Hirokazu Koreeda is about to release ‘Our Little Sister’ – if you aren’t familiar with him then get to know
Hirokazu Koreeda is a filmmaker who navigates the human condition with such care and insight, there’s no question that he’s the greatest Japanese filmmaker around. If that’s news to you, it’s time to make amends. An arthouse darling and world cinema icon since the 90s, the director – often regarded the new Ozu – is smart and contemplative, favouring subtlety over clichéd outbursts. He creates soulful dramas populated with real humans, not Hollywood sentimentalism.
Once a wannabe author, Koreeda is distinct for structuring films like novels and fleshing out characters in chapters. Whether he’s exploring the subject of child starvation or toying with a sentient sex doll fairytale, these people will truly mean something to the viewer.
Koreeda’s typically excellent Our Little Sister is about to be released in cinemas, thus making it an excellent starting point for newcomers (plus a continuation for fans). Here’s a primer for getting into the auteur’s wonderful filmography.
NOBODY KNOWS (2004)
Koreeda is such an actor’s director, he waits until casting is confirmed before finishing his scripts. This discipline pays off handsomely in Nobody Knows, an upsetting survival tale of four abandoned half-siblings in Tokyo. When their mother departs without warning, the eldest child, 12-year-old Akira, begs and thieves to feed his starving family – his brother and two sisters, all hidden indoors to trick the landlord, have no awareness of the world beyond a dingy window.
Stark vignettes track the slow degradation of a makeshift household falling sicker by the day. The overriding horror is the natural, almost documentary-level performances of the young performers, particularly that of Yuya Yagira, whose portrayal of Akira won Best Actor at that year’s Cannes. Inspired by a real incident, it establishes how tragedies go undetected in major cities. The children’s existence accumulates into a nightmarish Plato’s Cave; the inhabitants gaze at planes from a distance, but obediently remain in the shadows.
STILL WALKING (2008)
Often cited as Koreeda’s masterpiece, Still Walking is his most Ozu-like feature (though he’s always refuted the comparison). On the 15th anniversary of their elder son’s death, a family meet up, as they do every year, for what becomes a series of intergenerational clashes unfolding under one roof. True to style, these verbal boxing matches are cordial and hushed; simmering tensions are whispered in corners of the house, often depending on who’s within hearing distance.
There’s vicious humour, too. The son drowned when saving a classmate, so of course this now adult – to their dismay, he’s not made the most of life – is invited each year for the family to take delight in his guilt. The mother admits she needs someone to hate; the father is more direct, wishing a worthier person was saved. Yet, when a butterfly appears, it’s the mother dashing towards it, (presumably) mistaken in believing her dead boy’s soul paying a visit; the cruellest are actually harbouring the most pain.
OUR LITTLE SISTER (2016)
Acing the Bechdel Test with autumnal colours, Our Little Sister is a non-stop joy and Koreeda at his sweetest. Three sisters attend their absent father’s funeral and invite their younger half-sibling – now an orphan – to share their home. Avoiding unoriginal plot turns, the subtle drama depicts female bonding and young women orchestrating their futures. Though they each had a childhood stolen by circumstance, they’re retrieving it gradually, whether through an annual tradition of preparing plum wine or joining a local football team.
Still, the story is filled with morbid memories, quiet resentments and not-so-quiet self-hatred – 13-year-old Suzu considers herself a burden, despite the warmth from her big sisters. The scenes are concise and as digestible as the tantalising cuisine that fills the screen. In a Koreeda tradition, certain snacks are flavoured with nostalgia and hold an emotional resonance revealed afterwards. Not just an excellent starting point, it’s about to be in cinemas where the seaside town of Kamakura can be experienced in widescreen.
AFTER LIFE (1998)
“You died yesterday. I’m sorry for your loss.” When it comes to movies about movies, few are more heavenly than After Life. Made early on when Koreeda was mainly a documentarian, the bittersweet fantasy became his breakthrough, earning festival acclaim for its deadpan premise: the dead discover limbo is actually an amateur film studio; you pick one memory to live out on a loop, and a crew essentially “swedes” a snapshot of your past.
No special effects or fluffy clouds are required. Instead, it’s gentle existentialism, querying the passing of time and the appeal of wiping out 99.9 per cent of what you remember (“that really is heaven”). Some of the interviewees are actors, others are ordinary people; you can’t tell. What’s actually revealing is the difficult of picking a memory – nearly always from youth – and the giddy thrill that the bad years can be left behind on Earth. For whatever reason, it took two viewings to click with me; for most, it works first time and is a fan favourite.
I WISH (2011)
Japanese group Quruli’s bumpy guitar score unlocks the lyrical pleasures of I Wish, another Koreeda slam-dunk in drawing naturalistic performances from kids. The bittersweet drama concerns two brothers, geographically kept apart by their parents’ divorce; the 12-year-old stresses and paces around the playground, while his smiley younger sibling enjoys a new solo life with his rock-star father. Their plan? Hope a volcano eviscerates the town and reunites the family. It’s less morbid when he says it.
That’s the dynamic, teased out in small chunks, but the story is rich in detail, with nary a wasted moment. Likewise, side characters that initially seem incidental emerge as part of a wider picture in which everyone, young and old, has their own sadness to live with. As for Quruli, their gentle strums set the pace for several kids dashing with backpacks to the rhythm of youthful optimism.