Family Values: Three Films by Hirokazu Kore-eda Review
One of the most spectacular things about acclaimed Japanese writer-director Hirokazu Kore-eda is that, despite the tragic subject matter of his stories, he never relies on melodrama. Instead he chooses to focus on the slices of everyday life that surround his characters, his understated direction and quiet restraint making the underlying ideas all the more impactful. The resulting films are always truly beautiful cinematic works, that are subtly told yet striking in their realism. Nowhere is this more noticeable than in his portrayal of the family unit, which however unconventional is a constant presence in each of his films. It is this theme that makes up the basis for Arrow Academy’s release of a boxset featuring three of Kore-eda’s most successful films – I Wish, Like Father, Like Son and After the Storm – and which also includes enough extras to please even the most avid Kore-eda fan.
Seeing the journey through each of the films in this ‘Family Values’ boxset is interesting in itself, particularly in the differing viewpoints Kore-eda uses to tell each family’s tale. In that respect, I Wish is the film closest to Kore-eda’s earlier Nobody Knows, in that it is all about the children’s point-of-view and how they are coping with the path they find themselves on. Except after their parents’ separation, brothers Koichi (Koki Maeda) and Ryu (Ohshirô Maeda) rather poignantly find themselves on two different routes in life, Koichi living with their mother (Nene Ohtsuka) and her parents in Kagoshima, and the younger Ryu living with their father (Joe Odagiri) in Osaka. Koichi is determined to reunite them all again though, hoping that the active volcano nearby (which Kore-eda gives an ominous beauty as it looms in the background) will erupt so they can all move back in together. And when he hears of a miracle that will happen when two new bullet trains pass each other, he sets about planning how he and his brother can be there to make their wish come true.
Although that ‘miracle’ makes up the basis of I Wish’s narrative, the true beauty of Kore-eda’s film comes from the larger story at play – about how the split affects the brothers and the family itself, as well as the more extensive theme of a child’s imagination and boundless sense of hope. These are all ideas perfectly brought to life through the natural performances of Koki Maeda and Ohshirô Maeda, real-life brothers who fill their roles effortlessly and in their own fascinating ways, Koki serious and tenacious while Ohshirô has a constant cheeky smile and lively demeanour. Kore-eda’s method of not showing the child actors his script (which is shown in detail on the brilliant ‘Making Of’ documentary on this disc) also contributes greatly to the realism on display here. Each moment featuring the child cast feels fresh and unrehearsed, particularly during scenes between the brothers and their friends, who each want their own wish to come true from the bullet train miracle.
Scenes between the brothers and the adults in their lives are similarly filled with touches that are pleasing organic, the everyday moments that make up their days taking as much precedent as the more sombre instances, such as a touching phone call between Ryu and his mother. It is with the boy’s relationships to their separate parents that Kore-eda also cleverly emphasises the concept of growth and change between the brothers, Koichi’s life with his hardworking mother and loving grandparents all about tradition and order, while Ryu’s new upbringing with his lazy musician father is fun-filled, but visibly unstable. These differences between the boys extend to their separate memories of how life was when the family were all together, Koichi remembering the good, yet Ryu often recalling the bad times. Although touches like this paint a vivid and sorrowful picture of two brothers who may never be reunited, Kore-eda hints throughout that maybe this doesn’t matter, Ryu rather beautifully adding in one scene: “We’re connected by a thread you can’t see.” Constantly engrossing and endlessly charming, Kore-eda’s film speeds along like the very bullet trains the brothers are hoping to see – an uplifting yet moving family tale that serves as the perfect introduction to his body of work.
In comparison to the father in I Wish, Ryota (Masaharu Fukuyama) in Like Father, Like Son couldn’t be any more of a polar opposite. Determined, hardworking and driven, he hopes for the same future for his own son Keita (Keita Ninomiya), who we first meet during an interview for a successful cram school. But when Ryota and his wife Midori (Machiko Ono) suddenly find out that Keita may have been swapped at birth, they are faced with the horrid reality that their family might not be a family after all. As the title suggests, this is mostly about Ryota’s perspective of events, the father starting to recognise the many differences between him and Keita, while he also tries to determine how best to move forward in this unimaginable situation. It becomes clear early on that this is a much more tragic tale than I Wish’s, the story difficult to watch unfold, especially whenever it is discussed so matter-of-factly (or whenever we see the adorable Keita and his wide eyes as he tries to understand what is happening). Yet despite this Kore-eda never lets it slip into the overdramatic, focusing instead on the little moments between the cold and distant Ryota and the 6-year-old Keita (who gives a surprisingly natural performance at such a young age), as well as Ryota’s relationship to his put-upon wife, who seems much closer to Keita than he does.
