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Kore-eda's ocean view.

Kore-eda Hirokazu's films are punctuated by bodies of water. This is not the most obvious element of his filmmaking, but it is one of the most profound. In situations with no clear answers, bodies of water (tributaries, lakes, oceans) offer a troubled character a healing expanse and also a concealing expanse. Kore-eda's ocean view is one of paradox and comfort at the same time. In Kore-eda's feature films, a scene by water, or involving water, becomes essential for moving one large step past accumulated trauma. The bodies of water, in themselves, solve or resolve nothing. Rather, they wash in moments of forgetting and forgiveness.

In the ending scenes in three Kore-eda films--Maborosi (Maborosi no hikari, 1995), Distance (Disutansu, 2001), and Still Walking (Aruitemo. aruitemo, 2008)--protagonists turn towards, and away from, a large body of water. Water helps them regain balance and composure, moving beyond simple conclusions and dichotomies. In Air Doll (Kuki ningyo, 2009), the heroine finds herself transported by water, and freed from a life of servitude.

The idea of kiyomeru (purification, cleansing) permeates Japanese religion and art. This is apparent in the way people throw water to clean the street outside their home or cleanse their hands (actually or symbolically) before entering a Shinto shrine. Japan is a water-rich nation, and representations of water are everywhere--in famous ukiyo-e prints like Hokusai's "Mt. Fuji seen through the waves off Kanagawa," the opening lines of the thirteenth-century Hojoki (An Account of My Hut) of Kamo no Chomei, (1) the daily bath, and so on.

There were even traditional water games and entertainment, as seen in Mizoguchi's White Threads of the Cascade (Taki no shiraito, 1933).

The bathhouse scenes in Miyazaki's Spirited Away (Sen to Chihiro no kamikakushi, 2001) introduce us to a "stink god" cleansed of the junk humans have deposited in the rivers, becoming instead an incarnation of the celebratory Okina mask of the Nob theatre.

Cleansing of the body through tears is rarely shown in a Kore-eda film, and only in private or at a distance. Perhaps this reflects the tendency towards reticence in Japanese society in general; perhaps it is because of Kore-eda's emphasis on survivors--those who find a way to adapt and still maintain their integrity (which does not exclude their keen sense of loss).

Water Landscapes

Before turning specifically to Kore-eda's films, it is helpful to remember that images of water enter the cinema right from the beginning, in short films like the Lumiere brothers' The Sprinkler Sprinkled (L'Arroseur arrose, 1895), or in magic lantern tableaux of the ocean. Who can forget the central role of the river in early French films like Vigo's L'Atalante (1934), or of the mist-covered port in Carne's Port of Shadows (Quai de brumes, 1938)? The absence of water also plays a key role in another Japanese film, Teshigahara/Abe Kobo's Woman in the Dunes (Suna no onna, 1964), or in films like Roeg's Walkabout (1971). The list of films with water in a key role is a long one.

The cinema can present various ways of viewing the same landscape, just as a particular landscape may vary according to the viewer. In his intriguing essay "The Beholding Eye: Ten Versions of the Same Scene," D.W. Meinig delineates ten different ways to perceive a landscape: as nature, as habitat, as artifact (showing the mark of humans), as an "immense and intricate" system, as a problem (a condition needing correction), as wealth (for its potential monetary value), as history ("an enormously rich store of data"), as place (stressing the specificity), and as an aesthetic (transcending specificity into "the basic language of art") (33-47). Using this schema, we can understand more clearly how Kore-eda uses water landscapes in his films in a pure, aesthetic sense without drawing our attention directly to matters of history, or economy, or habitat. While viewing a Kore-eda film, the spectator develops a kind of "landscape gaze" which, as Martin Lefebvre points out in his Landscape and Film, "mentally arrests the unfolding of the film and internally holds the space for contemplation until returning to the narrative mode" (52).

