Both Hou and Kore-eda proclaim influence from Ozu, which is eertainly there in prolonged takes, but I was never bored by an Ozu film, despite their invariable camera setup of a meter above the floor.)

©2019, Stephen O. Murray

 

Discussion of other Koreeda films available on DVD with subtitles in English:

Maborosi (1995)

Nobody Knows (2004)

Hana (2006)

Air Doll (2009)

I Wish (2011)

Like Father, Like Son (2013)

Our Little Sister (2015)

 

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Sisterhood with no sibling rivalries

 

Though running 128 minutes Koreeda Hirokazu’s 2015 adaptation of a manga as海街diary (Umimachi Diary, or Seaside-town diary”), released in English as “Our Little Sister” seems slight to me. Many find it “heart-warming,” I find it sentimental in a Kinoshita tradition. Three sisters: 29-year-old Sachi (Ayase Haruka), 22-year-old Yoshino a (Nagasawa Masami) and 19-year-old Chika (Kaho) live in a large house in Kamakura (southeast of Tokyo). News comes that their father, whom they have not seen in 15 years, has died. They go to the funeral, where their father’s third wife claims to have nursed their father through his final illness.

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They intuit that the serious-looking 14-year-old Asano Suzu (Hirose Suzu) was the one who cared for their father. Sachi invites Suzu to come and live with them rather than stay with her/their stepmother. Suzu was the offspring of the woman with whom their father decamped, his second wife.

Suzu is keenly aware that she is a very visible reminder of their common father abandoning his first wife and their three daughters. She is especially aware of her negative connections for the mother of the three older females, who also abandoned her three daughters and drops in. Sachi, who was left to raise her younger two sisters, is very antagonistic to her mother, though the immature woman tries to make Suzu comfortable in her presence.

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Though the sisters experience frustration in their own love lives, there is no antagonism or even tension between any of them, and they all dote on Suzu. Suzu makes the coeducational soccer team and hangs out with one of the male players and is dutiful and grateful at her new home. Tensions are mostly between generations not between siblings (and the novel half-sibling who is something of a pet, but also arguably more mature than Chika).

Ayase Haruka, who strikes me as the most beautiful of the women in the cast, is self-sacrificing in the manner of Takamine Hideko in 1950s family dramas made by Ozu and Kinoshita. The offspring are old enough to make money in contrast to the young children huddling together in Koreeda’s 2004 “Nobody Knows,” which lessens the drama and the poignancy. Suzu not only can go to school, but fits in readily. Still, the actresses (including three of the older generation) are very good in what seems like a very gentle, muted, episodic sitcom that mostly takes place in the family house‑though when it does go out, things are beautifully photographed by Mikya Takimoto, who also shot “Like Father, Like Son” for Koreeda.

 

©2017, Stephen O. Murray

The love of an inflatable life-size sex doll

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The premise of Koreeda Hirokazu’s 2009 “Air Doll,”(Kûki ningyô), an undersocialized if not outright autistic 30-something man, Hideo (Itao Isuji) is in love with an inflatable life-size girl, Nozomi (Korean actress Bae Doona [Cloud Atlas]), while a flesh-and-blood young woman tries to get closer to him, will remind North American viewers of “Lars and the Real Girl,” the 2007 American movie starring Ryan Gosling, directed by Craig Gillespie. Lars was not as warm as Elwood P. Dowd with his invisible rabbit, Harvey (1950), but those around him accepted the personhood of the not-real girl as those around Dowd did his invisible rabbit friend.

Elwood gets to keep his delusion in “Harvey.” Lars gets over his fixation on the inflatable doll and pursues a relationship with Karin (Emily Mortimer), who has been patiently accepting. But, though Koreeda has been labeled the “Japanese Steven Spielberg,” there is no happy ending in “Air Doll.” “Air Doll” is far darker a movie than the two American movies it brought to my movie-drenched mind. (“Ex machine” is rather different…)

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Koreeda’s movies intertextualities are unleashed by Nozomi getting a job in a video store, where mention of movies is a given.

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The often naked charm of Bae Doona, whimsy and piling on of messages about urban loneliness (and the disposability of everything, including human relations, and human corpses literally put out in the trash) is not really sufficient to support the running time of 125 minutes (Koreeda edited the movie), though the cinematography of Taiwanese Mark Lee (Lee Pig-Bin’ In the Mood for Love, Norwegian Wood, Renoir) provides visual riches.

 

©2016, Stephen O. Murray

A Reluctant Ronin Avenger: Koreeda’s “Hana”

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In the first decade of the 21st century there were a number of movies about low-level samurai and ronin (masterless samurai) in the last years Japan of the Pax Tokugawa (1603-1868) who maintained a warrior honor code with privileges that were no longer related to the social function of giving and taking lives during warfare. There were still factions jockeying for power and occasions for lethal swordplay, but no invasions or wars of imperial conquest. What were those of hereditary samurai descent to do, particularly those lacking a master and position within a feudal hierarchy (ronin)? Doing business was beneath them, and in addition to lacking any land to till, farming was beneath them. Peasants worked to support the lords and retainers (and priests).

