Wednesday, November 7, 2012

Respectful Distance: Kore-eda Hirokazu (1/2)

Hirokazu Kore-eda is one of Japan's most interesting contemporary directors. Contrary to the classical drama concept of revealing character in how they react to extraordinary circumstances, Kore-eda reveals the personalities of his characters through daily routine situations. Although he does not force identification on his audience, he is able to deeply move spectators around the world.

Ever since the decline of the Japanese film industry - certainly no later than after the bubble economy crisis - a young generation of independent auteurs put Japanese cinema back on the map by winning festival awards around the world. Among them is Kore-eda Hirokazu, best known for his Cannes winner Nobody Knows (Dare Mo Shiranai, 2004) about four abandoned siblings trying to survive in the anonymity of city life.

Kore-eda initially wanted to become a writer but quit university in order to work on documentary films for TV. To this day, he seems to be more interested in revealing the dynamics of family structure than making a statement about Japanese society on the whole or about history and politics.

In the mid-1990s he began to translate the stories he encountered during research for his documentaries into fictional feature length films. Today he is in line with the great humanists of Japanese cinema like Kurosawa, Ozu, Mizoguchi or Miyazaki.

Kore-eda Hirokazu
Although his basic themes have always been loss, separation, memory and death, thanks to a pleasantly sober approach his films never feel heavy-handed or dispiriting. So how is Kore-eda able to deeply touch our hearts while avoiding sentimentality and pathos?

First we have to distinguish emotions that are evoked by content (those feel real), i. e. the story in itself, and emotions that are triggered by way of cinematic devices (those can feel fake). A film feels sentimental when formal elements like overwhelming music trigger emotions that the story alone would not evoke and of which we might feel embarrassed afterwards. Or even worse, we sense that the film makers desperately want us to feel sad and it doesn't work to a point where the whole setup becomes ridiculous. Of course, there are several possibilities in between such as classic Hollywood or contemporary Eastwood films which merely support genuine emotions with appropriate music.

Emotionalizing is the more successful the more we identify with a character - the closer we are to his or her face and the more we know about their feelings and motivations. In a Hitchcock movie this is essential because this type of suspense story only works when we are willing to be manipulated by the storyteller.

Kore-eda on the other hand is trying to admonish us to reflect on what we see rather than to sympathize immediately. He once said in an interview that he prefers looking over his characters' shoulders rather than embracing them. This makes clear that he approaches the characters like a documentary filmmaker. He never exposes them. Moreover, without judging himself he reveals family structure as interactions of several generations with different sets of values.

Most often his protagonists are pensive, introverted and taciturn. They merely observe life and often feel that they have come too late.

To me, the keyword for Kore-eda's directing style is "respectful distance". Let us now look at the formal devices he utilizes to create this respectful distance:

De-emphasizing Facial Expressions
As a former documentary filmmaker Kore-eda aims for realism preferably using natural lighting. The following excerpt from Nobody Knows shows how he approaches Akira with a documentary style hand held camera:

We also learn from that short and wordless scene that he is alone, even when he is in town. There are no other children because they are in school.

Another trait of his films is a laconic acting style. Actors often look as if they were filmed during their daily routines. Kore-eda even gets kids to act naturally.

However, the more restrained someone is acting the harder it is to read his facial expressions clearly. Thus, we start paying attention to gestures and body language. Visually Kore-eda emphasizes this reduction by way of showing the characters from a distance that downplays the importance of facial expressions. Sometimes we only see the backs of conversing characters.

The next example is from his fictional debut Maboroshi no Hikari (1995) which does not contain any close-ups at all. Again we have an extremely long lens that compresses the whole space into one layer of silhouettes (especially in the shot on the bridge):

Girl: "Please don't go away, or else father will be angry!"
Grandmother: "I prefer to die at home that's why I go back to Shikoku."
Girl: "It's too early to die! You need money for the ferry to Shikoku and that you don't have, do you?"
Grandmother: "I want to die in Sukumo. That's why I leave for Shikoku."

Although the dialogue is quite melodramatic, we cannot see the characters' faces. Due to the telephoto lens the characters seem stuck in place, even when the grandmother walks away. She doesn't even get smaller when further away.

Kore-eda's other strategy of shifting our focus away from facial expressions consists of repeatedly showing characters' hands and feet because a person's psychology manifests itself in movements and gestures as well:

These scenes are in chronological order as they appear over the course of the narrative. We learn from them alone, that Akira's shoes get increasingly worn-out. The pattern of appearance is more than once: feet, hands, face. Also note the finger movement when we see Akira's sister for the first time. It is later revealed that she dreams of playing the piano. This is just one of innumerable details in Kore-eda's complex network of foreshadowing.

To be continued...

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