Where to begin: a guide to Hirokazu Kore-Eda

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By Tomas Babicki |

| Paolo Chiabrando / Unsplash

It’s rare that a name alone can assure the quality of a film. For every Blue Velvet there’s a Dune; for every Goodfellas there’s a Kundun; and for every Fargo there’s a Ladykillers remake that nobody asked for. But once in a while, the cinematic landscape is blessed with a figure like Hirokazu Kore-Eda, whose catalogue, even at its lowest point, is flush with beauty and inspiration.

Kore-Eda’s career began to take shape in the early 1990s with a series of mostly made-for-TV documentaries. The most striking of these is a character study of Hirata Yutaka; the first openly gay AIDs-sufferer in Japan. His first feature, Maborosi (1995), garnered a strong domestic reception; however it wasn’t until 1998 that he was put on the map with Western audiences following the release of the wildly inventive After Life.

He has since gone on to reinvigorate the Japanese home drama for a new generation, as well as cultivate a distinguished bittersweet form which unsentimentally dissects life in an often overly-romanticised modern Japan.

Begin with Shoplifters (2018)

In order to acclimatise ones self to the gentle and often underwhelming drama that characterises the bulk of the directors’ filmography, the place to start for one of the richest Kore-Eda experiences is undoubtedly Shoplifters (2018).

The film focuses on a makeshift family of lost souls. They get by on the spoils of petty theft and low-paying cash-in-hand work. One day, the clique illegitimately adopts a neglected little girl and introduce her to their way of life, providing her with the loving upbringing she has been deprived of. All at a different stage of their lives, each family member is going through a period of self-discovery, and the benefits and shortfalls of their nonconforming lifestyle are unceremoniously exposed.

The narrative explores the nature of parental influence and emphasises the importance of a loving family, however unconventional, through a beautiful and tragic lens. The nostalgia of the smallest moments bleeds out of the understated observational cinematography, and is brutally contrasted against the realities and responsibilities of modern life. It also provides a passionate commentary on the soulless bureaucracy that governs Japan’s childhood welfare systems.

Continue with Still Walking (2008) and After the Storm (2015)

The gradual and ambiguous pacing of Shoplifters has come to epitomise the past decade or so of Kore-Eda’s body of work. To follow up, the next films to watch would be his other, slightly more drawn out home dramas such as Still Walking (2008) (which was indisputably robbed on the festival circuit) and After the Storm (2015). Both films utilise the same broad, unimposing style as seen in Shoplifters which allows the actors to very candidly inhabit their environments. The camera refuses to cut just because a conversation is over, and the real power and nuance of the storytelling seeps from awkward silences and mundane tasks.

For something with the same soulful charm, After Life (1998) is an absolute must watch. Set in a decaying office complex located in purgatory, the film follows the staff that are tasked with helping the recently deceased choose a single memory from their lives to spend eternity in. Despite the high-concept façade, the film explores humanity, nostalgia and the meaning of life in a heart-wrenchingly intimate way, and at its heart is a beautiful and sincere celebration of the power of cinema.

Don’t begin with…

As mentioned, it’s hard to go wrong with Kore-Eda; however, there are a few wildcards in the director’s career that may seem a little blindsiding. Airdoll (2006) is a spiritual precursor to Her (2013), and indeed shares the same cult status, although the themes and concepts are a little more sordid and challenging. The spirit which epitomises the aforementioned films struggles to find the spotlight, overshadowed by the quirks of the atypical narrative.

The Truth (2019) marks the director’s first cinematic excursion outside of his native tongue, and in the process, as is the case with many expropriated Asian filmmakers, forfeits the edge which distinguished him in the first place. Despite the phenomenal cast and the films competent composition, the generic story, dull cinematography and excessive dialogue creates an ultimately forgettable experience.

On Kore-Eda

Kore-Eda’s work has an ethereal interrelation which makes it difficult to single out a place to start. Every story he tells feels like a piece of a larger puzzle, and so in theory there is no right or wrong place to start (but of course, we all start by finding the corner pieces).

Keeping that in mind, please consider this article as the foundations for getting the most out of Kore-Eda in the shortest amount of time, and not the ‘correct’ way to view his films. My own personal introduction to him was through I Wish (2011), which remains the film I find the most affecting, and probably the best film about childhood I’ve ever seen.

This is only the beginning. From this point there’s countless mini masterpieces to be discovered, like Our Little Sister (2014), Nobody Knows (2004) and The Third Murder (2017), a legal drama which combines the best of Ozu’s home dramas and Kurosawa’s criminal character studies.

In my opinion, Hirokazu Kore-Eda is the greatest director working today, and I believe he will sit comfortably among the great Japanese auteurs for years to come.