“I simply want to look at people as they are.”
Visually intense, compassionate, and displaying an unblinking attention to detail — no matter how ordinary — the films of director Hirokazu Kore-eda are more aptly described as cine-poems. “I’m interested in the emotions that arise from the collision between so-called real life and the artifice of film,” Kore-eda once said. To be sure, it is his seamless meshing of the seductive intimacy of the documentary and the formal beauty of fiction film that gives his works their power.
During last year’s 45th Thessaloniki International Film Festival, audiences were treated to a small retrospective of Kore-eda’s four features to date. Screened together, the works reveal a humanism difficult to match in cinema today.
Lyrical and astonishingly beautiful, Maborosi follows the odyssey of Yumiko (fashion model Makiko Esumi), a young woman struggling to comprehend the inexplicable suicide of her childhood sweetheart and husband Ikuo (Tadanobu Asano). Shattered by her loss, Yumiko nevertheless finds the courage to continue with her life and to care for their infant son, Yuichi. Five years pass and Yumiko and her son leave Osaka for the small fishing village of Noto. A matchmaker has found her a husband, Tamio (Takashi Naitoh), a widower with a young daughter, and she is going there to join them. The rugged seaside landscape of her new home, with its spectacular seasonal changes, becomes a metaphor for Yumiko’s tumultuous emotional and spiritual state.
Shot entirely in natural light with virtually no close-ups, the film is filled with images of daily life: a whirring fan on a hot summer day, the family eating watermelon on the porch, children running in a field, a doorway, a bicycle, an empty room. The camera doesn’t so much follow the characters but rather considers them from a distance. At times, the film resembles an exquisite series of still photographs. As described by Kore-eda at a press conference, the “lighting and the composition of the shots were intended … to evoke Yumiko’s interior landscape.”
The film ends with Yumiko following a local funeral procession. Framed in a long shot, her slender lone figure seems the epitome of grief silhouetted against the setting sun and the sea. “I just don’t understand,” she cries out to Tamio. “It just goes around and around in my head.” He offers her an answer that ultimately brings her no closer to a resolution. Maborosi reminds us that sometimes the mysterious patterns and fateful turns life takes are simply unanswerable.
The deliberately mundane, documentary-looking surface of the film — no glossy imagery or wispy music, mostly hand-held camerawork — and the use of both professionals and non-actors, gives After Life a startling immediacy. As the characters try to pick a memory — an old woman fondly recalls cherry blossoms, an aviator happily remembers flying through clouds — we slowly become entwined in a meditation on the value and meaning of life. “Not everything precious about us simply resides in ourselves,” says Kore-eda. “When we see that we are a precious part of someone else’s life, we value our own life differently.”
Interspersing recollections and disassociated flashbacks with the present-day memorial at the lake, a pattern of alienation and isolation takes form as the central characters labor to understand, and perhaps reconcile, their family members’ unconscionable acts. Hand-held camerawork, long takes, deep focus, and a cache of striking, unbroken shots capture the murkiness of the characters’ interior feelings and how effortlessly the past invades and confounds the present.
Based on real events that happened in Tokyo in 1988, Kore-eda’s latest feature, Nobody Knows (Dare mo shiranai, 2004) is “a summation of the experiences I gained from making my first three films,” the director says. “By blending elements of documentary and fiction styles, I learned how to show a fuller picture of characters’ lives.” Nobody Knows follows the adventures of four siblings who are abandoned by their mother. The children, two boys and two girls ranging in ages from 5 to 12 years old, all have different fathers and have never been to school. Their mother (played to perfection by Japanese pop star Yu) is a flighty but loving woman caught up in her own illusions and desires. When she meets a man and the possibility of marriage arises, she leaves the children to fend for themselves, promising to return home for Christmas.
Shot over a period of one year mainly in a cramped Tokyo apartment, the film tenderly creates the world of childhood with all its wonder, vulnerability, and tensions. Lovely detailed images of the children and their things — a toy piano, a squeaking shoe, a cup of instant noodles, crayons on the floor — highlight their gentleness and utter lack of guile. As time goes on and they become lost in their own private thoughts, the squalor around them increases, and the younger siblings turn to the eldest child, Akira, to fill the role of an adult. When tragedy strikes in the end, you can hear the audience collectively catch its breath.
It is perhaps Kore-eda’s final comment during my interview with him that helps explain the intensity and resonance of his work. “I’m not interested in creating heroes, superheroes, or antiheroes,” he said. “I simply want to look at people as they are.”