2019 Film Essays

An Exploration of Bonds, Losses and Resilience in Hirokazu Kore-eda’s Family Dramas

Family has always been the cornerstone of human society. In English, as in other western languages, the word comes from Latin where familia directly derives from famulus or “servant.” For a variety of reasons, familial bonds shape our lives and contribute, for better or worse, to make us the men and the women we are now. As such, family has certainly been a thriving playground for directors to explore, such as Yasujirō Ozu, one of the most celebrated cinematic observers of family bonds and relationships between the generations. A traditionalist country, Japan holds families at the very core of its social structure, codifying them in the national family registry, or koseki. Deemed fairly anachronistic and too rigid by some while praised as an asset to the country by others, the koseki contains all the meaningful events in the life of any Japanese citizen — births, deaths, marriages, adoptions, and so on — that must be registered in order to have legal status in Japan. Whatever’s left out doesn’t even exist in the eyes of society.

Hirokazu Kore-eda decided to break the rules with his latest film, Shoplifters (Manbiki kazoku), which was awarded the prestigious Palme d’Or at the 2018 Cannes Film Festival. Portraying a mismatched, self-identified family of petty criminals that adds to its numbers a child who appears to have been abused by her real parents, the film openly challenges the traditional Japanese family that calls for proper marriages and children by blood. Navigating an endless sea of trials and troubles, this family lives each day with the tragic composure of knowing that their time together is limited, as society will catch up with them sooner or later, and will ask them to pay the price for their sins.

Mentioning Ozu in any written piece on Kore-eda’s filmography is not unusual at all. Often anointed as the heir of the late Japanese maestro, Kore-eda has approached and explored families in contemporary Japan as Ozu did with the families of his time, especially of the 40s and 50s — with his latest offsprings dating to the early 60s. In a span of 14 years — from the critically acclaimed hit Nobody Knows (Daremo shiranai, 2004) to the aforementioned Shoplifters — Kore-eda has crafted many films, with only a few of them drifting away from family territories. Although it’s usually left out from discussions about the director’s well-known family dramas, Kore-eda’s first fiction feature, Maborosi (Maboroshi no Hikari, 1995), foreshadows some of the themes he will explore later on in his career. Beautified by poignant and rather sombre cinematography, the film deals not only with grief and loss — themes that are magnified in Still Walking (Aruitemo aruitemo, 2008) and Our Little Sister (Umimachi Diary, 2015) — but also with the subtle uneasiness of forming a new bond with another partner, an issue recurring in both Still Walking and After the Storm (Umi yori mo Mada Fukaku, 2016).

Attempting a taxonomy of Kore-eda’s films based on how family bonds and clashes are investigated might be appealing, but proceeding with a chronologically-driven exploration might prove satisfying nonetheless as the breadcrumb trail of recurring images and motifs naturally leaps from one title to another. Inspired by a case of child abandonment brought to the attention of the police in 1988, Nobody Knows leaves out some of the grimiest details of the real case to focus instead on a story of social negligence, and with an almost hyperrealistic flair. Akira and his siblings are left alone to provide for themselves in their Tokyo flat with little money to live on, as their mother has fled to live a dream of fleeting love with another man. The cramped space of their apartment, which gets more and more littered month after month, offers the perfect intimate setting to peruse how these children have been robbed of their childhood, and how both Shigeru and Yuki, the younger ones, look at their new life with tragic innocence as if it were a peculiar game they need to play to regain some maternal affection. Acting as the head of the family, Akira desperately tries to make ends meet by managing the budget they’re left with while asking for money from Yuki’s possible fathers. As seasons go by with indifference, water, gas, electric and phone are cut, leaving the children in utter poverty. Instant noodles from the near konbini (mini-mart) are almost too expensive now, and when Yuki falls from a chair and needs some medicaments, shoplifting seems like the only way to survive. In retrospect, Akira’s nervous behavior parallels the system of hand signals that Shoplifters’ Osamu teaches his surrogate son, Shotaa kind of magic spell, or an index for bonding, that the boy tries to pass down to little Yuri. As Kore-eda often lingers on small details, his camera closely follows the kids. Extreme close-ups of their feet, hands and faces are continuously used to exacerbate their aloneness to the point of letting the viewer becoming a part of it. At the same time, when Akira ventures outside to buy his siblings food, the city keeps expanding around him — an intricate maze of indifference and isolation.

