I believe firmly, almost religiously, in the therapeutic power of film. More than any other art form, more so even than music, I hold in my heart that movies can help us reorient ourselves, exorcise inner demons, and find some kind of clearance within the couple of hours we spend in their worlds. I am not talking about escapism here, though distracting or comforting yourself is as valid a reason for seeking out a movie as any. What I’m more interested in is films that reflect in some way reality as you perceive it but filtered, purified, focused in order to articulate something you previously thought to be inexpressible. Only once you become aware of these things can you even begin to move on.
Much like actual therapy, this cinematic soul-searching seems daunting, but it’s not all doom and gloom, either. In 2018, about half a year after I’d moved out of my parents’ house and started university, I went to the cinema by myself to watch a coming-of-age film that had gotten rave reviews. Almost as soon as Lady Bird started, I was rapt and remained in awe for all of its 95 minutes. Never before had I felt that a movie had been made about me, at this very moment in my life. The film helped me verbalize something that I had struggled with for so long, almost in the exact words that had been in my head: who am I, now that I’m no longer where I used to be? Where will I go? Sure, my parents love me, but do they like me? What if this is the best version of me? As soon as I left the theatre, I called up my mother and, after a bit of small talk, told her that I loved her – something that I can’t remember ever doing before but do much more regularly now.
A quiet, charming, unassuming film had made me reflect not only on myself, but the people around me, and everyone I watched Lady Bird with has had a similarly universal response to it. Even more, it had made me affect a change in a personal relationship at a time in my life where that very relationship, to my parents and other family members, was and still is undergoing a crucial re-evaluation. I no longer live at home and I am slowly but steadily growing into my own person. Not only is this change helping me realize how my parents are people beyond their relationship to me, people with scars and issues and infinite complexities of their own. But it also throws into sharp relief the many ways in which I am, and always will be, a child and their child. Amidst my attempts to grapple with this, I inevitably, even unconsciously turned to films again. And if there is one filmmaker whose work speaks to me in this regard, who shines a light on the myriad messy ways in which families are forged, broken, and mended, it has to be Hirokazu Kore-eda.
Obviously, the filmography of this Japanese writer-director would warrant all the praise I’m about to heap on it even if I didn’t have a personal connection to it. Kore-eda has, over the course of a quarter century, established himself as an exceedingly empathetic storyteller who understands family in ways almost no other filmmaker currently working does. His films, often eschewing traditional plots and instead focusing on a series of smaller conflicts, examine families from a multitude of angles. Throwing together different generations and giving each of them room to breathe, to speak, to exist seems like such an obvious decision–after all, that is what a family reunion is–but is almost unheard of in most movies that ostensibly deal with family. The simple act of watching his characters lead their messy, silly lives from a perspective of unwavering empathy sets Kore-eda so far apart from most of his contemporaries. He has enjoyed a long and storied career, remaining so productive throughout that he is releasing a new movie almost every year, so it would be nigh impossible to speak about his entire filmography in much depth. Instead, I’ll look at two of his films, Like Father, Like Son and Still Walking, and move outward from there. These two not only encapsulate Kore-eda’s strengths as a filmmaker but also resonate with me more than the rest of his work – because of their strengths and even because of their apparent flaws.
Still Walking, released in 2008, is Kore-eda’s best movie, no question about it. Covering a two-day family reunion, shot through with moments of revelation and beauty, the film so thoroughly displays what makes this director special. From the perspective of protagonist Ryota, reluctant to visit his parents with his new wife and her child from a previous marriage, Still Walking is in form and content so deeply empathetic that I was awestruck the first time I saw it. It’s not a movie that announces its own greatness or overwhelms you with it but rather bares itself and its characters to your judgment with an openness that makes it impossible to forget.
Like Father, Like Son is no less generous towards its protagonists but a much thornier movie that resists easy categorization for reasons that are as frustrating as they are revelatory. Telling the story of two families, one affluent and one working-class, who discover that their sons were switched at birth, the film asks difficult questions about fatherhood and family only to refuse simple answers. I find it harder to love this one than I do almost all of Kore-eda’s films but upon revisiting it for this article, what jumped out at me was just how far the director is able to take his empathy here. Even if we are dissatisfied with where the film ultimately takes us, the journey there more than makes up for it.
Like few other directors, Kore-eda emphasizes the relationship between his characters and the spaces they exist in. These are families deeply intertwined, often against their will, spread out and estranged yet brought together by familiar rituals. To therefore establish common ground, to give us an idea of who these people are, the camera is often locked down, letting us observe the characters in their natural habitat. The director here makes use of the wide sliding doors and long corridors of Japanese houses; the knee-high dinner tables further enable him to simply place the camera at one end of the room and show at once both the dining area and the kitchen. Thus, the director is able to play the drama of an entire scene in one wide shot, not obstructing the emotions at play with conspicuous editing or camera moves. Whether his characters work at their desks, clean their apartments, fuss about in the kitchen, or simply take a walk, Kore-eda is patient and present. It is a gentle humanism that invites us to be as generous towards others as we are (or should be) to ourselves, considering nothing unimportant or irrelevant. On the contrary, aspects that could appear negligible become thematic pillars of the movie precisely because Kore-eda pays attention to them. He places just as much importance on the preparation of a meal and the communal activity it engenders as he does on conversations at the dinner table; tellingly, the Criterion Collection edition of Still Walking comes with a selection of recipes from the film. Similarly, most apartments or houses in Kore-eda’s films have small shrines for deceased family members that inevitably form the center of one or more scenes. The specter of a late husband or father often brings long-harbored grudges to the forefront as the film goes on – after all, is it even possible to spend much time with your family without arguments?
