Four Underappreciated Films by Hirokazu Koreeda: Distance (2001), Hana (2006), Air Doll (2009) and The Third Murder (2017)

The filmmaker Hirokazu Koreeda has been turning out warmly-received films since his fiction feature debut Maborosi in 1995. Many of them — certainly, it seems, all of the most acclaimed — are warm-hearted family dramas, whether dealing with children directly as in I Wish (2011), with parents of kids in Like Father, Like Son (2013) or with young people in Our Little Sister (2015). However in many ways that’s only half his output, as he’s also made plenty of films that don’t fit quite so neatly into this framework. I was planning on writing a post about maybe one of these, but then I realised I had a vast cache of reviews of films that really aren’t very well known by this famous director, and I wonder how many great directors could have made great films if they’d been given as many chances. For one example not even covered here, there’s his latest English/French-language The Truth (to be reviewed here later this week), but there are also these four films reviewed below: a film about terrorists; a period drama; a sex drama; and a legal thriller.

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2つ目の窓 Futatsume no Mado (Still the Water, 2014)

There’s a languorous pace to this small-town drama from Japanese director Naomi Kawase, though it starts with the shocking image of a heavily-tattooed man drowned face down in the crashing surf. After that everything settles down a little into a story of a young man Kaito (Nijiro Murakami) and woman Kyoko (Jun Yoshinaga) getting to know one another, cycling home from school, hanging out with their respective families, every so often flaring up with a little hint of some deeper, buried emotions. It’s a narrative which follows the crashing of the waves on the shore, as the title suggests, and fans of pathetic fallacy will find plenty of it in this film. It’s also deeply imbued with a sense of the spiritual dimension of nature — Kyoko’s dying mother, for example, is a village shaman, and there’s an almost mystical dimension to the ancient banyan tree outside their back door, as indeed there is to much of the film. Yet none of this is forced by the film (the trailer is another matter entirely). It reminds me of Terrence Malick’s vision of war in The Thin Red Line, a film far more about man’s relationship to nature than it ever was a story about war. Here we have a different genre (the coming-of-age film) similarly refracted through a story of two humans within a larger system. There’s still a certain underlying portentousness, but it’s matched by a simple lyricism that I at least enjoyed.

Still the Water film poster CREDITS
Director/Writer Naomi Kawase 河瀨直美; Cinematographer Yutaka Yamazaki 山崎裕; Starring Nijiro Murakami 村上虹郎, Jun Yoshinaga 吉永淳; Length 110 minutes.
Seen at Curzon Bloomsbury, London, Sunday 5 July 2015.

奇跡 Kiseki (I Wish, 2011)

This is a short review, as again I’ve let myself get behind in my write-ups at this busy time of year…


I think it’s clear at this point that Japanese director Hirokazu Koreeda likes to make films about kids and their families, like a rather more sensitive rendering of the themes of earlier Steven Spielberg movies. His Like Father, Like Son was one of my favourite films at this year’s London Film Festival, and this previous film (only released in UK cinemas earlier this year) is also a delight. Both films feature families split apart — in this case by divorce — but I Wish takes the children as its protagonists, lending it also a sense of real child-like wonder.

It takes its time to get going though. The title, and the ostensible heart of the film, come with the idea — suggested off-handedly by a child at school early on — that if you witness the moment when two bullet trains pass one another, whatever you wish for will come true. As it happens, the older of the two children in the film longs most for their parents to get back together. However, the quest that this promise — and the news that the bullet train line is being extended to where he lives — suggests doesn’t really start until after a full half of the film’s two-hour running time has elapsed. Up until that point, what Koreeda is content to sketch out is a portrait of the lives of these two children, one living with their mother in a town in the shadow of an active volcano, the other with their father, whose dream of rock stardom ensures he lives a messy and indolent life (though in a rather larger city). The two communicate regularly by phone, but even here there’s the resigned hint that the younger child knows deep-down that the older sibling’s dream of the family getting back together is a foolish hope.

This isn’t then magical realism, and though there are playful hints towards this, the first half of the film ensures we know that this tale is very much grounded in something more akin to social realism. But even within these constraints, Koreeda has found something touching without being sentimental, and heart-warming without being cloying. I can’t imagine a better film founded on such a fragile premise. It’s a corrective to the kind of overblown sap you’d get in an equivalent Hollywood production, and for that I welcome it.

I Wish film posterCREDITS
Director/Writer Hirokazu Koreeda 是枝裕和; Cinematographer Yutaka Yamazaki 山崎裕; Starring Koki Maeda 前田航基, Oshiro Maeda 前田旺志郎; Length 128 minutes.
Seen at home (Blu-ray), London, Monday 16 December 2013.