By Jasper Sharp. Ask anyone about the state of contemporary Japanese cinema and the one name that is sure to come up is that of the subject of Linda Ehrlich’s The Films of Kore-eda Hirokazu: An Elemental Cinema, surprisingly the first book-length focus on the director.
For well over two decades, Kore-eda has enjoyed widespread overseas distribution and a critical acclaim that has, in the more recent cases of Like Father, Like Son (2013) and Shoplifters (2018), been matched by a noteworthy degree of domestic box-office success. Shoplifters (pictured) pulled off the remarkable feat of winning both the Palme d’Or at Cannes and becoming that year’s top-grossing home-grown live-action release in Japan. His themes, as Ehrlich outlines in the introduction to her book, include exploring “such fundamental questions as: what might happen to us and our memories after death? How can we protect the vulnerability of children? How can we honor their resilience? How can women transcend the role of sexual object? How can we expand our view of those who live on the margins of society? What is the nature of justice? Of truth? Of family?”
Kore-eda is particularly unusual in that he has overseas attention without being a genre director, although we might argue that his brand of foreign-language arthouse cinema does constitute a genre of sorts. Many of his films dwell on family relationships, and even if the featured domestic units might be described as dysfunctional or fragmented, their concerns resonate with viewers worldwide.
Kore-eda’s transition from art-house to mainstream, both at home and overseas, makes him a special case within Japanese cinema. While many of his early films seemed preoccupied with big ideas, over the past decade there has been a turn to big emotions of a kind more associated with the commercial mainstream or even, dare I say it, television dramas. Similarly, the adoption of different filmmaking approaches and media in his explorations of time and memory in early works like Maboroshi (1995), After Life (1998) and Nobody Knows (2003) yielded to a stylistic simplicity in his recent run of digitally-shot dramas.
Attention can be a mixed blessing for specialists of particular national cinemas, in that the conversation surrounding festival favourites like Kore-eda ends up being swamped by more generalist critical voices, unfamiliar with the cultural, linguistic or industrial contexts in which a work is created. Moreover, the focus on any one single figure can eclipse that of fellow practitioners in the same field doing similar things. Kore-eda, for example, has been quick to point out to foreign interviewers that not all Japanese filmmakers who treat the Japanese family as their subject are taking cues from Yasujiro Ozu’s Tokyo Story (1953). Instead, he suggests other local influences, such as the more acerbic work of another old master of the Golden Age, Mikio Naruse, and further from home but closer in time, Ken Loach.
While Kore-eda’s work is not as righteous and didactic as Loach’s, it certainly shares some political elements. As Ehrlich states: “Although Kore-eda tends to deny that there are overt sociopolitical messages in his films, he does present stories in which the marginalized are given few options because of societal rigidity and prejudice.” Nobody Knows, for example, centres upon the plight of four young siblings left to their own devices by their self-centred mother. Shoplifters is a portrait of a makeshift, inter-reliant family of impoverished but fun-loving petty criminals eking out their existence on the margins of Tokyo.
As an established scholar, Ehrlich can hardly be considered a generalist. She has lived in Japan, speaks the language and has been publishing on Asian cinema for as long as Kore-eda has been making films. She was the co-editor with David Desser of the anthology Cinematic Landscapes: Observations on the Visual Arts and Cinema of China and Japan (1994), while her own writing has also focussed on Spanish films and filmmakers. Outside of academia, she has also written and published a number of prose and poetry books. Nevertheless, this is not a conventional, chronological study of a director’s work, nor an analysis of recurrent themes, symbols and motifs found within it. Instead the films are discussed in a more abstract and poetic manner, in relation to five elements: earth, water, fire, air and metal – “an intentionally “ragged” style reflecting a new, and experimental, contemplation of all of Kore-eda’s films.” Ehrlich’s “elements” are neither Western nor Asian in origin, but a mixture of the two, and come with a further, non-elemental category of liminality – “living between two worlds and not totally at home in either one—where a character’s absence becomes palpable, is also a common theme in several Kore-eda films.”
