Shoplifters / Manbiki kazoku, Japan 2018

From Friday December 7th until Thursday December 13th

This film was the worthy winner of the Palme d’Or at Cannes this year and of the the Asia Pacific Screen Award for Best Feature Film. It came fourth in the Audience voting at the Leeds International Film Festival; to my mind an underestimate. I rate it one of the three or four best films released this year.

The film is was written, directed and edited by Koreeda Hirokazu. His previous films include the very fine Our Little Sister / Umimachi Diary (2015) and I Wish / Kiseki (2011). Like his earlier films this fits into a cycle of titles that explore representations of the family. Koreeda has done this in a variety of genres but the films all fit into a Japanese genre known by scholars as ‘shomin-geki’, the lives of the common or ordinary people. A major influence here, acknowledged by Koreeda, are the films of Naruse Mikio, one of the masters of classical Japanese cinema. Both directors present portraits of people from the petit-bourgeois, working class and, even the lumpen-proletariat.

The title of this new film describes an activity practised by the main characters. But there is much more to the film than this. As in his other films the cast are excellent and the characterizations and the relationships between kith and kin are both fascinating and complex. The film is realist but with elements of melodrama and moments of intense emotion.

The production values are great. Both the cinematography by Kondo Ryuto and the music by Haruomi Hosono are visually and aurally impressive. The title screens from a DCP but was filmed on 35mm and several digital formats, including Arri and Canon cameras. There are particular moments of superimpositions and one very fine overhead shot that recall the recent The Third Murder / Sandome no satsujin (2017) and the earlier Our Little Sister. This film is in colour, standard widescreen and has English subtitles. It runs 121 minutes. I cannot think of a better two hours spent at the moment.

If you have never seen a film by Naruse Mikio the BFI do have a 35mm print of his 1964 title Yearning / Midareru. This not only has a fine narrative but is graced by the presence of the great Japanese star Takamine Hideko. To see this would be a treat and an interesting comparison with the work of Koreeda.

The Third Murder / Sandome no satsujin, Japan 2017

Screening Sunday April 29th at 12 noon and Thursday May 3rd at 3.10 p.m.

Happily we have two screenings of the new Koreeda Hirokazu film. His earlier titles include the beautifully low-key Our Little Sister (Umimachi Diary, 2015) and the more dramatic but equally complex After the Storm (Umi yori mo mada fukaku, 2016). Koreeda is both a seriously fine film-maker and adept at working across genres. Apart from these two titles his output includes the children’s adventure I Wish (Kiseki, 2011); the Samurai film Hana (Hana yori mo naho, 2006); After Life (Wandafuru raifu, 1998) set in an equivalent of the Christian purgatory.

In this new film Koreeda again rings the changes in what appears on the surface to be a ‘legal thriller’. Misumi (Yakusho Kôji) is under arrest and charged with murder. A previous conviction for a double murder explains the title. Shigemori Tomoaki (Fukuyama Masaharu) is recruited to his defence team. He finds that Misumi’s account of events changes nearly every time he is questioned. He also finds that the family of the murdered victim, the wife Yamanaka Mitsue (Saito Yuki) and daughter Yamanaka Sakie (Hirose Suzu), also offer suspect testimony. The legal plot is not about innocence or guilt but the severity of the charge which may or may not lead to execution.

But if Koreeda works across genres, as an auteur, he is still identifiable by the themes which dominate his films. In this drama three of the main characters are fathers who have failed their families, in particular a daughter. Here the film crosses over with many of the director’s earlier works. Along with those mentioned these include Still Walking (Aruitemo aruitemo, 2008) and Like Father, Like Son (Soshite chichi ni naru, 2013).

There are parallels in the settings as well. The main places are towns close to the Tama River, south of Tokyo; but we also visit the region of Hokkaido in the north, noted for its cold climate.

