The Fifth Element

Ehrlich, Linda C.. The Films of Kore-eda Hirokazu: An Elemental Cinema. Palgrave Macmillan, 2019.

For those who were there to witness the resurgence of contemporary Japanese cinema, notably with the 1989 releases of Shinya Tsukamoto’s Tetsuo the Iron Man and Takeshi Kitano’s Violent Cop, and who have accompanied it throughout the last thirty years of Japanese film production, an irreconcilable impression of time having unyieldingly opted to accelerate while simultaneously standing still characterizes the relationship.

There are precise reasons for this, but one figures starkly in the foreground: the directors who embodied this renaissance continue to be those that international festivals turn to and reward, including Naomi Kawase, Kiyoshi Kurosawa, recently celebrated at the Venice film festival with a Silver Lion/best director prize for The Wife of a Spy (following in the footsteps of Takeshi Kitano who received the award in 2004 for Zatoichi) and Hirokazu Koreeda would become a Cannes favorite. I have argued that this third golden age of Japanese cinema had come to a close in 2004, with the last fifteen years having revealed few new voices except those initially recognized in France, such as Koji Fukada and Ryusuke Hamaguchi, and blindingly looking over directors such as Miwa Nishikawa (a Koreeda protégée), Naoko Ogigami (1). More recently, Nanako Hirose, another gifted director emerging from the Koreeda fold has shown extraordinary promise with His Lost Name, starring a grown up Yuya Yagira (from Koreeda’s own Nobody Knows, where he received the Cannes prize for best actor).

Hirokazu Koreeda directed his first feature Maboroshi in 1995, several years after several of his peers. Prior to this, he had collaborated with the indie television company TV Man Union, where he made a number of remarkable documentaries. Who would have bet back then that he would be the first Japanese director to win the Cannes Golden Palm since Shohei Imamura? While Linda C. Ehrlich, associate professor at Case Western Reserve University in Ohio, does not avoid this history, her book does not set out to answer this question. Rather, it conveys an organic impression that this was meant to be. As she puts it in her foreword, she relies on the lyric essay form, which allows the reader to contribute his/her own input in the understanding of the films, for which she has both abundant fondness and respect, the extent of the latter interfering with a reader’s desire for a sense of theoretical methodology. Her method and its belief in the contribution of the reader sees her providing extended descriptions of each film as well an overwhelming amount of notes from all spheres of the humanities from different continents, including thinkers who would be at odds with each other as well as all the usual knowledgeable friary of Anglo-Saxon critics and scholars who have not only embraced Koreeda but have given the French a run for the money in making him their own.

Ms. Ehrlich deftly deals with the Ghost of Ozu issue, relying on her knowledge of Japanese culture and the proximity she has nurtured with it. Koreeda has not been immune to this longing for the Ozu presence , notably in his film Still Walking or his documentary on Hou Hsiao Hsien and Edward Yang. But the book aims for a more poetic vein by linking each film to an element of nature: earth, water, air and fire, to which she adds a fifth one, metal in her discussion of his 2006 Hana yori mo nao/Hana, 2006, his only jidai geki, when in fact, the fifth one, in his cinema, is the glaring use of the talento (the media celebrity).

As with most directors of his generation, Koreeda either relied on established film actors from Yoshio Harada to Koji Yakusho or constituted a community of young performers who would help define those early years, that were far more elemental in a less telegraphed way, notably Tadanobu Asano and Susumu Terajima. There is a journey that takes him from After Life and Distance to Still Walking and Third Murder, which allows us to introduce a concept dear to the author, liminality, that neither there nor here zone, wherein a film such as Still Walking can shelter an icon of counterculture, Yoshio Harada, and one of CM’s, Hiroshi Abe. And through all of these peregrinations afforded by this wealth of notes, there emerges an intuition that makes the book a promising tool for yet a different reading of the director’s films. Through this liminal…compromise achieved by Koreeda (a Japanese film runs a better chance of being greenlit if Hiroshi Abe or Lili Franky is attached to it), the director reaches a masterful balance between two forms of screen presence that few of his peers suspected was possible. Shunji Iwai, who is both known for having revealed Tadanobu Asano and Yu Aoi, as well as having transformed such talentos as Takako Matsu into real actors, remains an unacknowledged pioneer of this approach. Koreeda has given it, through an Ozu tremor, a European unawareness.

The time has perhaps come when he has grown tired or too comfortable with this system and has seen him turn to France, where he shot La Vérité with Catherine Deneuve and Juliette Binoche, and is currently prepping a first South Korean film.

‘Many of the men of old died on the road, and I too for years past have been stirred by the sight of a solitary cloud drifting with the wind to ceaseless thoughts of roaming.’ Oku no Hosomichi, Bash (Donald Keene translation).


1- in Réponses du Cinéma Japonais Contemporain, éd.Lettmotif, 2016



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