While the approach takes us through the oeuvre of the director in a slightly roundabout and discursive fashion, the opening chapter, ‘Earth/The Documentary Impulse’ does ground it in Kore-eda’s documentary origins through a discussion of Lessons from a Calf – Record of the Spring Class at Ina Elementary School (1991). This work for television focussed on an elementary school’s progressive approach in building a curriculum around its students’ rearing of the titular calf. Ehrlich sees it as an anticipation of his later films, particularly through Kore-eda’s treatment of children and childhood, which is, in the words of Arthur Nolletti: “a state of consciousness and awareness in its own right… [that] must be valued on its own terms.”
The book ends with Shoplifters: a culmination not only of the themes contained in his previous films but more literally as his last film of the Heisei Era (1989-2019). Since the retired Heisei emperor’s reign framed all Kore-eda’s previous work, it is perhaps fitting that his most recent family drama, The Truth (La verité, 2019) saw him relocating to France in search of fresh inspiration.
Some of the elemental frameworks are obvious – air for Air Doll (2009) water for After the Storm (2016) and fire for The Third Murder (2017, pictured). The inclusion of metal in Ehrlich’s system came with the realisation that the director’s films “are largely lacking in guns, knives, and slashing swords”, thereby providing a context by which to talk about one of Kore-eda’s least discussed works, his only period drama, Hana – the Tale of a Reluctant Samurai (2006).
The evocation of the elements is only intended as a conceptual starting point from which to explore the director’s work. The early chapter ‘Water: Maborosi no hikari/Maborosi, 1995’ also looks at his debut feature in the context of the source novella from which it was adapted, the aesthetic considerations arising from Kore-eda’s move from television to cinema, the influence of the Taiwanese director Hou Hsiao-hsien, and associations with Buddhism and Japanese artistic traditions.
The final scenes where the widowed Yumiko witnesses a haunting funeral procession and meets her new husband on the coastline in twilight, a liminal setting if ever there was one, are described in relation to a sumi-e ink-wash landscape, and are “imbued with the elusive Japanese quality, yugen, drawn from yu (‘faint, distant’) and gen (‘dark, Mystery’). Citing theories of yugen in Daoism and Buddhism, Ehrlich quotes Francisca Cho: “To attain the deeper level of poetry, one is advised to look at the absences, or to look at least at the subdued and the commonplace.” Ehrlich also likens it to a scene in Chikamatsu’s famous Kabuki play Love Suicides at Sonezaki featuring “a journey of star-crossed lovers who, step by step, detach themselves from the world that was familiar to them.”
Ehrlich admits that such references do not imply any conscious or direct influence on Kore-eda’s work, claiming: “In fact, his reports of his ‘no frills’ childhood and early adult years demonstrate a distance from the elegant world of the tea ceremony, and the austerity of Noh theatre.” Such observations are instead intended to throw new light on the films and to reframe them within new and different contexts. In a similar fashion, Kore-eda’s two apparently very different films of Still Walking, with an extended family get together on a sunny summer’s day, and Distance, featuring a group of disparate individuals gathering to atone for the murderous acts of relatives in a murderous religious cult, are likened in the way “that a seemingly routine (if meaningful) reunion becomes an invitation to revisit extreme, life-changing trauma. Just when it seemed there was no going back, something small happens, a breath of fresh air.”
The network of references and associations is supported by comments from the director himself, and previously published ideas and observations from a variety of critics and scholars (including myself). Some of these are more tenuous than others; for example, the forest setting of Distance apparently represents “something intangible and, in essence, unrepresentable—memory.” Nevertheless, Ehrlich’s lines of reasoning and descriptive threads never stretch on for uncomfortably long, and the writing is generally as succinct as it is evocative. She avoids that terrible problem one finds in so much academic prose, wherein a core concept is repeated and rephrased using slightly different jargon throughout the text so that there is no room for doubt about the single message being hammered home.
Would that Palgrave Macmillan had avoided that other perennial issue with academic books: expense. Ehrlich’s approach might be one that is accessible to general cinephiles, non-academic fans of Kore-eda’s work or other curious parties, but, alas, most of us without physical access to a university library will instead have to pay £59.99 for just shy of 300 pages. I would say the approach taken by the author here leaves scope for other different takes on the same subject. The nature of academic pricing makes this a necessity.
Jasper Sharp is the author of the Historical Dictionary of Japanese Cinema. The Films of Kore-eda Hirokazu: An Elemental Cinema by Linda Ehrlich is published by Palgrave Macmillan.