The attention to space also allows Kore-eda to immediately give you an impression of who it is you’re watching. The protagonist’s mother’s kitchen in Still Walking is a homely, bustling space that is clearly lived in and full of memories, with pots and pans full of rice, beans, and fried dumplings lining the countertops. This perfectly mirrors the mother’s restless nature, always trying to provide for and entertain her family with the good-natured melancholy of a grandmother. Contrastingly, the affluent family’s apartment in Like Father, Like Son is clean and clinical in a way that feels sterile rather than chic. This foreshadows the protagonist’s obsession with keeping up appearances as well as his emotional distance from his family. This is not an incredibly innovative use of production design, but never in a Kore-eda movie do you feel out of place. Think of how much you can learn about a person simply from looking at their living space, their bookshelves, the tidiness of their cooking area. To witness a filmmaker with such a keen eye for these unconsciously essential details is an unexpected blessing.
There is more to the relationship between the characters and the spaces we see them in, however. In Still Walking, protagonist Ryota almost never stands up straight. Not only does he seem reluctant, often unable, to present his true self to his family, the narrow hallways and crammed rooms of his parents’ house literally force him to slouch and hunker. Actor Hiroshi Abe seems impossibly tall, unable to fit his lanky frame through doorways or into the bathtub, appearing as an awkward giant. This impression faded as soon as I googled him and found out we are the exact same height. What remained was the feeling I get whenever I visit my parents: of having outgrown a space that once seemed infinite. You yourself have changed but your environment has stayed virtually the same.
This interplay between the unstoppable forces of change and the immovable object that is the family structure permeates Kore-eda’s films on an elemental level. I mentioned his use of urban and domestic spaces before. But just as they move through streets and living rooms that feel unchangeable, his protagonists almost inevitably find themselves near a body of water, gazing out at the waves as they make polite, but distracted conversation. The nature of the ocean or a river–in constant flux yet always fundamentally the same–seems to resonate with the characters on an unconscious level, seeing how these scenes often precede a shift in their relationships. Never enough to irreparably change anything between, say, father and son, but big enough to be noticeable. Similarly, scenes of tranquility tend to be contrasted against major movement in the background, trains crossing the scenery as the characters move in the foreground. The movements of public transport, always plowing forward but doing so in clean, predictable patterns, even form the basis of 2011’s I Wish, a film in which Kore-eda infuses magical realism into his usual examination of a patchwork family trying to re-establish itself. Although we are trained to expect resolution or revolution of some sort, an upheaval that brings closure to the conflicts we see over the course of a movie, Kore-eda’s endings and the way he films them ring much truer to life. As much as I sometimes hope to mend or improve personal relationships with one honest conversation, that will simply never happen. People don’t work that way. We inch slowly closer to understanding ourselves and each other in ways that aren’t often visible.
Speaking of visibility, what speaks most directly to me in these two films is how they deal with the protagonist’s relationship to fatherhood and the aesthetics thereof. Simply put, there are very few good fathers in Kore-eda’s work. His dads are messy, desperate, incompetent or unavailable, but that’s what makes them so compelling and truthful. They might not be doing the best job but they are trying, in their own honest, loving way, even if they can’t make that all that clear. Again, the two films feel at once opposing and alike, two sides of the same coin. As I mentioned before, in Like Father, Like Son, the two families are mainly defined by their economic standing. What is noticeable, however, is that Kore-eda both tells the film from the rich father’s perspective and refuses to make excuses for him. The affluent architect, once again called Ryota, considers himself a good father but is surprisingly cold and taxing when he is actually around his young son. All the markers of fatherhood that Ryota values–the good school he sends his son to, the piano lessons he arranges, the chic apartment–are ones he pays for with time at work, time away from his family. At one point, he even jokes to his boss that Ryota’s own devotion to work is what allows his superior to spend time with his family. This façade begins to break down when, confronted with the revelation that the boy he raised as his son is not his biological offspring, he and his wife begin meeting with the other couple involved. Yukari and Yudai run a small convenience store, are regularly late to appointments, and openly bicker. Yet it also becomes obvious that they are warm, tender, and generous – they are good parents precisely because they embrace their own fallibility and don’t try to act any other way with their children. Since we follow Ryota, however, what we’re presented with is not some pleasant portrayal of happiness but rather a shock to his entire being, an ideal that is frustratingly unattainable to him. Over the course of the film, he is pressured by both internal and external forces to recognize the separation he has constructed between himself and his son, ironically in the pursuit of being a good father. Tearing it down and allowing in the messy emotions of parenthood is what ultimately redeems Ryota, but because he started the movie from a place of cold distance, the process feels almost like a roadmap that Kore-eda lays out. By making the frustrating and unintuitive choice to center an ostensibly unlikeable character, the director creates the opportunity to demonstrate the therapeutic power I talked about earlier.
Still Walking features much of the same conflict, but from the opposite perspective. This film’s Ryota has a fraught relationship with his father Kyohei, a retired doctor, and tries repeatedly to connect with the old man. These attempts are thwarted not only by the looming memory of Ryota’s older brother, whom their father had considered his heir, but by the patriarch’s emotional unavailability that reaches almost comical heights. When Ryota introduces his new wife to his parents, Kyohei responds with a curt “Oh, you’re here” and immediately leaves the room. Scenes like this occur throughout the movie, with Kyohei pointedly reading his newspaper at the dinner table while everyone else makes conversation, or with him frustratedly storming out of a family photo when the setup takes to long for his liking. At the same time, Kyohei takes pride in being the family head, confusedly asking why his grandchildren call it “Grandma’s house” when he was the one who built it – ignoring or being unaware of how little he contributes to actually making it a home. Again, perspective is key here. Because we see so much of Kyohei through Ryota’s eyes, we feel the frustration that comes from generations of men who are thoroughly unequipped for the emotional side of fatherhood. Ryota all but begs for attention and appreciation, but to no avail; only superficial topics like soccer and current work projects provide any basis for conversation. So when we see Kyohei be gentle and generous towards Ryota’s adoptive son, it comes as a shock that recontextualizes the character almost entirely. The old man still fails to be by any stretch of the imagination a warm or open person, but not because he doesn’t want to, but because he can’t. Small cracks in his curmudgeonly exterior reveal the caring but emotionally limited person within. The true feat of empathy that Kore-eda achieves here is not excusing or explaining Kyohei’s behavior. Still Walking shows with blunt honesty the harm men like this inadvertently cause, the standout scene being Ryota’s mother revealing to her husband that she knows about an affair he had decades ago, defiantly wearing this emotional scar ever since. Rather than any cheap resolution, Kore-eda choses to end the movie with father and son carefully approaching one another. It might be frustrating that the director chooses not to further critique the systems that create such people or rally for a way out of these constellations; after all, plenty of people have reason enough to separate ties with their families and not simply accept an order they are born into. But for most of us, that is simply not the case. For those only moderately messed up by growing up in close proximity to other flawed, messy, overwhelmed people simply trying to the best of their ability, we are stuck with our families for life, and there isn’t a whole lot we can do to change that – sometimes a truce is the best we can manage.
These would be captivating, complex portrayals on their own, but what really secures Still Walking and Like Father, Like Son (as well as, by extension, all of Kore-eda’s work) their place in my heart is just how truthful I find them to be. True, I don’t live in Japan and can’t really gauge how true they are to modern Japanese family. But I know men like this, in my family, in my circle of friends; heck, I can be one of those men. I try to think of myself as a good person, largely free of internalized bullshit that would hold me back, but I am reminded again and again that I have work to do. The emotional unavailability, the focus on appearances rather than substance, the obsession with maintaining a role even when that is to your own detriment – I have seen these things in loved ones and myself, and they terrify me in a way I can’t quite put into words. It’s hard to forgive other people the harm they cause in this way, let alone myself. So to have an artist as skillful and warm as Kore-eda articulate these fears is like a hot bath for my anxious mind. It’s not always pretty to be confronted with the things you dislike about yourself, but the catharsis I feel after watching one of these movies reaffirms again and again my love for this artform.
This is the most vulnerable and personal I have ever been in writing, and it’s the part of this piece that was the hardest for me to come to terms with. Originally, this was going to be a much more straightforward examination of Kore-eda’s films, with a personal anecdote about seeing Shoplifters that provided an entry point to the article but otherwise a fairly dry analysis. That version would have been okay, maybe even good, but it also would have been lazy. I can do a perfectly adequate run-down of a movie in my sleep. But as I began writing about Hirokazu Kore-eda, as images from Still Walking and Our Little Sister and After the Storm adamantly refused to leave my head, something began gnawing at me. I couldn’t do a filmmaker this empathetic, this human and this good justice if I simply did the thing I always do. After all, his films helped me understand myself and move forward in life. If he manages to challenge and change me in this way, what better way to approach writing about his films than to challenge and change myself? If watching movies can be therapeutic, then so can writing about them. I truly believe film is the greatest art form and I have barely scratched the surface of what it is capable of. If digging deeper requires me to do the same thing to myself, I’m more than happy to oblige. Maybe this is indulgent and awkward, but I needed to try it. I can’t remain stagnant, not as a person and not as a writer, not if I want to be satisfied with myself. Maybe I’m failing, but at least I’m still walking.