Kore-eda: An Overview

In the background of Kore-eda's films hovers a sense of inexplicable loss--the suicide of a young husband, the death of family members who belonged to a murderous cult, the disappearance of a mother, the drowning of a son. The actual traumatic scene of loss is never displayed directly; it is only suggested. Within seemingly straightforward stories, Kore-eda unearths insights into human resilience. Whether the protagonist is a young widow, a gray-haired spinster, or a troubled adolescent, he takes the outlines of their stories and imagines their depths. Comparing Kore-eda to D. W. Griffith, Antonioni, and Hitchcock, critic Kevin Thomas writes that the Japanese director has an "innate sense of how long to hold a shot until it's suffused with meaning and emotion" ("Maborosi," Los Angeles Times).

Kore-eda (b. 1962) graduated from Waseda University with a degree in literature and, in 1987, joined TV Man Union (a unique enterprise, founded in 1970 as Japan's first independent television company). In 1995, he became the first recipient of a Tokyo International Film Association grant for the most promising new director. Kore-eda's documentaries cover a wide range of topics--from AIDS (August Without Him--Two Years of Living with AIDS [Kare no inai hachigatsu, 1993]) to modern Japanese poetry (Soul Sketches--Every Person's Miyazawa Kenji [Sorezore no Miyagawa Kenji, 1993]) to elementary education (Lessons from a Calf--The Education of One Class at Ina Elementary School [Mo hitotsu no kyoiku, 1991]), to the plight of a Korean trying to pass as Japanese (I Wanted to Be a Japanese [Nihonjin ni naritakatta, 1992]).

Over the years, Kore-eda has not developed a "signature style." A rather private person, he views filmmaking as his best means of communication--an interactive form of communication, not a means of "self-expression." He cites influence from directors like the Taiwanese Hou Hsiao-Hsien (about whom he made a documentary in 1993, When Cinema Reflects the Time--Hou Hsaio-Hsien and Edward Yang [Eiga ga jidai wo utsusu toki]). Jonathan Ellis notes that Kore-eda's concerns might seem old-fashioned in our more "hip" postmodern age--concerns like "How do we measure human happiness? Is memory more fictive than real? How do we experience cinematic images?" (33). Despite the seriousness of these concerns, Kore-eda also interjects refreshingly light, even whimsical, moments into his filmmaking. In this sense (but not in terms of pacing or acting style), his films are in the line of Ozu. But he is more cerebral than Ozu, and much more concerned with exploring new territory with each new film than the classical master.

Maborosi (Maborosi no hikari, 1995)

The word maborosi in Japanese can be defined as "an illusion or mirage." An illusory light is one that tricks us into seeing what is not there. In Maborosi, the protagonist Yumiko (Esumi Makiko) experiences a series of severe losses--first when she is twelve-years-old and her senile grandmother suddenly decides to leave for her childhood village in Shikoku to die. Later her young husband Ikuo (Tadanobu Asano) inexplicably commits suicide, leaving behind in their small apartment in Amagasaki only his wallet, his bicycle key and bell, their three-month-old child, and his wife's ruptured life.

Years later, an arranged marriage to a widower with a young daughter finds Yumiko in a remote town in the Noto peninsula on the Sea of Japan coast to wed a man she hardly knows, Tamio (Takashi Naitoh). This new rough seacoast setting allows some of the compacted sorrow within Yumiko to surface and dissipate slightly, before a brief return to Amagasaki for her brother's wedding immerses her again in an interior landscape of despair. Yumiko is obsessed with the thought that she cannot stop the people she loves from disappearing forever.

The film is based on a story by Japanese writer Miyamoto Teru entitled Maborosi no hikari (Illusory Light) (It is unfortunate that the English title omits the second half of the film's name--hikari ["light"].) In comparison to the film, the short story offers more insights into the world of a working-class woman, and more dialogue stemming from that world. (2) The film was also inspired in part by Kore-eda's experience of filming the documentary However--In the Time of Government Aid Cuts' (Shikashi ... fukushi girisuttei no jidai ni, 1991) about a government official who had committed suicide for unclear reasons. (Yamanouchi Toyonori, a bureaucrat from the Environment Agency responsible for compensation for Minamata Disease, had devoted himself to aiding welfare recipients far beyond the official scope of his job.) During the making of the documentary, Kore-eda talked to Mrs. Yamanouchi, and he observed how difficult it was for this woman to come to terms with her life afterwards. "Perhaps talking to me was in a sense part of her process of mourning," he stated in an interview with film scholar Aaron Gerow ("Documentarists of Japan # 12").

