Programme Notes: Kore-eda Hirokazu: The Early Years

These programme notes relates to our season of films Of Flesh and Blood: The Early Cinema of Hirokazu Kore-eda

Kore-eda Hirokazu (born 1962) went to university to study literature but found himself sneaking off to watch films. On graduation in 1987 he got a job as an assistant director with Japan’s first independent TV station. He was able to direct three feature documentaries before his first fiction feature Maborosi in 1995, also produced by TV Man Union.

The first film in HOME’s mini-season, Maborosi proved to be an astounding debut feature that won awards at film festivals around the world. It reveals several of Kore-eda’s themes and ideas about the possibilities of film narratives but in some ways it stands out as different to the films that followed. It’s the only Kore-eda feature on which he is not credited as writer and film editor and it utilises cinematography and a music score that are distinctive and add to the feeling that Kore-eda is engaging with ideas about the films he saw as a student.

After Maborosi, Kore-eda returned to TV documentary to make Without Memory (1996) a film about a young family man who as a result of medical malpractice loses his short-term memory. Kore-eda had experienced, as a child, his grandfather’s loss of memory and his next fiction feature After Life is a form of downbeat fantasy in which the recently deceased are asked to select one memory they will take with them into the ‘after life’. Personal experience is something that will stimulate Kore-eda’s ideas about subjects for his films across his whole career. The other main stimulus will be news events or issues circulating in public discourse. This doesn’t rule out adaptations, as in Maborosi, but usually a ‘found narrative’ will relate to the other two stimuli.

Maborosi also prompted film critics and journalists, especially in the West, to refer to Kore-eda as influenced by Ozu Yasujiro and the Japanese film genre of ‘home stories’ or films about ‘ordinary families’. Journalists need to ‘type’ new filmmakers but in doing so they can easily fix identities and Kore-eda has always maintained that he isn’t directly influenced by any other filmmakers, although there are directors he admires and may have met at his frequent festival appearances. These include the socially conscious Cannes stars Ken Loach and the Dardenne Brothers as well as some of the East Asian auteurs such as the Taiwanese Hou Hsiao-hsien. And while it is true that Kore-eda has tended to focus on families in his narratives, they are rarely conventional families and they are often engaged in extraordinary rather than ordinary activities.

Kore-eda’s four features from 1995 (i.e. including the 1996 documentary) share an interest in memories and in family or at least ‘emotional’ relationships. The fourth, Distance in 2001, is derived from the news story about the Sarin gas attacks in Tokyo in 1995. In Kore-eda’s film an attack on the water supply by a group of cult members causes many deaths and hospitalisations . Distance deals with an anniversary memorial day three years later when four relatives of the perpetrators find themselves marooned overnight with a member of the original cult group who left before the attack. As in After Life, this narrative device allows Kore-eda to explore the different memories of the five characters. In other respects After Life and Distance are quite different. Distance focuses on characters in their twenties/early thirties. Most Kore-eda films will involve children and older people as well.

Nobody Knows (2004) follows Distance in terms of a news story providing impetus. This time Kore-eda goes back to a Tokyo story from 1988 and his own experience of making short documentaries about people on the margins of Japanese society. Always wanting, as far as possible, to present people on screen ‘as they are’ (even if professional actors or performers are involved), Kore-eda presents a family of children of different fathers, abandoned by their mother and attempting to live on their own in an apartment while remaining ‘unknown’ to the authorities. Perhaps the closest of Kore-eda’s early films to his Cannes triumph of 2018, Shoplifters, Nobody Knows received international attention for its compelling blend of documentary observation and humanist concern for this marginal family.

The final film in the mini-season, Hana (2006) sees Kore-eda attempting something seemingly very different, a period film set in the early 18th century and dealing with life for samurai warriors at a time when an established Shogunate makes fighting unfashionable. It is also involves scenes played for comedy. Yet at its centre is another story about a young man finding a new ‘family’ amongst the poorer people who inhabit a street of hovels outside Edo (Tokyo).

Overall, these five fiction features show Kore-eda honing his skills and trying different kinds of narrative forms in order to explore his very personal ideas about cinema. Looking at these films now we can see how that development led to the more mature films of his later filmmaking starting with Still Walking in 2008, based very much on events in his own family life.


Roy Stafford, 14/6/2019