In Koreeda Hirokazu’s “Hana Yori mo Naho” (or just “Hana” Flower, 2006) a young samurai, Soza (Okada Junichi from the boy band V6]) has come to Edo (now Tokyo) to find and kill the man who killed Soza’s father. Soza is not much of a swordsman and not remotely bellicose. He prefers playing go (a samurai pastime) and bathing to practicing martial arts. He has a vocation (at the personal rather than caste level) as a teacher and is a surrogate father to the son of a woman, Osae (Miyazawa Rie), who lives near his hovel in what the subtitles call “row houses.” Her husband has fled and is probably dead. De facto and in all probability, she is a widow, but Soza does not attempt to bed her.

Soza finds his father’s killer, a fearsome-looking laborer played by Asano Tadanobu (who played the young Genghis Khan in “Mongol” and the romantic lead in “Last Life in the Universe”). Soza would rather teach the man’s stepson than try to enact the vengeance that is his Mission.

Soza and others in the nagaya (tenement neighborhood), including Kimura Yuichi (star of “Tokyo Sonata,” here playing the village idiot) put on a festival drama about vengeance. This twice gives way too more serious actions (plot-spoilers avoided).

A side plot I found quite confusing involved a druggist (Terajima Susumu) with whom Soza plays go, and three disguised samurai (ronin) who are seemingly talking idly about avenging their master. The turns out to be an oblique take on a very famous Japanese story, but intersects so little with Soza’s story that I think is distraction that is not needed in a movie that runs 127 minutes. None of the characters develops over the course of the long movie, though several reveal somewhat unexpected sides.

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The movie could not be accused of celebrating bloody revenge. It even has a parody of seppuku (hara-kiri), as well as samurai who are cowards and incompetents. (The young samurais in Kurosawa Akira’s 1962 “Sanjuro” are incompetent, but not cowards; the canny older one played by Mifune Toshiro attempts to minimize bloodshed in accomplishing justice, as both Soza and the druggist do here…)

The images are soft, the conception is sentimental (some consider Koreeda the Steven Spielberg of Japan, though “Nobody Knows,” his film most focused on children does not seem sentimental to me). The music sounds Celtic (like some of “Lord of the Rings”), reputedly played on 18th-century European instruments.

Although too long and unnecessarily confusing, this movie about the urban poor works better than Kurosawa’s adaptation of “The Lower Depths” (Donzoko, 1957), and certainly much better than his disastrous “Dodesukaden” (1970). The set of a slum that looks like a village rather than a part of an already large city particularly recalls the one from “The Lower Depths” (I thought the set was the best aspect of that movie, partly because of the way much of it was shot from above).

There is a great deal (at least for American mores) of talk about producing and collecting “night soil” to be used as fertilizer. Also a comic visit from Soza’s philandering uncle who projects his womanizing onto the shy and chaste (but loving) Soza.

Okada Junichi is winsome and handsome somewhat reminiscent of Anthony Perkins from the mid-1950s (before “Psycho”). Like seemingly every leading Hong Kong actor, Okada is also a pop singer

The movie’s full Japanese title was “Hana Yori mo Naho,” which means something more than a flower, and I think indexes Soza being something more than a killing machine that dies young. Near the end he and Osae discuss the beautiful cherry blossoms falling… and that there will be more next year. For them death is not a goal.

Despite being sometimes confused by “Hana,” I mostly enjoyed it. I think, however, that the trilogy of Yamada Yoji movies about samurais who preferred ordinary life to fame as heroes — “The Twilight Samurai” (2002), “The Hidden Blade” (2004), “Love and Honor” (2006) — are more interesting and look better.

©2010, Stephen O. Murray

Unsentimental presentation of four abandoned children

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Audiences (me included) love to watch plucky, resilient kids, and the 2004 film “Dare mo shiranai” (Nobody Knows), written, directed, and edited by Koreeda Hirokazu was/is beloved by many. The catastrophe of four children, the oldest of whom is twelve, being abandoned unfolds gradually, as the mother Keiko (You) leaves her children (by four different fathers) alone more and more and then totally abandons them in a Tokyo apartment which she rented acknowledging only one child, 12-year-old Akira (Yagira Yuya, who received the Best Actor award at the 2004 Cannes Film Festival). She said she would return from Osaka for Christmas, but doesn’t.

The money Keiko left runs out, the gas, telephone, and water are cut off. The four break out of hiding for a bit of a splurge at the minimart (from which he has refused to shoplift, despite urging of two of his pals). Akira would rather play baseball than try to manage his increasingly rebellious siblings and the desperate finances of the abandoned family. (None can go to school. They subsist on ramen.) One child dies and is buried by the others near a Haneda Airport runway.

Akira is not willing to seek help from authorities, because he believes (with good reason) that the children would then be separated.

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There is little camera movement and few closeups. The static medium- and long-shots maintain a distance from what seems to be being documented (“based on a true story” from Nishi-Sagamo in 1988 that long haunted Koreeda).

A lot of what the kids do and say was improvised. Though the film runs 141 minutes, I’d bet there was a lot more footages shot. Maybe there will be an 8-hour director’s uncut release.

I often find the music in Japanese films (those not scored by Takemitsu Toru!) dubious: distracting or just inept. The ukelele music here, performed by Gontiti, falls into the latter category for me.

“Nobody Knows” is set in affluent if heedless Tokyo rather than in impoverished settings like those of “Children of God” and “The Spirit of the Beehive.”

(There is an interesting 2004 interview of Koreeda by Mark Schilling about the making of the movie at http://www.japantimes.co.jp/culture/2004/08/25/culture/no-easy-answers-from-kore-eda/#.WE3V8JLHKUs.)

©2016, Stephen O. Murray