Moving away from his earlier documentary experience, Koreeda was especially interested in a kind of filmmaking that could not be carried out easily on television. This results in a film with few close-ups and little movement within the frame, with an emphasis on long, relatively static shots, and few diagonals. "I made the long shot the base for this film. [...] I wanted to show Yumiko's sadness and loss reverberating through the sounds, lights, and shadows of the kukan (empty/open space), as if we could see her emotional world in the entire landscape" (Ehrlich and Kishi). Film critic Stephen Holden observes: "One has an uncanny sense of entering the consciousness of the main character and seeing through her eyes, all without really knowing her" (Maborosi Review).

Using the rigorous plan of shooting only with natural light, Kore-eda reported that he wanted "to concentrate on how the human presence and colors appear under these conditions. I was intent on listening to the sounds that emerged from the darkness" (Okubo 7). In a pivotal scene on the beach, where we sense that Tamio is finally able to break through death's hold on Yumiko, we hear the sounds and smoke of a distant funeral pyre. This cathartic scene takes place in a borderline space, between sea and shore, and is shot in a remarkably restrained long shot (of two minutes and eighteen seconds), with a still camera.


A distraught, and other-worldly, Yumiko follows a stately funeral procession through the village fields, which culminates in a burning pyre on a strip of land overlooking the sea. There she is finally able to express her anguish over her first husband's suicide. Tamio arrives and speaks to her of an illusory light, a maborosi, which can beguile a person when he or she least expects it.

What is this illusory light on the water? Yumiko seems to see it at night through a crack in the door of her new house, just barely glistening below, and it leaves her feeling distracted. The elderly village woman Tomeno can read ominous warnings in the strangely quiet waves (though even she admits that she was "almost beguiled" by that unusual atmosphere). The children travel through this light, undisturbed. Recklessly they run along the flooded fields and do not fall in; they pass through ominous tunnels and play around an abandoned boat. Kore-eda comments:

Some people just say the children are adorable. Others say it's a beautiful scene, and this is all fine. But what I intended was for people to feel a little danger in that scene--to smell a bit of death. (Okubo 8)

Accepting the mysterious statement about the maborosi, Yumiko turns away from the funereal scene by the sea and follows her new husband back to the safety of dry land. The next day she sits on the verandah of her new house, facing the everyday light. In this inconclusive ending of Maborosi, we as viewers are called upon to read the small clues that draw us away from the overwhelming ocean scene of the night before. As Georgia Brown concludes in her Village Voice review of Maborosi: "Some will find this movie merely beautiful. Some will take refuge in sleep. For some it will crack the shell of their grief" (37).

Distance (2001)

Less attention has been paid to this Kore-eda film than to his others, but it marks an important step in his experimentation with cinematic style. Although the improvised dialogue might become too slack at times, the moments of clear dramatic presentation are memorable. Given an outline of situations (and sometimes conflicting motivations), the actors constructed their own characters through meaningful expressions and frequent pauses (Mes). The result is a lengthy film--both frustratingly meandering and arresting at the same time--which builds to a powerful close.

Distance centers around a few days in the lives of four relatives of members of the extremist religious cult Aum Shinrikyo (Arc of Truth), who visit the cult's mountain headquarters three years after the mass killings perpetrated by their loved ones. (The Aura members had placed packets of liquefied sarin gas on Tokyo subways during rush hour, causing twelve deaths and affecting an estimated five thousand people.) As Charles Shiro Inouye explains (citing fan Reader):
 the violent aspects of Aum flowed from many sources:
 strict ascetic practice, the authoritarian suppression of
 difference, criminality and attempts to hide from or
 otherwise disregard the rule of law, paranoia and the
 perceived need to defend oneself against violence by
 using violence, the personal arrogance and hedonism
 of Aum's leader Asahara Shoko, and from a shift to
 increasingly hierarchical and esoteric forms of worship
 that gave the movement's leaders a sense that they had
 special knowledge and could handle special privileges,
 such as the power of compassionate killing (198). (3)

We sense an uneasy union among the family members as they stand near the lake where the cult members were killed by other members of their own group. They pray at the end of the pier, seeking to find some connection with those who have disappeared. The cult's mountain hideaway is an isolated area where cell phones have no transmission--an area suspended outside of time, except for the time of Nature itself. The mountain landscape--beautiful in itself--seems rather empty, and the wooden pier gives off hollow echoes of their footsteps. In intermittent long shots, the serene lake, draped in morning mist in a blue light, belies the deathly scene it once witnessed. A mist like a poisonous gas rises, almost invisible until it is too late. Like the beguiling light in Maborosi, or the illusory lake in Mizoguchi's Ugetsu monogatari (1953), the scenes by water in Distance have an unearthly tone as the relatives imagine their loved ones on the other side of death.

