Of Flesh and Blood: The Cinema of Hirokazu Kore-eda Review
I have talked before about how Hirokazu Kore-eda’s films serve as rich tapestries for life and the human condition, the acclaimed Japanese writer-director able to weave a sense of truth into his work with a natural style and a keen eye for detail. While other directors might be drawn to big moments of melodrama, Kore-eda rejects this, instead keeping his focus on the smaller instances that make up his characters’ everyday lives, such as a family meal, a day out at the park, or a shared evening listening to fireworks. It’s a method that imbues his films with an innate sense of realism – a technique that makes them wholly immersive, and gives them a lasting impact well beyond their final frames. But while family life is always at the front and centre of his stories, with this latest boxset release from the BFI (called Of Flesh and Blood), the theme of loss emerges just as strongly throughout the four works featured – a theme that sends ripples across their narratives in very different ways, and which Kore-eda beautifully portrays onscreen each time.
The loss in Kore-eda’s first fiction feature, Maborosi (1995), is so deeply felt that it permeates every single scene, even reflecting itself in the turbulent weather. Yet Kore-eda doesn’t immediately throw us into this, initially setting up what appears to be a charming tale of young love between a happy couple, their daily lives filled with bike rides, trips to coffee shops and taking care of their new baby. Yumiko (Makiko Esumi) is so content with their life that her smile practically lights up the screen, her happy-go-lucky nature cheering up even the dreariest of locations, such as when she visits her husband (Tadanobu Asano) at the factory he works, pulling faces at him through a dusty window.
It’s a place she’ll visit later in the film, but the contrast in her appearance is so striking that it will bring a tear to your eye. For within their seemingly peaceful relationship lies something else that Yumiko wasn’t even aware of – something that happens so unexpectedly that it will send her reeling and make her question just what clues she missed, if anything. It is here that Kore-eda’s film becomes so magnificently deep and poignant, the story taking Yumiko and her now five-year-old son Yuichi (Gohki Kashiyama) to a more distant and quiet seaside town, both of them trying to build a new life from the ashes of what happened years ago. With a new husband (Takashi Naitô) and his daughter (Naomi Watanabe) from a previous marriage, Yumiko is happy to have a fresh start, both her and Yuichi quickly settling into this rural, peaceful existence. But as time goes by, old memories start to resurface, Yumiko slowly unravelling as her loss threatens to topple her over the edge at any moment, much like the quaint home they now live in that clings to a slope by the raging sea.
With exquisite cinematography by Masao Nakabori, Kore-eda masterfully reflects Yumiko’s continued crumbling state, wide static shots dwarfing her amongst vast landscapes or inside the huge shadowy house. At other times, the weather seems to be directly affected by her mood, a flurry of snow suddenly starting as she watches a funeral procession, and a tempestuous storm rattling the windows as she anxiously awaits the return of their elderly neighbour (Mutsuko Sakura) who went fishing for crabs. For Yumiko another loss would be unbearable, this particular incident reminding her of when she watched her Grandmother leave for the last time – a moment that affects her so deeply she believes her first husband is her Grandmother’s reincarnation.
Indeed, it often seems that reminders of the past are everywhere Yumiko turns, from the sound of tinkling bells which bring up memories of her first husband’s bike, to the places she revisits on the return trip to her previous village, each location tainted in some way by memories of a person she thought she knew. As she stands in the hallway to their old home, it’s almost as if she is looking directly at us, her stoic face and tearful eyes silently asking us what went wrong. It’s touches like this that so infuse Kore-eda’s film with a profound sense of grief and realism, the director leaving sentimentality behind to instead focus on these rich, tender moments, while those repeated motifs show how Yumiko is trapped by a past that continues to haunt her.
