Travels with Hirokazu Kore-eda

Features, FILM, Film Festivals, Interviews
The Japanese auteur talks about his latest film, I Wish, the trouble with Air Doll, and his affinity with Hiroshi Shimizu.

On the evidence of films such as After Life, Nobody Knows, and Still Walking, few would dispute Hirokazu Kore-eda as the finest Japanese filmmaker working today. His thoughtful, naturalistic dramas—occasionally giving way to fantasy and period detours—are of the highest order, and on the local festival circuit at least, it’s a relief to welcome another film by a director whose nuanced studies of human nature are fast becoming the exception. (Case in point: besides a new animation from Studio Ghibli, serial shock artist Sion Sono and a body horror in the tradition of Shinya Tsukamoto’s Tetsuo: The Iron Man round out the options from Japan at this year’s New Zealand International Film Festival.) Of the more classical persuasion, Kore-eda’s cine-literate body of work not only continues the tradition of post-war humanism in Japanese cinema, but arguably, the legacy of Japanese greats before him. Nowhere is that more evident than in his most acclaimed film, Still Walking, which carries the spirit of both Yasujiro Ozu and Mikio Naruse through its day in the life of one extended family.

Kore-eda’s eighth narrative feature, I Wish, adopts a folksy, easy-going quality that, on first impression, feels released from the sadness and resentment quietly at work beneath the surface of Still Walking, not to mention the unspoken tragedy at the core of his previous film about children, Nobody Knows. Culturally speaking though, the suppression of emotion is closely associated with the Japanese psyche, and when I put this to Kore-eda via email in relation to the sprightlier appearance of his new film, he’s quick to emphasize the undercurrent. “That is how people live, to suppress the negativity. The volcano is burning inside… it does not erupt but just smoulders.” The image is an apt one: set primarily in Kagoshima, I Wish opens with its 12-year-old protagonist Koichi (Koki Maeda) gazing at an active volcano overlooking the southwestern city. His divorced parents have deprived him of his younger brother Ryunosuke (Ohshirô Maeda), who lives with his father to the north in Hakata. Not unlike The Parent Trap, Koki schemes to reunite his estranged mother and father, although his best laid plans gamble on fantasy and wish-fulfillment rather than conspiracy and subterfuge; one of those involves creating a shrine to the Sakurajima volcano and praying that it one day might explode (so his mother will be forced to move back to Hakata). Like the characters’ emotions, only puffs of ash emerge from the mountain. “People don’t die even if the main character Koki wishes the volcano to erupt.”

I Wish is far more substantial than it lets on—a credit to Kore-eda’s deftness as a filmmaker, and in particular, as a director of children. As the distress of family discord manifests through a string of small, but telling scenes between the parents (played by Nene Ohtsuka and Joe Odagiri), a subdued, but nonetheless poignant feeling of abandonment and loss—central themes in any Kore-eda film—informs the boys’ everyday experience. Conversely, Kore-eda strikes a fine balance between this underlying heartache and the levity of childhood, imbuing the film with a radiant sense of innocence and hope—a feat he managed to pull off throughout the otherwise devastating Nobody Knows. If Kore-eda’s intuition for children is plain to see, he assures me plenty of work goes into achieving the final product. “It is not easy. There are always auditions for kids’ roles for my productions. And through these auditions, they get trained to act naturally. And of course, we try to find those kids who can bring out their so-called natural acting. So, by the time we actually start filming, it is easy for us. For I Wish, we auditioned close to 1,000 kids for the main roles.”

Chosen to play the separated brothers, real-life siblings Koki and Ohshirô are a winning partnership, and a perfect foil for one another—both independently as contrasting voices in a bifurcated family, and together as a memorable screen duo in pursuit of a mythical bullet train crossover said to make wishes come true. Unsurprisingly, the push-pull magnetism of their relationship wove its way into the fabric of the film. “We incorporated some of their interactions into dialogue,” Kore-eda explains. “Like the one of potato chips where they fight over the residue.” Metaphorically speaking, these ‘crumbs’—the best bits, according to the brothers—are fragments of their real selves worth savouring. Kore-eda, however, points out that the boys approached their performance from different sides of the camera. “As for character-setting, Ohshirô is just like himself in real life. Older brother Koki is more of an actor, acting as Koichi who is more sensitive and innocent than real life Koki.” As the younger, extroverted sibling, Ohshirô’s undistilled personality is especially infectious, and provides much comic relief. The casting of his best friends—two of which happen to be girls—also reveals a gender neutrality uncommon in coming-of-age stories, where boys and girls are typically coupled with an eye towards contrived romance or touching first love.

As Kore-eda’s film basks in the innocence of its youngsters—and is thoroughly recommendable to all ages for that reason—it makes strides to factor some home truths into their nascent understanding of the world. With the preservation of the film’s relaxed tone in mind, he’s certainly not prepared to expose them to the full emotional weight of their parents’ problems, but in respect to other movies centred on children left to their own devices—two recent British gems, Kisses and Somers Town, are worth mentioning—there’s a wonderful blend of frankness and naivety at play. How these characters cope with the reverberations of a broken family is delicately conveyed through the carriage of the performers over direct action or words. “Basically, when I work with kid actors, I try to find the maturity (how to act/think like an adult) in kids, and when I work with grown-ups, I try to find the childishness in them.” For example, in a scene where the mother makes a long-distance call to Ryunosuke late one night after drinking with friends, and loses her composure in a fit of tears and regret, Koichi looks on with a calm concern beyond his years. “I wanted to convey the kids’ innocence or naivety, and at the same time, their coolness like observing the grown-ups around them,” Kore-eda says.

“I’ve never sought any guidance from Ozu for my filmmaking. If I must compare, then, I think I Was Born, But… might have something in common with I Wish, in the way the kids are critically observing the world of grown-ups. Personally, I think my directing style looks more like Hiroshi Shimizu than Ozu.”