Death and a perpetual feeling of not being able to live up to a father’s expectations are at the core of Still Walking. Gathering every year to commemorate the eldest son’s death, the Yokoyamas live in a limbo of unyielding regrets and creeping resentment. If, at first sight, their traditional home seems like a perfect cocoon of tender memories, cracks start to mar its façade when Ryota, the surviving son, steps in with his family. Tensions soar as Ryota touchingly tries to paint a positive picture of his own career, hoping to please a father who’s never forgiven him for not having followed in his footsteps to become a doctor. For Ryota, the ultimate pain to endure is the idea that his parents might’ve preferred that he’d passed away instead of his brother. Though the film captures a moment in time, it’s impossible not to notice all the clashing microcosms. Chinami, Ryota’s sister, married into another family, so she now gravitates to her new family system. On the other hand, Yukari and her son are now members of the Yokoyama family but are treated almost like guests nonetheless. The degree of polite coldness and affected kindness with which Ryota’s mother treats her son’s new wife is masterfully executed by Kiki Kirin, while Kore-eda’s direction rounds everything out by showing the excruciating tiptoeing around the different degrees of formality that Yukari is bound to. Taking place in pretty much a day, Still Walking has the bitter taste of a hug not given without even realising there won’t ever be a second chance — it’s a family portrait tainted by death, one where memory is prioritized and everything else is left to decay.

A couple of boys makes the world go round in Kore-eda’s I Wish (Kiseki, 2011) and Like Father, Like Son (Soshite Chichi ni Naru, 2013). The two films are almost complementary: whereas I Wish features two brothers who are separated after their parents’ divorce, the children of Like Father, Like Son are switched at birth by mistake and end up spending the first years of their life with the wrong parents. An earnest, heart-warming film, I Wish is probably one of the most overlooked titles among Kore-eda’s family dramas, for it’s not that much of a drama to begin with. Although hope and a somewhat vague feeling of accomplishment usually pop up in every Kore-eda film, I Wish is a made-to-measure fable apt to glorify children’s stubbornness and the extra miles they’re naturally willing to go to see their wishes come true. Adults are almost accessory here, some of them are wise and some others are even more childish than the children themselves. As Kohichi and Ryunosuke’s parents mutually decide to take different paths, it’s hard to find the eldest at fault for constantly pushing his brother to meddle in their parents’ businesses, with the only hope being that they might eventually be reunited. Once again, Kore-eda directs a bunch of young actors who deliver earnest and highly enjoyable performances. In particular, the real-life Maeda brothers steal the show. This time, Kore-eda’s direction brims with energy in its eager attempt to follow through its protagonists’ jaunts. As the children run towards their goals, side storylines are drawn in, adding bits of intimacy and realism to the film.

Two years after releasing I Wish, Kore-eda might have felt that it was finally time to thoroughly investigate fathership with Like Father, Like Son. Now at the centre of the project, the father-son relationship is rigorously divided into its most elemental parts, with each of them laid bare and dissected before the heartwarming conclusion. A successful businessman, always striving and aiming at perfection, Ryōta Nonomiya is the epitome of the Japanese breadwinner. At home, he doesn’t have time to show love for his wife or to play with his son, as there’s always a project that needs his complete attention. Ryōta is basically a winner all around but learns that he’s not his son’s biological father. Ryōta’s confidence doesn’t falter, though, as blood comes first and he cannot accept another man’s son as his own. Ultimately, the two families try swapping the children for one day before making an agreement. Children are indeed the pillar of Like Father, Like Son, but the submissive nature of one the sons, Keita, can be off-putting and easily mistaken for aloofness — he’s totally okay with swapping parents. On the other hand, Ryūsei’s exuberance inevitably leads to him clashing with Ryōta. Switching from a strict, somewhat narrow-minded traditionalist to a throbbing mess of a man is quite something, and Kore-eda, once again, delivers with Like Father, Like Son. Thanks to sharp, measured and pensive direction, Kore-eda crafts yet another film that casts away prepackaged assumptions about families, suggesting that the human heart is all that matters.