Keeping his direction understated yet effective throughout, Kore-eda gradually builds his narrative to a final, powerful conclusion which leaves an intriguing question mark around human nature and if we can ever really know someone. It is certainly his most complex film, the slow pace and lack of dialogue often challenging, especially if you’re familiar with his more recent works. However, if you allow yourself to be swept along by the painterly imagery and the poignant story, you’ll find this to be one of Kore-eda’s most richly rewarding films – a beautiful tale of life, loss and moving on.
By contrast, After Life (1998) is decidedly more playful in nature, the unusual plot and unexpected humour dealing with loss in a hugely different, albeit no less profound, way. Immediately shifting from the wide static shots of Maborosi, Kore-eda opts for a fluid, free-moving camera to introduce us to this world, the opening shots following a group of people as they excitedly begin a new working week. Except this is far from an ordinary desk job, the building they work in a sort of limbo where they are tasked with helping the recently deceased move on into the afterlife. Before they can do this however, the new candidates have just three days to decide what single precious memory they want to take with them, while the rest will be forgotten forever. It’s a bizarre yet charming idea, the supernatural element of it seemingly a huge departure for a writer-director mostly associated with family dramas. But Kore-eda is still careful to emphasise the realism within this story, his true focus lying with the subjects and their individual memories, rather than any overarching notions about spirituality or what really comes after death.
Filming each of them using a fixed, interview-style camera, Kore-eda allows the subjects to talk at length about the memories they are choosing, the details they go into magnificently poignant and often humorous, such as the elderly gentleman who proudly talks about how many prostitutes he’s slept with (Tôru Yuri) or the younger man who refuses to pick (Yûsuke Iseya), instead questioning everything the workers do. However, what is most wonderful about these scenes is that he uses non-actors alongside the fictional interviewees, the excited and elaborate way these people recount their real memories is absolutely captivating to hear, often giving this a documentary feel at times. From flying an airplane, to making a swing in a bamboo forest, to dancing in a favourite red dress, these memories resonate with us precisely because they are real, Kore-eda taking great care to give these incredibly touching stories as much attention as his fictional ones.
Yet in its second half, After Life also rather intriguingly becomes a narrative about the nature of filmmaking itself, Kore-eda showing how each of the subject’s chosen memories are then reconstructed in a studio and filmed, the end result being what they will remember forever. The quaint, lo-fi techniques the workers employ to achieve this is beautifully endearing and brilliantly comical, huge balls of cotton wool used to recreate clouds, while people rock a tram carriage to give it the illusion of movement. During these scenes, Kore-eda’s camera follows the non-actors carefully, excitedly weaving about the studio and focusing on their engrossed expressions as they watch their memories materialise before their very eyes. These moments are a joy to see and fit seamlessly into the plot at large, Kore-eda using them to enhance his own story and characters, in particular the sombre Mr. Watanabe (Taketoshi Naitô) who has difficulty choosing a memory to keep. In order to pick, Takashi (Arata Iura) gives Mr. Watanabe videotapes of his life to watch, the dull, surveillance-like footage contrasting harshly with the sunny reconstructions that we see, and sadly making Mr. Watanabe realise he only had a “so-so” existence. It’s a moving moment that we can all identify with, Kore-eda almost directly questioning what exactly makes a good or worthwhile life, or if it’s some impossible thing we can never achieve.
Although this might not be a wholly original idea, Kore-eda’s way of telling it is, his striking method of merging fact and fiction pulling us in at every turn and making each character’s journey leave a lasting impression, no matter how short. As we watch it all unfold to a marvellously emotional ending, we can’t help thinking what memory we would choose ourselves, but also what other ones we would then be losing. It’s this personal touch that hits us the most, making this surreal yet surprisingly realistic drama less about death, and more about life itself.