While it’s fair to say that Kore-eda’s narrative focus has sharpened over the course of his career, a documentary tense in his work has persisted. Time and again, the result is an effortless spontaneity so crucial to the behavioral insight and artless detail of his deceptively simple dramas. Perhaps this explains Kore-eda’s adept handling of potentially mawkish material, and his ability to eschew sentimentality even when his stories attract it. “In my films, I try not to increase the ‘humidity’—the level of wetness/tearfulness,” he stresses. “It is easy to deliver sad dialogue with sad music for sad scenes; but when you think about it, in real life, people pretend to act cheerful and smile when they are feeling sad. I try not to assimilate the scenes on the screen with how the audience feels when they are watching it.” What’s remarkable about I Wish is the amount of joy, wonder, and optimism it is able to engender without overplaying its hand, or worse, resorting to the kind of canned emotion pervasive throughout Japanese pop culture.

Kore-eda once made a documentary on Hou Hsiao-Hsien, and the Taiwanese filmmaker’s name regularly crops up in discussion of his debut narrative feature, Maborosi (1995). In a roundabout way, Hou’s presence returns to I Wish; the film lovingly framed around the Japanese National Railways system, just as Hou’s 2003 Shochiku commission Café Lumière instinctively made use of the Tokyo subway and the city’s above ground Yamanote line. For Kore-eda, the romance of train travel is akin to a cinematic journey. “I like trains the most. I don’t drive cars, and there is no window that shows the ever-changing scenery on airplanes. We cannot control trains. We can get on the train without any responsibility. That’s why I like them.” As an aside, Kore-eda offers an anecdote on Shigeru Kishida, one half of Japanese rock group Quruli (responsible for the film’s buoyant soundtrack), who also adores trains. “Mr. Kishida of Quruli is a train mania[c]. He likes trains the most because he can never own them. No matter how rich he becomes, maybe he can buy cars or airplanes, but [he] can never own trains.”

Customary as it may be to query Kore-eda about the influence of Ozu—especially when I Wish, with its pair of mischievous siblings, is reminiscent of I Was Born, But… (1932), and its remake, Ohayo (1959)—he’s less than receptive to the notion, and I don’t blame him; after all, it would be more accurate to relate his films to those of the overshadowed Naruse, whose harsher view of life is closer to the emotional tension implicit in Kore-eda’s cinema. “I like the two titles of Ozu you mention, however, I’ve never sought any guidance from Ozu for my filmmaking,” he says. “If I must compare, then, I think I Was Born, But… might have something in common with I Wish, in the way the kids are critically observing the world of grown-ups. Personally, I think my directing style looks more like Hiroshi Shimizu than Ozu.” This delightful revelation makes a lot of sense: the unsung Shimizu, who operated alongside Ozu at Shochiku during the same pre- and post-war era, portrayed Japanese society with a gentle lyricism personified by his signature traveling shot. As a movie ushered towards the graceful horizontal motion of train travel—travel that takes place outside of familiar urban centres and through alternative, picturesque rural areas—I Wish is indeed Shimizu-esque.

I couldn’t finish without asking Kore-eda about his previous film, Air Doll (2009), which in departing from the grounded family dynamic of his best work, received a largely mixed response. (Reason, perhaps, why it never screened here, along with other ‘odd-numbered’ films in his oeuvre—namely, the anti-samurai drama Hana (2006), and Distance (2002), about the relatives of cult members responsible for a terrorist attack.) Despite the muted reception to the fantasy premise of an inflatable sex doll come to life (brilliantly played by Korean actress Bae Doona), I find Air Doll to be Kore-eda’s most fascinating film—beneath the commercial magic realism, a sobering study of sexuality, patriarchy, and alienation in contemporary Japan exists. Kore-eda, interestingly, disagrees with my reading. “For me, Air Doll is not a dark film,” he asserts. “Since the film is about sex, the story is provocative. However, what I wanted to convey was that the lack of something is a possibility, and actually, I consider the film the most positive film of all (out of my filmography).”

Thematically rich, Air Doll also has an Asimovian dimension to it, although Kore-eda prefers to liken the desire of the sex doll to live and be treated as a real person to a supple fairytale as opposed to hardened science fiction. “Because a person lacks something, another person can make up that missing part. If s/he is perfect, then, s/he does not seek other people to connect. Another person can breathe into and fulfil the empty part of you. That was what I wanted to convey, but it seems hard [for others] to catch my theme of the film. What I was thinking was the story of The Little Mermaid.” On a somewhat resigned note, he concludes: “Air Doll was the film where there was the most difference between what I wanted to convey and how the audience interpreted it.” No matter. Kore-eda’s integrity as one of the leading lights of Japanese cinema remains firmly intact. And if I Wish is anything to go by, we can expect many more films characterized by the sensitivity, subtly, and perceptiveness of this always-impressive auteur.

‘I Wish’ screens at the New Zealand International Film Festival 2012, opening in Auckland on July 19, Dunedin on July 26, Wellington on July 27, Christchurch on August 9, and the remainder of the country thereafter. For regional dates, programme details, and screening times, visit nzff.co.nz.
The Lumière Reader reports from the New Zealand International Film Festival every winter. For additional commentary and opinion, follow us on Twitter.

Filed under: Features, FILM, Film Festivals, Interviews

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Tim Wong is the founding editor of The Lumière Reader. He specialises in film and visual arts criticism, has covered film festivals in Europe and North America, and was the only New Zealand-based critic invited to vote on Sight and Sound’s decennial “Ten Greatest Films of All Time” poll in 2012. He is also a freelance web and graphic designer. In 2015 he wrote and directed Out of the Mist.