Since the conception of the the transformative medium, an abundance of film directors have undertaken the lofty goal of exploring the fundamental human problem of the boundary between reality and fantasy, consequently causing them to strive to depict the intersection of the documentary and fictive filmic forms in varying ways. Hirokazu Koreeda’s oeuvre, effused with perceptive meditations on family, death and loss, demonstrates the filmmaker’s unequivocally success in this endeavour. The auteur offers redolent tales emanating a familiar yet penetratingly poignant melange of melancholy and contentedness – a sentiment which features ubiquitously in the human experience.
Koreeda began his filmic career working as an assistant director for Japanese independent production company, TV Man Union, before going on to direct half-a-dozen films during the first decade of his career, beginning with documentary series, Nonfix (1989), then the off-kilter documentary, Lessons from a Calf, two years later. The latter set the stage for Koreeda’s vanguard, even odd-ball narratives in its depiction an elementary school in Japan that implements an experimental curriculum which is centred on a single project – the rearing of a calf from infancy to adulthood. Based on the work of prolific Japanese author Teru Miyamoto, Koreeda’s first feature film, Maborosi (1995), an intimate drama depicting the plight of young widow, Yumiko (Makiko Esumi), who moves to a small fishing village with her infant child following the apparent suicide of her husband, garnered the director the Golden Osella for Best Director at the 1995 Venice Film Festival.
Subsequently, Koreeda’s fantasy drama, After Life (1998), gripped audiences with its original, striking premise: after death, people have just one week – with the help of equally dead counsellors – to choose only one memory that they can take with them to eternity (for example, trainee counsellor, Shiori (Erika Oda), attempts to help an 18-year-old girl choose a memory other than Disneyland). While the film depicts the characters’ experiences examining the nature of the lives they led, it inevitably causes the viewer himself to reflect on the euphoric highs and pinnacles of loves of his own existence, as well as the essential sentiments and lasting traces one leaves behind after one’s passing. The shrewd, tenderly poetic film won the awards Best Film and Best Screenplay at the Buenos Aires International Festival of Independent Cinema.
Koreeda’s Palme d’Or-nominated, slow-burning drama set in the deep forests of Japan, Distance (2001), explores the dynamics between five young individuals who all congregate by a lake on the anniversary of the death of their love ones, coincidentally members of a terrorist cult – based on the Japanese doomsday cult, Aum Shinrikyo – who contaminate a city’s water supply suicide before engaging in mass suicide. In 2004, Koreeda extended his exploration of the suffering that is inextricable from family in the gritty, heartrending family drama, Nobody Knows, depicting the deep hurt intermingled with overwhelming strength which is manifested in a small Tokyo apartment after a mother abandons her children, leaving 12-year-old Akira – played by Yûya Yagira who won Best Actor at the Cannes Film Festival for his portrayal of the resolute character – to take care of the rest of his siblings.
Four years later, Koreeda returned with the bittersweet drama, Still Walking, a palpably moving portrait of two grown children and their ageing parents who congregate for a rare reunion on one summer’s day, in commemoration of their eldest son’s unfortunate death. The potency of the family drama’s perspicuously simple yet subtly penetrating reflection on the changeability of human nature can perhaps be attributed to the fact that Koreeda has previously declared the family dynamics depicted to be based on that of his own family. Koreeda earned his second Palme d’Or nomination for Like Father, Like Son (2013), a poignant work depicting the events that unfold in the life of high powered, money-driven business man, Ryota (Masaharu Fukuyama), who is unexpectedly forced to confront the more sentimental, emotional aspects of his life after discovering that his biological son was switched at birth with another child.
Koreeda reignited his central filmic themes of death and loss in one of his most recent releases, After the Storm (2016), a sentimental, comedy drama following the trials of prizewinning novelist turned private detective, Shinoda (Hiroshi Abe), who experiences a tumult of familial strife following both the death of his father and his inability to financially support his son and ex-wife. Undeniably, the prolific auteur shows no signs of slowing down, as he continues to churn out a steady stream of narratively eclectic and cinematographically exquisite dramas, with the latest fruit of his cinematic toil, The Third Murder – following a lawyer who is assigned to defend an ex-convict suspected of theft and murder – currently in post-production. Indeed, film critics, the festival scene and cinema-loving audiences alike are all buzzing with anticipation for release of his latest gem.