Saturday, September 17, 2011

Remastering the Film: Hirokazu Koreeda

Hirokazu Koreeda (his patronym is also transliterated as Kore-eda) is, at 49, the youngest filmmaker on my list of Masters of Film. Starting out as a director of documentaries, his first fiction film, Maborosi (1995), is predictably straightforward. But it is constructed around a mystery: was the death of the charming young man we observe in the early scenes an accident or a suicide?

Koreeda is so keen on finding the truth that he leaves the question unanswered, even when the young man's wife learns of the sometimes jealous spirit - "maborosi" - that presides over the perilous lives of fishermen. And she has to live with the mystery. The film has an almost uncanny feel for the quotidian, ordinariness of life that it's as if we are seeing it in this film for the first time. Koreeda's camera explores the quiet corners of the backstreets of a Japanese city (Osaka), as well as the natural splendors around a remote fishing village, with an eye for the strangeness and wonder of the world that we shape to accommodate us but that shapes us in return.

For his next film, Wadafuru Raifu (1998) - known as After Life in the States - Koreeda resorted to the documentary device of interviewing the principal subjects of the film, who have arrived at an unexceptional-looking old building where they are calmly informed that they have died and that they have until the end of one week to choose from among a lifetime's memories the one in which they will spend eternity.

This fanciful premise, which is one of the most attractive notions of the afterlife that I've ever encountered, is brought down to earth by Koreeda's observations of his characters as they try to decide what was most important about their lives. The memories that they choose, with the help of case workers whose status is undetermined, are entirely personal and show us their secret lives. At just the moment when their choices seem most predictable, some detail that they overlooked makes them change their minds. There is even one subject, a young man, who refuses to choose - precisely because he is told that he must. He joins the staff of caseworkers after one of them finally makes his own choice and vanishes on the last day into a memory he hadn't known was the one most cherished by a woman who secretly loved him.

Koreeda makes the old building and its surroundings, in late winter weather, substantially real. Drafty, with a leaking roof and wheezing radiators, it is the most lovely limbo ever conceived.

His next film, Distance (2001), explores a controversial subject: an apocalyptic religious cult similar to the "Aum Shinrikyo" which used Sarin poison gas to kill thirteen people in a Tokyo subway in 1995. In Koreeda's film, some members of the cult carry out the poisoning of a city's water supply and then commit mass suicide. Three years after the event, family members of the dead cult members gather at the lake's shore to observe the anniversary. They meet a survivor of the cult, who disappeared the night before the attack, and together they spend a night in a cabin the cult had used, sharing their memories of the dead. Because of its proximity to the September 11 terrorist attack in New York, and perhaps because of its honest exploration of the reasons for such attacks, Distance was never given theatrical release in the U.S.

Nobody Knows (2004) uses a news report that astonished the Japanese: a group of children were found living on their own in the most shocking conditions. Koreeda constructed a fictional story from the news item. The film is not an indictment of Japanese society. The hardships that the children endure in the film are quite avoidable. The only thing that keeps the oldest child, Akira, from contacting child services is the knowledge that he and his siblings would be separated from one another. Even Yuki's death wasn't exactly preventable, even if she had been taken to a hospital. Being abandoned by their mother is terrible, and her infrequent messages containing cash (but never enough) are feeble attempts to assuage her own guilt.

I suppose if anyone is to blame for the events in the film it is a world that doesn't realize that it could happen, even in the most prosperous country. Enough people get to know Akira and his situation. Yet they can't even make the one phone call that could save the children, or at least lessen their hardships. As soon as Akira makes up his mind that his mother will never return, he is responsible, at the age of 12, for whatever happens next.

Hana (2006) was a complete change of pace and direction for Koreeda. It is a period film, set in 1702 (the same year as the loyal 47 ronin's rebellion), and it is a comedy about a samurai with unaccountable scruples about killing.

Still Walking (2008) is a return to contemporary Japan, and is so masterly it gained Koreeda comparisons to Ozu. Comparing Koreeda to any of the old masters of Japanese film raises difficulties since his films have none of the plot-driven structure one finds in Ozu, Naruse, and Mizoguchi. Nor does Koreeda, like Kurosawa and Imamura, try to impose a vision or an overriding attitude toward people and society in his choice of subjects or characterization. He isn't interested in manipulating life to illustrate a point. He doesn't even seem to be much interested in telling a story.

Koreeda's style might be called "incidentalism" because of its reliance on the subtle accumulation of detail to elicit meaning. His films are closer to life than any other Japanese filmmaker since Susumu Hani. The strongest element of his art is his attachment to actuality. In fact, his films exude the same feeling for life as it is lived that is found in the great films of Ermanno Olmi - The Fianc├ęs (1963) and One Fine Day (1969).

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