After studying Literature at Waseda University in Tokyo, Koreeda embarked on a career making documentaries for Japanese television. His background, therefore, has hugely shaped his approach to film-making. Most of Koreeda’s fictional films are rooted in true stories and personal experiences. The acting is always naturalistic, while his films are paced slowly to allow him to explore the characters’ psyche in greater detail and lucidity. The focal point of this documentary is Hirata Yukata, notable for being the first man in Japan to come out as HIV-positive. As an aspiring filmmaker, it was documentaries like August Without Him that made Koreeda realize how inauthentic his scripts were. So the medium of documentary had a profound effect on how Koreeda would later depict characters in film.
Maborosi is Koreeda’s first dramatic feature film, a visual lyrical poem and a contemplative reflection on loss. The central character Yumiko, is haunted by the death of her grandmother as revealed in a dream sequence at the beginning of the film. Nevertheless, she appears to be living a blissful life with her husband Ikuo. One day this is all brought to a halt by a knock on the door. The police reveal that Ikuo has committed suicide by walking on the tracks towards a moving train. So the focus of Maborosi is Yumiko’s grieving process, as she tries to fathom what caused this inexplicable suicide.
There is hardly any dialogue in Maborosi, instead the audience are immersed into her world. Yumiko’s emotions are clearly hard for her to convey coherently to us. Consequently, it is left to the incredible cinematography to reflect her state of mind. Koreeda decides to use only natural light in the film, so the scenes are often dark. The long, lingering shots of the Japanese landscape makes the world look vast and empty. Furthermore, the constant sound effects during the film convey her futile attempts to find peace. Everything is dark. There is no silence. There is no escape. Maborosi is a serene and poignant work of art.
After Life (1998)
The recently deceased find themselves in purgatory, a realm that seems to resemble a bureaucratic office. Social workers command each dead person to select a memory to keep for eternity. Once chosen, the workers transform into filmmakers, as they go about condensing the memory into a short film. Although the premise is steeped in fantasy, the film itself exudes realism and pragmatism. There are no fancy special effects, instead After Life is shot like a documentary with Koreeda using a hand-held camera. The vast majority of the film consists of interviews, whereby people with no prior acting experience were invited by Koreeda to reminisce about their own lives in front of a camera. It is an intelligent and moving film, compelling the audience to venture into their own bank of memories.
Distance, nominated for the Golden Palm award at the 2001 Cannes Film Festival, focuses on the aftermath of a massacre by an apocalyptic religious cult. On the 3rd anniversary of the tragedy, four friends convene at a lake where the ashes of their loved ones are scattered. It is here where they encounter the sole survivor of the cult, who absconded just before the massacre. He gives them a tour round the religious sect’s headquarters and the characters are forced to confront their overwhelming feeling of loss as well as shame. Distance is interspersed with recollections, flashbacks and long, unbroken shots instilling a meditative tone to the proceedings. Ultimately, the film poses the question: can the characters put a distance between themselves and their loved one’s incomprehensible act of violence?
Nobody Knows (2004)
Nobody Knows is about a four young siblings muddling through their adolescence after their single mother abruptly leaves without any warning. Based on a true story, the children are forced to fend for themselves in their cramped Tokyo apartment. It is rare in cinema in general to see a film that portrays a child’s view of the adult world with such aplomb as Koreeda does here. It is heartbreaking gritty realism, with the unobtrusive camera work allowing the story to unfold. Nobody Knows slowly and tenderly paints a devastating portrait of the children’s lives blighted by parental neglect. Koreeda’s intense and empathetic portrayal led to the main actor Yûya Yagira winning the best actor at 2004 Cannes Film Festival – at the age of 14.
A slight divergence by Koreeda here as Hana is a period drama about a young samurai in 18th century Japan. However, in typical Koreeda fashion, this is an offbeat samurai film that shuns many of the traditional elements associated with the genre. For example, there is hardly any sword fighting at all in Hana. The main character, Aoki Sozaemon, is not a stereotypical samurai. He is an amiable but meek warrior trying his best to avenge the murder of his father. However, he is not bloodthirsty and struggles with his reluctance to carry out his mission. Koreeda humanizes the samurai, as Sozaemon starts to question his true essence. Koreeda deserves great credit for his originality, making a fresh contribution to what is a well-worn genre.
Still Walking (2008)
‘Still walking, on and on. But I only sway like a little boat’.
The title of the film is lifted from the lyrics of a romantic song called Blue Light Yokohama. The lyrics, heard in the film, takes on an extra poetic meaning in the context of this tragicomedy. The audience are introduced to the Yokoyama family, who come together every year to commemorate the death of the elder son Junpei. He drowned in the sea while saving a boy over a decade ago. There is no melodrama nor hysteria in the film. Instead, it is an understated and yet touching depiction of a family shaped by a tragic event. The naturalistic performances are compelling, with every action and every line utilized to revealing the inner psyche of the characters. Hirokazu has commented on how the film – a direct response to the death of his mother – was an important stepping stone in his career. This is because he was struck by the realization that deeply personal films can actually be extremely resonant. Indeed, there is no measured sense of objectivity in this film. Its sentimental attributes help everyone relate to Still Walking.
Air Doll (2009)
Air Doll is based on the manga series Kuuki Ningyo by Yoshiie Gōda. In the film, a sex toy called Nozomi, played by Bae Doona, somehow magically comes to life. She seeks to immerse herself in new experiences, while trying to make sense of this peculiar world. Nozomi enjoys the sensation of the rain, marvels at babies and gets a job at a video store. Here she forms a relationship with co-worker Junichi. This premise is ripe for exploration on many themes such as alienation, loneliness and feminism – executed with a deft touch by master Koreeda.
I Wish (2011)
Hirokazu manages to expertly capture the essence of childhood in this charming film. Starring real life brothers, Koki and Oshiro Maeda, the two protagonists are geographically separated because of their belligerent parents. The brothers latch onto this idea that if present at the moment when two bullet trains pass each other – at very high speed – then they will be able to have their wishes granted. The brothers take refuge in this miracle, sweetly believing this will save their parent’s marriage. Thematically, the film reflects on childhood dreams and revels in their innate wide-eyed innocence. Ultimately I Wish becomes a pre-teen adventure, as the brothers embark on a pastoral journey with their friends to uncover this miracle.
Like Father, Like Son (2013)
Ryota, an affluent father, has been bringing up Keita very strictly with his wife for six years. Yet they receive incomprehensible news that Keita is not their biological son. He was accidentally mixed up with Ryusei at birth and given to the wrong parents. Consequently, two families from different social classes are forced to come together and make some difficult choices. Koreeda was influenced by his own experience of fatherhood, observing his initial lack of a strong emotional bond with his daughter when she was born. There are many interesting themes in this acclaimed film, such as the nature versus nurture argument, as the two families ponder over whether they should switch the children back. Furthermore, the film provides an intriguing commentary on Japan’s changing attitudes towards fatherhood. For example, Ryota, a detached workaholic, embodies old-fashioned conservative Japan whereby the father’s main role was to solely provide for their family. This is in contrast to the other father, Yudai, who is deeply involved in Ryusei’s life.