Hirokazu Koreeda has risen to mastery in portraying family relationships. He began his career in the early 90s with television programs and documentaries. A good example is Without Memory from 1996 – a documentary about a man suffering from a rare type of memory loss. It is a film in which the director’s crystallizing eye for relationships and portraying subtly experienced tragedies can be clearly seen. In addition, an interesting thread is the socially involved element, i.e. opposing to the practices of the Japanese Ministry of Health at that time (withdrawing the refund for vitamins causes abuse towards patients – lack of vitamins results in various serious diseases, including memory loss).
The characteristic style of Koreeda, slowly forming at that time, I often call the Japanese New Wave (due to thematic convergence with Yasujirô Ozu) or the Japanese Wave of Emotions (similar imaging, although with a different, more poetic kind of sensitivity can be found in Naomi Kawase’s cinema). Focusing on internal experiences, emotionality and sometimes (even!) touch is not something obvious for far-eastern cinema and culture. The director became famous for such warm, subtle and wise pictures, for which he most often writes scripts as well.
This style has repeatedly met with the recognition of critics and viewers – as evidenced by six nominations for the Golden Palm Award over the years, including, after the last Cannes Film Festival, two wins. The first victory was Like Father Like Son from 2013. A simple story about the discovery that the beloved (so far) son was switched at birth, so he is not biological offspring. It was look at two families, showing a bit of class disparity, but without evaluation. Acceptance, growing up to the responsibility of a family. Narrative was advanced to an uncomplicated point, as with as Koreeda’s other work, and was of neither too much pathos, nor too trivial, nor too sensational or gossiping. It was family-like.
This year turned out successful again. The director’s latest film, Shoplifters has won him his second Golden Palm. The decision of the Cannes’ jury was described as surprising, although, I think, in some sense expected. In the film, Koreeda returns to what he is known for, i.e. a family drama with traces of social involvement. Shoplifters tell the story of a poor family living on petty theft, who decides to look after a girl abandoned and cruelly left to the cold of the streets.
In his earlier film, The Third Murder from 2017, Koreeda tried to move away from family issues, reaching for the convention of judicial drama and trying to prove that he can make movies comprehensively. The experiment has been met with mixed reviews, turning out to be uneven and rather unsuccessful.
It is not that the Japanese director is devoid of versatility – only that his versatility manifests itself in the field of family drama. And hence the reward for Shoplifters. Because, despite the fact that we are all used to his style – to simple, well-calibrated stories that are not afraid of their own (warm, one should add) simplicity and predictability – he can still grab us by the heart and surprise us with something new.
Perhaps this surprise is due to the positive animosity that Koreeda’s films have inside of them. European cinema has accustomed us rather, when it comes to family dramas, to focus on misery and tragedy. In turn, in Japanese dramas the tragedy is usually shifted to the background and the relationship, complicated with feelings (usually warm, positive, though somewhat confused, as in Our Little Sister from 2015 – here a huge plus for female characters), is at focus itself.
The highest value according to Koreeda’s cinema is – invariably – family. This is not surprising, considering that the director has grown out of the traditionally marked Japanese culture. However, these are families of different variations: incomplete (i.e. without one of the main figures, e.g. lacking of father-figure in Our Little Sister), divided (as in I Wish from 2011, where two young boys, brothers, try to reach one another despite the distance), marked by the past (Even If You Walk and Walk from 2008, where the past hinders the relationships, but the family itself becomes the key to consent) or seeking identities (here an extremely interesting Air doll from 2009, with a wonderful female portrait, melodrama).
Finally, encouraging you to get acquainted with the director’s work, I leave an open question – whether the fact that Koreeda’s films win the hearts of Europeans indicates the universality of the family crisis, the strong presence of the crisis of a traditional family in Europe, or maybe simply: European’s interest in far-eastern cinema?