The style is somewhat faster in rhythm than Koreeda’s other recent films. Here the team are working for the first time in an anamorphic ratio. Cinematographer Takimoto Mikiya makes excellent use of the wide frame. There are some evocative night-time sequences and a stunning use of superimposition late in the film. Koreeda who scripted, also edited this production. And there is an evocative music score by Einaudi Ludovico.

I thought, along with Sweet Country (Australia, 2017), that this is the most impressive new release so far in 2018. The film was shot in a digital format and has transferred very well to DCP. The quality of the visual and aural presentation means that much of the pleasure from the film will be missing on video or download. So this is a title to be seen at the cinema.

After the Storm / Umi yori mo mada fukaku, Japan 2016

Saturday June 17th and Monday June 19th

This is the new film by Kore-eda Hirokazu. Like a number of his recent films the story [scripted by Kore-eda himself] deals with family relationships: here between a father, ex-wife and their son. His film career goes back to the early 1990s and his his output is varied: the 2006 Hana is a Samurai film that plays with the genre conventions. But the majority of his recent films have dealt with family issues and, in particular, the relationship between the worlds of adults and the worlds of children.

Still Walking / Aruitemo aruitemo (20080 covers a day-long visit by grown-up children to their older parents. The film is reminiscent, both thematically and stylistically, of the work of the great Japanese film master Ozu Yasujiro. I Wish / Kiseki (2011) deals with the attempts of a twelve year old to re-establish contact with his brother after a divorce. Finally, the wonderful Our Little Sister  / Umimachi Diary (2012), adapted from a manga novel, follows the lives of four ordinary but beautifully characterised sisters.

These films by Kore-eda all fit into the Japanese film genre of Shomin-geki, stories of ordinary people. And like many films from South-East Asia, the films use food and meals as both plot devices and metaphors.

In an interview in the July Sight & Sound Kore-eda commented on the ‘storm’ in the film:

“A typhoon is part of everyday life in Japan. When i was a child, every time there was one, everything looked fresh in the morning. I remember going to school the morning after the big storm and the grass seemed greener. It was a kind of elevation of ‘ordinariness’. Nothing has been resolved; the problems are still three. But everybody feels cleansed after the storm.”

After the Storm was shot on 35mm and there is a 35mm print version, though I do not know if it is available in Britain. Hopefully it will look good on digital. Note, there are only two screenings at the cinema, but this will be a film that repays efforts to see it.

Our Little Sister / Umimachi Diary Japan 2015

On 7th May – 5.40 PM / On 11th May – 3.40 PM

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This film was screened in the 29th Leeds International Film Festival and I thought it the pick of a strong programme. The film is adapted from a popular manga title by Koreeda Hirokazu, who also edited the film. It is the most recent in a line of family dramas in the tradition of the Japanese film genre, shomin-geki [shōshimin-eiga, the lives of ordinary working people]. These include Like Father / Soshite chichi ni naru (2013) involving parentage and children: I Wish / Kiseki (2011) about separated siblings: and Still Walking / Aruitemo aruitemo (2008) about adults and their ageing parents. Our Little Sister combines aspects of the earlier films with its main focus on four sisters. Three of these are the adult Koda sisters, Ayase Haruka as Sachi, Nagasawa Masami as Yoshino and Kaho as Chika. The ‘little sister’ has Hirose Suzu as Asano Suzu, their step-sister. They and the supporting cast are very fine.

The film is set in Kamakura on the Yokohama peninsula; not that far away from Tokyo. But this is a small coastal town. The settings include the family home, urban and rural sites and the seashore. Koreeda and his team, notably cinematographer Takimoto Mikiya, offer fairly slow and detailed observation. Critics have made comparisons with the films of the great Ozu Yasijurō, but thematically this film is closer to the equally fine work of Naruse Mikio. There is loss but also resilience and the importance of memory and tradition. The film is a delicate study with moments of humour and irony. As with the earlier films food and meals are an important aspect of the lives and their study.

If you have not seen Koreeda’s films before this would make an excellent start. If you have you will know just how rewarding are his studies of family life. If we see half-a dozen equally fine films this year then 2016 will be a classic.