Kore-eda began as a documentary filmmaker for television, and some of this background is apparent in the features he has made, particularly After Life, where characters who have died are given the opportunity to keep one memory with them for eternity. Many scenes are filmed with a hand-held camera, and these scenes alternate with static shots of various characters telling their memories and trying to sort through the lives they are about to forget. (Ten of these characters are, reportedly, not actors, but rather ordinary people interviewed as if for a documentary.) It is a touching and surprising film, one that it is difficult to describe without making it sound more trivial or sentimental than it is.
Before After Life, Kore-eda made Maborosi, his least documentary-like feature in its careful composition of images and its meditative pace. Kore-eda's worldview sometimes reminds me of Tarkovsky, but Maborosi is most obviously Tarkovskian in its pacing -- the camera dwells on every scene, letting the viewer's eye take in detail after detail. The film is about grief and loss, and the pacing reflects the way grief stretches the moments of each day into languid sadness. The camera is usually still, portraying each moment with as much objectivity as possible. In the few scenes where the camera moves, the effect is startling and vivid. The setting helps, as well. Maborosi begins in Osaka, then, after the husband of the lead character, Yumiko, apparently kills himself, Yumiko lets herself be married to a man in a fishing village on the coast of the Sea of Japan, and moves there with her young son. The setting is bleakly beautiful, with open stretches of landscape that contrast with the claustrophobic interiors of Osaka.
The most recent Kore-eda film available in the U.S. is Nobody Knows, the story of four children left to fend for themselves in a Tokyo apartment when their mother abandons them. The situation is not entirely fictional -- such a thing did happen in the 1980s, but Kore-eda wrote his script from only the bare essentials of that event. Nobody Knows verges on being cinema verite: many scenes were improvised, and the entire movie was shot over the course of a year so that the young actors would age appropriately. The effect is subtle and unsettling. What most impressed me about the film was its willingness to focus on the present moments and the actions of the characters -- we never find out exactly why the mother leaves, nor why she stays away. The ending is ambiguous. The backgrounds and motivations of many of the characters are only hinted at. Past and future cease to exist. Why do landlords and neighbors do nothing for these children? The questions are left to us. I kept wondering as I watched what Hollywood would have done with such a story -- so many more loose ends would be tied up, so many actions explained, so much of the mystery that makes the movie effective and unsentimental would be sacrificed to the false god of the mass audience.
(Between After Life and Nobody Knows, Kore-eda made Distance,
Of the three films, I found After Life to be the most deeply affecting, the movie where all the qualities I value in Kore-eda's work are on display: the humanity, the eye for evocative detail, the painterly images, the subtlety of expression, the thoughtfulness and unobtrusive philosophizing. The central premise allows it to be the film with the most emotional range. Nobody Knows is perhaps the most gripping of the films, but it is also the bleakest, the most painful, the one that finds the least redemption in life. Maborosi would be a difficult movie for an impatient viewer, as it is sometimes confusing and always so deliberately paced as to seem more like a still than a motion picture, but it is also so beautifully filmed and carefully constructed as to be overwhelming in the end -- it is worth struggling through the inevitable confusion and restlessness that result in the first half hour to be able to fully appreciate the last half hour. I don't particularly want to rate each film against the other, though, because each is such an individual work, and such a beautiful experience of its own.
Some Kore-eda links: