By Diana Cheng
AAP Arts & Entertainment
Hirokazu Kore-eda has often been compared to the venerable Japanese director Yasujiro Ozu. The obvious parallel is that they both focus on the Japanese family, their camera capturing quiet, nuanced details. However, Kore-eda takes the comparison as a compliment but modestly declines its validity.
While both explore family relationships in their films, a closer look will show the portrait of the father character is often framed in a different light. The span of some 60 years apart in the Japanese society could well explain the change.
Reflecting the post-war need of the family to rebuild lives and identity, Ozu’s father character is usually one who selflessly attempts to marry off his daughter to keep the perpetual family cycle going, despite the imminent loneliness in store for himself. His constant, Chishu Ryu, takes up this pivotal role in many of his films.
Late Spring (1949) is a poignant look at such a portrayal. In the last, intimate father/daughter talk–played by Chishu Ryu and Setsuko Hara, two of Ozu’s charismatic actors– father Shukichi, a widower, stresses the sad but necessary “order of human life and history”. As daughter Noriko expresses her longing to continue living with him, Shukichi has to gently but firmly prod her to leave and shift her devotion onto her future husband to start a new life together, “one in which I play no part.” A selfless speech unfolds, including his scheme of pretending to remarry so Noriko would not worry about him.
A few years late, in Ozu’s classic “Tokyo Story” (1953), we see the ideal type of the father reappear, played again by Chishu Ryu, bearing the same name Shukichi but this time with his wife Tomi (Chieko Higashiyama). The elderly couple go on a long train ride from the small town of Onomichi to visit their adult children’s families in Tokyo. While in appearance they are greeted courteously, the parents receive indifferent hospitality.
Their eldest son Koichi (So Yamamura) is a busy doctor, whose two spoilt boys do not even know their grandparents. Their daughter Shige (Haruko Sugimura) is too preoccupied with her business to take her parents sight-seeing. Youngest Keizo (Shiro Osaka) lives in Osaka and is equally tied up with work. “What a bother,” he says to his office colleague.
The children come up with a convenient plan. They send their visiting parents on their own to a resort for a few days. That does not work out as the place was too noisy for rest; the parents cut short their stay and return to Tokyo, much to the displeasure of daughter Shige. In this film, we see the disintegrating of the multi-generational Japanese family. Parents don’t live with their adult children, relationships remain superficial, contact with grandchildren minimal.
But Shukichi is accommodating and forgiving, an ideal type of a father. As they look back at their Tokyo visit later, Tomi laments how their sons and daughter had changed from their lovable younger selves. Shukichi admits that “children don’t live up to their parents’ expectation.” How he consoles Tomi would likely pull at the heartstrings of many viewers with its irony: “Let’s just be happy that they’re better than most… We should consider ourselves lucky.” Tomi soon dies after their return home; just like in “Late Spring”, the father now faces his final leg in life with lonely acceptance.
Cut to some 60 years later, Hirokazu Kore-eda, whom some equate as the Ozu of today, brings out incisive depictions of parent/child relationship from a realist point of view in a contemporary Japanese setting. The father characters in his films are far from the ideal type Ozu had projected. A look at several of Kore-eda’s films in the past decade will show the change.
In Kore-eda’s 2008 film “Still Walking”, Kyohei (Yoshio Harada) and his wife Toshiko (Kirin Kiki) have to live with the tragic death of their favorite son, a promising young man who died saving a drowning boy. This was a son who had the brain and the aspiration to follow Kyohei’s profession as a doctor. Just too bad for the surviving son Ryota (Hiroshi Abe), the feeling of ‘the wrong one died’ never leaves him. Recently remarried to a widow with a son herself, Ryota brings them to a family reunion at his parents’ home.
Ryota’s whole life has fallen short of his father’s expectations, and it shows. The silent treatment he receives from his father speaks louder than words. The elderly father, still walking, still hanging on to his sentiments, may just begin to soften at the end of the movie as he interacts with Ryota’s step son. No matter, Kore-eda paints an imperfect father with unrealistic expectations, not the mild and accommodating father we see in Ozu’s films.
“I Wish” (2011) came out three years later, a heart-wrenching look at two young brothers who have to live apart from each other in different cities as their parents have separated. Here’s a broken family. The brothers wish to stay together; they wish their family can be whole again. What’s the father’s wish? To be a rock musician.
The plan to reunite rests on the two boys. From a legend passed down from their grandfather, when two high speed trains from their respective cities meet on adjacent tracks, if those present witnessing shout out their wish at the same time, the wish would come true. It is heart-breaking to see the boys bringing along school friends, overcoming obstacles to make it there in time to shout out their wishes. Apparently, there are many more who nurture secret wishes.
Kore-eda’s realism has revealed not only the inadequacy of the individual parent but the disintegration of the family in the wider social context. Yet his handling is gentle. No need for sharp criticism; the innocent yearnings of the two endearing brothers speak volumes.
“Like Father, Like Son” (2013) is Kore-eda’s first Cannes win, garnering the Jury Prize. Here, fatherhood is looked at more directly as he contrasts two families. Ryota Nonomiya (Masaharu Fukuyama) is the successful career man working in the glass jungle of Tokyo. He lives in a comfortable residence in the city with an only son practically raised by his wife Midori (Machiko Ono) alone in a sanitized, protective environment. The modern day absent father is the image painted here.
In contrast, Yudai Saiki (Kore-eda’s regular Lily Frankie) is a lackadaisical store owner in a rural setting. He plays with his children, fixes their toys and exerts no rules, the father every child would love to have, much to the exasperation of his wife Yukari (Yoko Maki).
The major plot point is that these two families find out their sons had been switched at birth, now they need to be switched back. Kore-eda cuts to the questions: What makes a father? What’s more important, blood or nurture? What effects do parenting styles have on the growing child? There are no absolute answers, but Kore-eda the social realist just leads us to wonder.
The father in “Our Little Sister” (2015), a Palme d’Or nominee, never even gets screen time. He dies at the very beginning, and his daughters travel to attend his funeral. He had long gone out of their lives, living far away with his second wife. The film centers on the three adult daughters from the first wife, and their new-found little step-sister while at the funeral.
It is always a wonder to see how Kore-eda deals with the consequences of a broken home. The three older sisters are supposed to be the victims of an estranged father and later a mother who had also left them. After welcoming the step-sister into their home to live, they begin to discover that this quiet, composed and loving teenager has absorbed and forborne all their father’s misdeeds by caring for him at his deathbed on her own. The family may have disintegrated, but devotion remains the fodder to keep the heart burning. Here again, we see a child picking up the pieces her parents left behind.
In “After the Storm” (2016), son Ryota (Hiroshi Abe) is divorced and living a disorganized and financially-strapped existence. Somehow, he and his ex-wife together with their young son happen to meet one day in his mother’s public housing unit. Thanks to an overnight storm, they get to stay under one roof once again, much to the joy of the elderly mother and the young son. Missing his son sorely, Ryota knows he needs a change in his life, nevertheless he has demons to fight, gambling is only one of them. Again, Kore-eda is gentle with his father character despite showing us his weakness unreservedly. The storm offers a window of opportunity to mend relationships, but Kore-eda does not give us that pleasure. Still, after the storm there appears a gleam of light.
Kore-eda steps out of Ozu’s ideal type and paints a realistic, contemporary picture of fatherhood. Now is a society of brokenness and disappointments. He places these father characters with all their foibles, misdeeds and imperfections, right in the midst of his stories, gently eliciting our empathy, not a sharp social outcry but a quiet urging. Often it is those who are around them that give us hope. That too is a realistic portrayal.