If After Life seemed like a big step away from the family dramas that are front and centre of so many of Kore-eda’s works, Nobody Knows (2004) is a return to that framework, although with a plot that is much more emotionally devastating than his other films. In part this is because it is inspired by actual events (which is stated in an opening title card), but really it is down to Kore-eda’s clever and careful handling of such a sensitive subject, his tale seen through the eyes of four young siblings who find themselves adjusting to life in a new apartment with their wayward mother (You). Except three of them shouldn’t actually be living there, their Mum keeping them hidden in order to stay in good favour with the landlord and neighbours, moving the younger children in via suitcases and banning them from going outside or on the balcony. She also leaves all of the responsibilities to her eldest son Akira (Yûya Yagira) while she goes to work, a routine he is so used to that it’s him telling her what’s for tea rather than the other way around. Yet when her absences become increasingly frequent, Akira finds himself faced with the impossible task of keeping the household running and trying to maintain some sense of normality, despite their lives becoming steadily more desperate.
It’s a situation that has obvious potential for great melodrama, and something we can imagine other films playing for emotional value as much as possible. However, what makes Nobody Knows so impactful is how Kore-eda never leans into this, instead stepping back to let his narrative unfold almost organically, showing how the children gradually learn to cope with their new-found freedom and adult responsibilities, but still in their own very childlike way. Colouring in becomes a daily ritual, especially for the youngest Yuki (Momoko Shimizu), the apartment walls starting to fill up with drawings they create on any kind of paper they can find (even gas bills). Plants grow wildly on the balcony they were banned from, their own private jungle that they tend to every day. And trips for water become a fun day out at the park, albeit one that can get them caught at any moment.
Kore-eda captures these everyday scenes in a way that makes them seem starkly real, the children’s exceptional performances giving them a natural feel that makes their situation all the more distressing to see. Yet it is the little images that Kore-eda uses that makes it particularly potent – tender, telling snapshots of their lives that are repeated throughout. From Kyoko’s (Ayu Kitaura) red piano that sits proudly on a shelf when she’s not practising with it, to toys sitting in boxes ready to be played with, to a nail varnish stain that Kyoko remembers being spilled when she argued with her mother, Kore-eda uses each to portray the children’s view of the world (or at least their very narrow view of the tiny apartment). It’s an incredibly effective method, the joy these images conjure often tainted by the tragic situation the children are in, as well as the increasingly claustrophobic feeling of the cramped home they struggle to keep running. When Kore-eda does venture outside it’s almost a relief, the dizzying camera capturing the children running about and enjoying a rare chance to stretch their legs.
These moments of happiness might be few and far between, but Kore-eda is careful to focus on these as much as the rest of his story, their innocence and need for fun still intact despite their horrible situation. However, scenes like this also make it abundantly clear that even when they’re out in the open, no-one is truly willing to step in and actually help. Whether it’s the shopkeeper who gives them leftover sushi, or the old boyfriends of their mother that Akira visits (and who barely react when he tells them she isn’t around), the adults are all as ineffectual as their Mum, Kore-eda painting a frustrating view of the state of society. In fact, as the film continues it becomes painfully apparent that this is less a case of nobody knows, and more that nobody cares. As Akira and his siblings try to stay afloat in a scary adult world they should never have been a part of, tragedy seems to be looming around every corner, the tension Kore-eda builds around their situation almost unbearable, but necessary to see. A heartbreaking and powerful film that will leave you reeling.
Still Walking (2008) signals Kore-eda’s transition into much more personal territory, with a story that is steeped in memories of his own family (specifically his mother who had recently passed away). And it shows. From the opening close-ups of food as the mother (Kirin Kiki) and her daughter (You) prepare a feast, to the children joyfully running from room to room, to the sound of corn being sifted, Kore-eda fills his film with moments of cosy domestic life, the Yokoyama family coming together to celebrate as they do every year in their parents’ home. Yet underneath the catching up and the many, many meals is a tension that quietly builds in the background – an atmosphere that Ryota (Hiroshi Abe) feels even before he’s arrived, begging his new wife Yukari (Yui Natsukawa) to leave that evening rather than stay over as planned.
