Echoes Of Humanity: Hirokazu Kore-Eda’s Sublime Craft Of Storytelling | Vietcetera
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Aug 23, 2023

Echoes Of Humanity: Hirokazu Kore-Eda’s Sublime Craft Of Storytelling

With "Monster," celebrated at Cannes for Best Screenplay and currently captivating audiences in Vietnam, we explore some of Hirokazu Kore-eda’s most outstanding films.
Echoes Of Humanity: Hirokazu Kore-Eda’s Sublime Craft Of Storytelling

Director Hirokazu Kore-eda | Source: AFP/JIJI

In light of the accolades garnered by Monster, which clinched the Best Screenplay award at Cannes and continues to captivate Vietnamese audiences for over a month now, we take a retrospective look at the finest creations by its director, Hirokazu Kore-eda. He is renowned for his commitment to ‘shomin-geki’ films, narrating uncomplicated yet profoundly resonant life tales.

For the past three decades, Hirokazu Kore-eda has been Japan’s most diligent and creative director, as well as the most accomplished artist in contemporary Japanese cinema.

Since his debut feature film, Maborosi (1995), which quickly caught attention at the Venice Film Festival, Kore-eda has competed at Cannes with at least ten films. His achievements include winning the Palme d’Or with Shoplifters (2018), the Jury Prize for Like Father Like Son (2013), Best Actor awards (for Nobody Knows – 2004 and Broker - 2022), and most recently, Best Screenplay for Monster.

‘Shomin-Geki’ and small moments in life

Unlike his counterparts from South Korea, who are known for shocking and manipulating audiences with mind-twisting plot twists or intense violence, diving into the dark recesses of human nature or society, Kore-eda’s films have a soft and serene quality. They resonate with viewers through poignant details from tragedies or lingering pains from the past, subtly affecting the characters and waiting for an opportune moment to reveal their innermost feelings.

A scene from "Maborosi" (1995) directed by Hirokazu Kore-eda

Even when portraying characters who violate laws, commit crimes, steal, or murder, Kore-eda ensures we don’t see them as evil. He has a knack for understanding, rationalizing, and advocating for the tragedies and mistakes they become entangled in. Critics have fittingly referred to him as the successor and heir to Ozu, a revered figure in Japanese cinema.

One sign of Kore-eda’s distinctive approach is his consistent alignment with the ‘shomin-geki’ genre, a characteristic feature of Japanese cinema, where Ozu was a leading expert. This genre emphasizes the search for small yet significant moments in daily life rather than relying on tension and dramatic conflicts to engage the audience.

“Late Spring” (1949), directed by Yasujirō Ozu, is a standout example of the ‘shomin-geki’ genre in Japanese cinema, capturing the genuine daily life of the working and middle class. It explores the story of a daughter (played by Setsuko Hara) who continually postpones marriage to look after her widowed father (Chishû Ryû). This film is the first in Ozu’s renowned ‘Noriko Trilogy,’ which also includes “Early Summer” (1951) and “Tokyo Story” (1953). These films weave ordinary family narratives, often starring Setsuko Hara and Chishû Ryû as key characters, sometimes portraying a daughter and father or daughter-in-law and father-in-law.

Ozu’s philosophy was eloquently expressed in his statement: “In life, follow trends for what’s unimportant, follow morals for what’s important, and in art, follow yourself.”

His films may seem simple, but they are rich with human values, presenting insights into Japanese society and family dynamics. Through his delicate storytelling and precise camera techniques, Ozu transformed Japanese cinema, leaving a legacy that influenced filmmakers around the globe, including Kore-eda, one of his most accomplished successors.

Kore-eda’s adherence to the ‘shomin-geki’ genre is vividly seen in “Still Walking” (2008) and “After the Storm” (2017). These films narrate everyday family stories with an elegant, quiet style, subtly hinting at underlying emotions waiting for the right moment to emerge.

A scene from “Still Walking” (2008)

In “Still Walking,” the story unfolds around a family tormented by a loss that happened years ago. The day they gather to remember their eldest son, who drowned while saving a neighbor’s child, becomes a painful reminder of an unhealed wound.

The pain intensifies through a striking detail: the once bright and promising eldest son, who followed his father’s footsteps to be a doctor, contrasts sharply with the child he saved, who has grown into an aimless and lazy young man. This cruel twist adds to the family’s ongoing sorrow.

The ambiance of remorse, tension, and underlying family strife is masterfully captured around their dinner table. In “Still Walking,” Kore-eda conveys the family’s complex emotions in a way that resonates deeply.

A character in one of Kore-eda’s films once said, "Even those within the family can’t understand each other, let alone outsiders." This sentiment echoes throughout his works.

