The Japanese filmmaker Hirokazu Koreeda is for me one of the best contemporary Asian directors working today. This is why I was disappointed when none of his films appeared high up on Film Comment’s Best of the Decade poll. I don’t particularly know why he’s not as well known by American audiences, but I know that he’s someone to look out for. Two of his films are currently available on DVD in the United States: Maborosi (1997) and Nobody Knows (2004) (also, Still Walking from ’08 is available on Netflix streaming and in PAL DVD format).
Koreeda comes from the Japanese Classical tradition; his films recall Kenji Mizogouchi and Yasijuro Ozu, at the level of style and, to some extent, content. Before Koreeda made feature films he made documentaries, and that influence is felt, too. The three films available in the United all share the common theme of loss and absence. On that score, Koreeda’s films are not especially filled with cheer. What is compelling about all of them is that more than just being about loss, they are about how loss stays with us and its continued presence in our lives.
Maborosi, Koreeda’s first feature film, is to my mind his crowning achievement. It’s an elegiac tale about Yumiko, a woman plagued with loss in her life. The film opens with her as a young girl trying to convince her grandmother not to leave for her hometown where she wants to go to die. Yumiko is unable to convince her to stay and the memory haunts her. Later in life, Yumiko marries a boy from her childhood and they have a son. Then, without any apparent cause or warning, her husband commits suicide by standing in front of a train, and Yumiko has to face yet another loss that she can’t understand.
Maborosi, true to the classical Japanese tradition, avoids melodrama or extreme displays of emotions over these losses. Yet this is not to say that Koreeda does not produce empathy in the viewer. One way that cinema can produces identification with the action or story is through classic shot/reverse shot editing. A character speaks; cut, and we see another character’s reaction. As spectators, we occupy a space that is “in” the action, because (to simplify lots of complicated film theory) it is a little bit like we’re being spoken to or we’re standing next to the character being spoken to. In Maborosi, Koreeda nearly never cuts “in” to the action, and nearly everything is shot from a distance. The camera remains fixed, and observes. But all the same, Koreeda’s film is not overly detached from the emotional import of its story. It is a moving work because of its visuals. Maborosi is filled with darkness; Yumiko is almost never seen in colors other than black. The interplay of light and shadows becomes like a visual representation of the loss that stays with Yumiko. With that and also the film’s three stirring musical themes, Maborosi becomes a graphic meditation on death and grieving.
Koreeda’s Nobody Knows is a fictionalized account of a true events that took place in Tokyo in the late eighties. In the film, a young mother moves into a small apartment with her four undocumented children and then leaves them there to fend for themselves. It becomes up to Akira (played by the youngest actor to win top honors at Cannes for his performance) to take care of the others. Unlike Maborosi, the plot of Nobody Knows is driven by day to day events in the lives of the four children. For a while, they are able to function without their mother, but slowly over time their condition deteriorates. The film is fascinating for the way it patiently documents this slow decline. The children seem to accept the absence of their mother as if it’s nothing out of the ordinary, but eventually as they run out of money their condition worsens and tragedy creeps up. Nobody Knows is a far less sentimental film than Maborosi, and it has an unassuming, simple quality to its straightforward, documentary-like depiction of the childrens’ secluded lives.
Still Walking might be a little too reminiscent of Ozu, except for the fact that on a stylistic level it has very little in common with the master’s film, or Koreeda’s other works, for that matter. Koreeda’s cuts into the action in Still Walking (i.e uses shot/reverse shot) and uses closer shots than in either Maborosi or Nobody Knows; the result is that we feel, figuratively, closer to the action on screen. These stylistic choices suit the film because so much of it is about the minutiae of the family affair – a remark here, a facial expression there – and these things often reveal the tension in the family.
Contemporary Asian cinema earns high marks these days, and Koreeda might not be as well known as Wong-Kar Wai (China) or Takeshi “Beat” Kitano (Japan), but his what one might call neo-classical films are beautiful meditations on loss, grieving, and death.