It also gradually becomes clear that their festivities are a less than happy occasion, the day marking a loss that still sends shockwaves throughout the family, and which hangs like a shadow over the household. But for Ryota, that shadow sadly casts itself over all aspects of his life whenever he visits, harsh comparisons and judgements just around the corner, particularly from his cold and distant father (Yoshio Harada), a man who’d rather sit alone in his old Doctor’s office than join the rest of them (unless he hears the corn tempura popping). That Ryota didn’t go down the Doctor route as his father wanted is added insult to injury – a point that Ryota tries to avoid by steering the conversation away from work talk (he’s currently in between jobs – something that he knows won’t go down well at the dinner table). Yet Kore-eda never lets the tension boil over more than it would in real life, the age-old resentments only revealed via snarky comments rather than bombastic arguments, most of the family’s issues with each other unspoken and left to fester, much like they would be in an actual family.
It’s subtleties like this that make Still Walking so resonate with us, the reserve of Kore-eda’s story and his natural filming style (again lots of static shots) adding to the realism and overall poignancy. His detailed characterisation and the stunning performances from the superb cast add to this, in particular the late great Kirin Kiki as the matriarch, whose loving smiles and caring attitude slowly melt away throughout the narrative to reveal a hidden coldness that she brutally unleashes whenever she can. One excellent scene that perfectly portrays this is when she plays her favourite record (‘Blue Light Yokohama’), the song not an ode to her relationship with her husband as we first believe, but a way to dig at him about something horrid from their past. Yet it is to Kiki’s credit that even in these moments her character remains likeable, her bittersweet performance achingly real and often unbearably heartbreaking, such as when she desperately tries to catch a stray butterfly – an incident that recalls an earlier tale she tells Ryota.
Hiroshi Abe is similarly brilliant, especially alongside Kiki (who would play mother and son again in Kore-eda’s After the Storm (2016)), their relationship warm yet undercut by comparisons Ryota wishes she could leave behind. However, it is his strained relationship with his father that is the most significant, the tension between the two palpable throughout. In a rare instance of connection, Ryota’s attempt to talk to his Dad about work is suddenly interrupted when he yells at the children for playing by his plants – his attention on other things rather than listening to what his son is actually saying.
In the end, Still Walking is all about moments like this – missed opportunities in which we regret not saying or doing something differently, especially when it comes to family. It is Kore-eda’s understated portrayal of this and other complex themes (particularly loss) that makes this so impactful, his story unfolding onscreen in the most organic way, as if the Yokoyama’s are a real family he’s documenting over one day. Indeed, as a portrait of family life, it’s harder to find a more perfect one than this, Kore-eda’s exquisite writing and personal touches creating something incredibly moving and relatable, the writer-director keen to capture those unspoken resentments that seem so familiar to us all, yet also the happier times that might sometimes be forgotten about.
Although Still Walking is undoubtedly one of Kore-eda’s greatest works, all of the films in this BFI boxset make this a more than worthwhile purchase for both fans of his work and those who are Kore-eda newbies. It’s fascinating to see how his style changes between each film, his ideas of family and loss resonating throughout them in very different ways. The extras included are also exceptional, the behind-the-scenes footage wonderful to see, and onstage screentalks with the writer-director himself revealing a wealth of information about the creation of his ideas. Various commentaries might not be everyone’s cup of tea, but act as excellent guides alongside the films, especially when they delve further into Kore-eda’s career and comparisons with other Japanese cinematic works. The booklet included is a useful asset too, the essays all brilliantly informative while further Kore-eda interviews allow us to hear about his transition from documentary work to fictions. Yet regardless of whether you want to learn more about Kore-eda and these four films, the Blu-ray transfers of each make this boxset an essential purchase. To see those striking interiors and majestic landscapes (particularly Maborosi’s) in such a way is a joy, and truly does justice to the outstanding stories that Kore-eda creates.
Of Flesh and Blood is available from the BFI now