His harsh attitude becomes even more apparent with the introduction of the family who may be Keita’s actual parents (Lily Franky and Yôko Maki), and who may have raised their real son (Shôgen Hwang). This other family might be poorer and living in a small, ramshackle house, but it is nonetheless a place full of play and laughter, their happy and carefree father often at the centre of whatever fun is happening. Keita’s home life sits in uncomfortable contrast, his days revolving around study and unwanted piano practise, whereas Ryota rarely has time to interact with him. It is within these stark differences that Kore-eda ably explores the very notion of his central theme of nature versus nurture, a concept that Ryota himself begins to question.
It is credit to Kore-eda’s subtle writing that the writer-director never loses balance in this argument though, his script carefully portraying both families without prejudice and in a wholly relatable way. In time this is even true for the complicated Ryota, Kore-eda gradually hinting at the reasons behind his cold behaviour, while Masaharu Fukuyama’s diligent performance lends the character an unexpected pathos, especially towards the end of the film. It is with Ryota’s strained relationship with his own stern father that Kore-eda makes us particularly sympathetic towards him – a harsh man who had no interest in playing with Ryota as a child, and a relationship that sadly seems to be reflected in Ryota’s own role as a father figure. It is revelations such as this that make Like Father, Like Son a truly emotional watch, Kore-eda gradually building these moments to a powerful conclusion. Yet it is the journey of Ryota himself that is fascinating to see, a completely realistic portrayal that speaks volumes about what it means to be a father, and one that will have you fighting back tears in the end.
It is the final film in this boxset that is the most self-contained story, Kore-eda narrowing his viewpoint to look at one family and one father in particular. The Ryôta of this tale (played by Hiroshi Abe) is arguably one of the most complex characters Kore-eda has created, a man whose marriage has fallen apart, who can’t afford childcare payments to see his son (Taiyô Yoshizawa), and whose gambling habit is only making things worse. Yet within this intricate story we find one of Kore-eda’s most mature, nuanced and personal films to date (which he made in response to the death of his own father). It is this personal touch that resonates throughout the entirety of After the Storm, and an aspect that lends the narrative a depth rarely seen onscreen. Indeed on the extras for this disc we see how Kore-eda not only wrote this with his own background in mind, he also filmed this on the same estate he grew up in, the writer-director marvelling at how much the apartment they shoot in is the same as he remembered from all those years ago.
It is this attention to detail that lends a greater pathos to proceedings too, in turn making this simple tale of a man struggling to move on from his failed marriage and stay connected to his son all the more affecting. Kore-eda’s writing is at its most accomplished here, the writer-director revelling in the quiet conversations between his characters which reveal a wealth of information about them and how they feel, specifically around the subjects of loss and life. Yet there is also a surprisingly humorous edge to these moments, particularly between Kirin Kiki and Hiroshi Abe as mother and son, their incredible performances riveting to watch as they easily switch between laughter and sadness.
Kirin Kiki is a presence in each of the films in this boxset, but it is in After the Storm that she shines brightest, her wise words and profound turn drawing you in every time she is onscreen. A scene between her and the woman she once called daughter-in-law (Yôko Maki) is one of the most heartbreaking of the whole film, Kiki saying more with a simple look than words ever could. This wise, compelling character sits in stark contrast to that of Hiroshi Abe’s Ryôta – a man who is clinging to the past, while his mother is already looking to the future after the recent death of her husband. Ryôta continues to look back though, not only trying to recapture the success he had as the author of a best-selling book, but also hoping to reconnect with his wife despite their failed marriage. Kore-eda poignantly suggests that it is his inability to move forward from these things that is putting his relationship with his son in jeopardy, the gambling problem he seems to have inherited from his father pushing him further down the road of ruin.
Although Ryôta is his own worst enemy, Abe’s sympathetic performance ensures we always root for him, his hangdog expression perfectly fitting such a down-on-his-luck character and his unusual height visibly diminishing each time he meets another setback. It is this beautiful character portrayal along with Kore-eda’s wonderful writing that adds a particularly bittersweet and melancholic edge to After the Storm which captivates well beyond its final frames. Using an incoming typhoon to cleverly frame the events of his story, Kore-eda expertly draws together those intricately realised themes to create a film that is a perfect snapshot of family life, while ably portraying wider ideas about loss, growth and human existence. It would be difficult to deny that this is not only one of Kore-eda’s greatest works, but a cinematic masterpiece in itself.
Watching each of the films in this ‘Family Values’ boxset reveals an interesting picture of the writer-director refining his thematic concepts and constantly growing as a filmmaker, as well as a man reacting to changes in his own life (becoming a new father, the death of a parent). It is a joy to see this process on some of the extras on these discs, which really are everything you could wish for from a boxset: concise, comprehensive and deeply engrossing. While some can be a little dry (the overall introduction, the discussion on I Wish’s theme song), the moments hearing Kore-eda talk about his writing process or seeing him at work during shoots are brilliant, his direction of the children who feature so prominently in his works especially interesting to see. Yet it is the films themselves that are more than worth buying this boxset for, these Blu-ray transfers making Kore-eda’s beautiful imagery really stand out onscreen, the visual poetry so recognisable in his work drawing us into these worlds in a way that few filmmakers are ever able to achieve.