A scene from “After the Storm” (2017)

In “After the Storm,” the cracks within a small family are cleverly exposed by Kore-eda on a single evening when a storm brings them together but also lays bare their unresolved conflicts.

Veteran actors Kirin Kiri and Hiroshi Abe, who played a mother and son in “Still Walking,” continue these roles in “After the Storm,” recalling how Ozu often used the same actors in familiar, recurring roles. But in each film, like Ozu, Kore-eda explores new emotional nuances within a relationship, giving it fresh and nuanced interpretations.

In “After the Storm,” the mother tries to mend the broken relationship between her son and daughter-in-law but feels powerless to heal it. Later, she talks with her son, a writer who’s somewhat irresponsible and whimsical and tells him: “I often wonder why men can’t be content with what they have. They either endlessly pursue the shadows of what they’ve lost or hold on to an elusive dream. How can you enjoy life with a mindset like that?”

“Still Walking” and “After the Storm” are subtle family dramas that leave a lasting impact. Kore-eda brilliantly reveals the concealed hurts that lie beneath a seemingly calm facade.

In his work, every character seems to carry a secret sadness they cannot express.

The Master of ‘Dark Society’ Films

Beyond his unassuming family dramas in the ‘shomin-geki’ genre, Kore-eda is also a master of films dealing with social issues – the contemporary challenges facing Japanese society.

Even when tackling shocking subjects, like the ’baby boxes’ or abandoned children in “Broker” (2022) or school bullying in “Monster” (2023), he never exploits noisy or dramatic angles. Instead, he quietly seeks deep-rooted reasons or explains why his characters act as they do. This approach has led Western critics to call Kore-eda a director of ‘humane realist drama’ - a type of humane realism that resonates with people and touches viewers’ hearts, no matter where they are from.

"Broker" (2022)

Unlike the world’s prosperous image of Japan, stable with high social welfare, he often directs his lens toward the fate of marginalized individuals, neglected even in modern cities like Tokyo or Osaka.

His films commonly depict the instability of modern Japanese family life, and the primary victims are often children who are not accepted, abandoned by their parents, or even abused within the family.

Some of his standout films exploring these themes that have won significant awards include “Nobody Knows” (2004), “Shoplifters” (2018), “Broker” (2022), and most recently, “Monster” (2023).

"Shoplifter" (2018)

In “Nobody Knows,” based on a true story in the heart of sprawling Tokyo, four children are abandoned by their mother and must live in poverty in a modern Tokyo apartment. In “Shoplifters,” also inspired by an actual incident in Osaka, the characters are scraping by on petty theft while providing shelter to a little girl who was abused and abandoned. Both films, inspired by true stories in Japan, deliver a dose of realism that leaves a profound emotional mark on viewers.

For example, in “Nobody Knows,” the tragic death of the youngest sibling from starvation leads the eldest brother Akira (played by 14-year-old Yûya Yagira, who won the award for Best Actor at Cannes in 2004), to stuff her body in a suitcase and bury it outside - a poignant mirror of her unnoticed entrance into the apartment. Similarly, in “Shoplifters,” the grandmother’s death forces the Osamu family to bury her beneath their shabby home’s floor, a grim necessity in their financial situation.

In an interview with The New York Times about his films exploring the dark aspects of modern Japanese society, director Kore-eda said he does not want to create characters or make films where the audience can easily find hope.

Director Kore-eda on Monster's set | Source: Golden Village

“Many viewers want to see characters mature and strengthen as a film concludes. But I don’t want to make those kinds of films; they’re false. And I don’t want to be dishonest,” the director remarked.

“Monster,” Kore-eda’s latest film, though developed from a screenplay by Yûji Sakamoto and narrated in a different and more dramatic style (influenced by the ‘Rashomon-style narrative’ of another legend, Kurosawa), still ultimately reveals Kore-eda’s heartfelt compassion for children.

Like his recent films, “Monster” tells a story about the fragile, vulnerable human condition in a society burdened with too many norms and prejudices. Here, it’s the children who suffer the most pain.

Director Kore-Eda at the San Sebastián International Film Festival. | Source: Gorka Estrada

Additionally, Kore-eda is one of the few directors who excel in working with child actors. Almost all of his films feature children, and they perform with a natural grace as if stepping from real life into the movie, bringing their innocence and pain with them.

The film’s closing scene, where the image of two children playing in their heaven is paired with the gentle piano music of the talented composer Ryuichi Sakamoto, accompanied by a tribute, has moved many in the audience to tears.

Kore-eda’s cinema is like that – simultaneously gentle and calm, yet emotionally devastating.