In Kore-eda’s Our Little Sister, the message is clear: there’s no need for parents to make a loving family. After the Kōda sisters’ parents break up for good, they are left alone in the astonishingly traditional mansion of their grandparents, so the eldest, Sachi, inevitably steps into their mother’s shoes. When the film opens, their father has recently died. At the funeral, the three sisters meet Suzu, the daughter their father had with his second wife. It doesn’t take long for Sachi to realise that Suzu, despite living with her mother, was a real asset to the family when their father was sick, and the girl moves in with them in Kamakura. As Suzu describes it a couple of times, the new, enhanced Kōda household has something of a college female dormitory: here, the sorority isn’t taken for granted, but it needs to be nurtured, just like the plum tree that blossoms every year in the garden. If death undeniably rifts the Yokoyama family in Still Walking, it provides an opportunity to revisit the past in Our Little Sister. In this film, Suzu acts as the missing piece of a puzzle. And by graciously chipping away at past tensions, these sisters manage to soothe each other’s pain by filling in the many holes of their past. In Our Little Sister, Kore-eda’s attentive eye opens up a bit more to embrace human nature. 

In After the Storm, Ryōta shares personality traits with Still Walking’s Ryōta, as he struggles to balance family and work. But while Ryōta in Still Walking longs to bond with his son, After the Storm’s Ryōta fights for his legacy. Utterly incapable of managing money, he would sacrifice everything for his son, but he’s too much of a child himself. Ryōta hopes to reunite with his ex-wife, Kyoko, so he plans to visit her when a storm approaches, with the weather forcing him to spend the night. Kyoko stresses how Ryōta should have tried harder to be a father when they were still together, and that it’s time for him to let them go. Whimsically fixated on their flaws, these two are probably the most stubborn characters in Kore-eda’s filmography.

The director’s rigorous eye once again entangles generations, showing the difficulty of running away from a parent’s shadow. In Kore-eda’s typical rueful but sensitive manner, the audience must wait for the familal truths to emerge. As the storm rages outside, father and son playfully feast on some snacks. Ryōta hopes for the child to remember him as a fear to overcome, just like the typhoon itself.

Children left alone to cope with life, the death of a relative that shakes everyone’s else existence, bonds stronger than blood uniting unrelated people: these are all themes that Kore-eda explores in his filmography, including his latest masterpiece, Shoplifters. Placing themselves outside of society (although actively participating with their jobs), the Shibata family is seemingly untouched by the past. Basking in the same social vigor that fuels Nobody Knows, Kore-eda goes a step further with Shoplifters and shatters the very idea of the traditional Japanese family. The Shibata’s nest is a small yet traditional house, miles away from the state of utter neglect the children in Nobody Knows call home. Despite the chaos, there’s a cosy vibe and even the slurping of instant noodles gives off the same tenderness of family tradition. It’s a secluded space where reality can’t enter but forays on the outside are definitely permitted. Jobs, small thefts, a trip to the beach — these experiences strengthen family bonds and make a looming goodbye even harder. Kore-eda regular Kiki Kirin shines as the elderly woman who supports the group with her deceased husband’s pension. It’s the culmination of the actress’ career. All the rough edges she shows in Still Walking are softened in Shoplifters, although the impoverished circumstances of her character’s new-found family fuel her practicality in dealing with life’s adversities. Hers is the portrait of a lonely woman, who prefers the comfort of a surrogate family over spending her last years in solitude before dying alone in her cramped home. When at the beach, the close-up on her grateful, half-smiling face is the heartfelt sign-off of Kiki’s onstage life — a thank you whispered to the sea and to the character’s family playing together in the distance.

Hirokazu Kore-eda has dedicated more than 10 years of his life depicting unconventional families struggling, laughing, crying, running away and holding hands. But it’s with his latest feature that Kore-eda reaches the highest point of his career. And he did that by presenting a brilliantly developed family portrait encompassing different backgrounds and ages. Kore-eda has the caring, loving eyes of a father who cannot help but follow all his children walking hand in hand towards the horizon.

Serena Scateni (@29s____) is a film critic based in Edinburgh. She regularly contributes to Take One and other Italian publications. She’s a Japanese cinema enthusiast and usually ends up watching all the East-Asian films screening at festivals.