HIROKAZU KOREEDA´S COMMITMENT
To the distant observer, certain heterodoxy dominates the panorama of Japanese film at the moment. The huge variety of aesthetic and narrative registers that may be found on the long journey from the films of Sion Sono to those of Naomi Kawase include a pause—leaving aside anime—for names that are well known to fans, such as Takeshi Kitano, Kiyoshi Kurosawa or Nobuhiro Suwa. Although in one area or another, they all have certain international prestige, probably the foremost of them all at the moment, on account of his international relevance, is Hirokazu Koreeda.
The universal messages behind his fictional films (memory, mourning, conflicts derived from intergenerational relationships, infancy or personal improvement) have managed to convince the juries of the most important festivals in the world and fill their cinemas with audiences that are far removed from the art and the way of living of society in his country: from the United States to Spain through Brazil or Israel, where the producer Steven Spielberg will take the remake of his latest feature film, Like Father, Like Son (Soshite chichi ni naru, 2013), awarded with the Jury Prize at the Cannes Film Festival and the Audience Prize at the San Sebastian Film Festival last year.
The discovery of his less well-known side —as a documentary-maker— has ratified the director’s conviction regarding the treatment of a particular subject and questions the cliché spread in recent times regarding Koreeda’s films achieving greater acceptance due to a supposed lack of political commitment. Perhaps such a superficial reading could be derived from the intensification of matters relating to family in his latest films. Nonetheless, this selection of documentaries proves that practically everything that Koreeda has dealt with in his fictional work was already noted in his documentaries and that it is in these latter that the error of the cliché mentioned above becomes more evident.
It is evident that Koreeda does not at any time aspire to being the new Kazuo Hara and that he will not serve amongst the flanks of filmmakers that he believes in and admires, such as Shinsuke Ogawa or Noriaki Tsuchimoto, but in view of his films, there is no question that he will form part of the trend that the TV Man Union represented at the end of the eighties and start of the nineties, where he had his beginnings: an independent producer committed to the creation of rigorous quality audiovisual content since its foundation in 1970, dedicated to the production of documentaries relating to the culture and society of its time. “You are no more than the present was the title of the collection of articles that the company management wrote about television production.
Although he didn’t take such a radical route as Ogawa (who spent thirteen years filming and living with a community of farmers before presenting the result of it in 1987), the inspiration from models like him —along with the choice of content akin to his concerns— led him to get involved in the events that he was reporting on, so that filming his documentaries in the nineties could take months or even years. The objective was never any other than to fight against the effects of the violence that a filming camera provokes in any situation that attempts to look like itself —or in other words— natural. The results of this are especially perceptible in films like Lessons from a Calf (M o hitotsu no ky oiku: Ina Shogakko Harugumi no kiroku, 1992). August Without Him (Kare no inai hachigatsu ga, 1994] or Without Memory (Kioku ga ushinawareta toki, 1996], where the director maintains periodic contact, for over a year in all cases, with the subjects of the documentary.
After a period of learning at the TV Man Union (of which he doesn’t have particularly good memories), amongst the productions that Koreeda put his signature to in the early nineties are pieces centred on the work of the writer Kenji Miyazawa, on the two most transcendental Taiwanese filmmakers in the history of that country, Edward Yang and Hou Hsiao-Hsien, and on the Kafkaesque situation of a Korean-Japanese man who dos not have one nationality or the other; or on intellectually disabled children at a charity institution in the north of Japan. They are not independent films, recorded in 8mm film on the fringes of the system, but pixelated video documents. Television was the only means he could find for getting behind a camera to tell stories.
If those early documentaries stand out for any particular reason, it is for a highly perceptible degree of social commitment. So in spite of his continual complaints about the consequences that the social cuts adopted by certain governments in his country had for many people —who were the lead characters in many of his best documentaries— we can talk of empathy with the victims that populate his works rather than identification with certain ideological postures. This happens with the main political leader in However (Shikashi- Fukushi kirisute no jidai ni, 1991) and with the HIV-positive friend of the director who lets himself be filmed during the final months of his life in August Without Him others” are discriminated against, marginalised or deprived in Japanese society: homosexuals, Korean immigrants, people receiving state benefits, disabled people…
As in the case of Nagisa Oshima, Koreeda has combined his work as a director of fictional films with documentaries. In both facets, he has dealt with similar subjects: the transcendence of a memory and memary; how the present marks us; educational processes; relationships between children and adults and, therefore, family issues; the condemnation of the lack of institutional or social empathy that reigns over the country.
His parallel career includes lengthy activity in relation to television, which he ensures is compatible with his filmmaking career. So he directs a chapter of the NHK series Kaidan horror classics (Ayashiki bungo kaidan, 2010) and he commits to making the series Going My Home (Gouingu mai houmu, 2012); but he also continues to take on television commissions for TBS or FujiTV, and even films music videos for singers or groups such as Cheri, Suenohair, AKB48 or Cocco [to whom he dedicated a feature-length documentary in 2008).
Included in the particular Olympus of the five all-time great Japanese directors by writer and specialist in Japanese film Donald Richie (he is accompanied in this select gumyp by Akira Kurosawa, Kenji Mizoguchi, Vasujiro Ozu and Mitsuo Yanagimachi), Koreeda films have frequently been compared with those of the magnificent Yasujiro Ozu, due to their tone and subject matter. The way in which he delves into complex family relationships or how he portrays the traumatic proceses of adapting Japanese tradition to contemporary life brings him closer to Ozu. Not in his style, of course. In this aspect, Koreeda’s films have moved progressively closer to the feelings of his characters, always involved in conflicts relating to memories and losses, to desires for improvement and to family relationships. Throughout this career spanning almost 25 years, he has kept that humanist point of view constant, in line with directors such as Ozu and other great directors of Japanese film.