This gathering of relatives was meant to be a symbolic reunion and offering, and then dispersal, a return to everyday life. But their plans go awry when their car is stolen and they are forced to spend the night in the remote setting. In the sickly green light of the secluded mountain cabin, these misplaced pilgrims imagine the last days of their misguided relatives. Some look into drawers, or peek under a cloth covering a pile of futon, as if searching for some clue to their loved ones' violent behavior. Others just stand or sit withdrawn, almost immobile. Rain falls outside the cabin, causing rivulets to stream down the glass as this reluctant group shivers with the cold

of the mountain night in the unearthly quiet of the hideaway. One reviewer offered another possible interpretation of the film's title, speaking of "the distance the main characters had in one night from their everyday lives [...] that brought them a bit closer to the people they lost" (Rojas).

In Distance, Kore-eda refuses to create a wall of evil versus purity in his depiction of the aftermath of the Aum killings. "Aum is born from our society," he reminds us. "Without such a consciousness, you end up taking the attitude that they should not be allowed into society" (Gerow, Interview). In the Japanese trailer to the film, the narrator asks poignantly, "Are we the victims or the perpetrators of the violence?"

The relatives (and one Aum group survivor--Sakata [Asano Tadanobu]--whose motorcycle was also stolen) approach the narrow wooden pier. Midday light fills the water with inviting needles of light. One of the relatives, Atsushi (Arata), drops a bouquet of flowers off the edge of the pier. Merely a poetic gesture? Others stand silent for a moment, hands clasped together in prayer. Beneath the quiet of this scene, something intense is happening.

Sudden, unidentified flashbacks--are these imaginings or actual occurrences? What do we really know about what went on in that organization, and in that mountain hideaway beside the lake? As David Melbye reminds us in his Landscapes of the Mind: "In the dynamic medium of film [...] solitary characters do not remain frozen in contemplation, but instead move across--and even struggle against--the landscape" (13).

In an unexpected gesture, Atsushi returns to burn down the pier. Smoke from the raging fire clears the air like the smoke that worshippers brush towards themselves in a Shinto shrine. The burning pier turns the water a strange pink, as old family photos also burn. But the lake remains, silent, glowing with a strange light. In the last moments of Distance, four elements--water, fire, air, and earth/wood--come together in a scene of catharsis so quiet, yet so powerful, it takes one's breath away.



Nobody Knows (Dare mo shiranai, 2004)

Based on an actual story Kore-eda read in a newspaper article, Nobody Knows introduces us to four brothers and sisters--two girls (Kyoko and Yuki) and two boys (Akira and Shigeru)--each of whom has a different father. The children (between the ages of four and twelve) are left to fend for themselves for half-a-year in a one-room apartment in the Nishisugamo section of Tokyo when their 40-year-old mother disappeared with a new man. (The flaky mother, Keiko, is played in the film by a well-known TV personality known simply as "YOU.") The eldest child, twelve-year-old Akira (played by Yagira Yuya) takes over the running of the household in the absence of any adult figure. Left to their own resources, the children play in construction sites and in convenience stores, while attempting to hide from the view of adult welfare officials and the landlord.

The so-called "Affair of the Four Abandoned Children of Nishi-Sugamo" (Nishi-sugamo kodomo okizarijiken) from 1988 found four children, of different fathers, living on their own for six months after their mother left the scene. In actuality, there was a fifth child, a baby whose decomposing body was found in the Nishi-sugamo apartment, and the fourth child was found dead in the mountains, a crime blamed on the oldest boy. According to closed-door court records, the eldest boy--upon seeing his mother again in court--cried and apologized to her that he could not take care of his siblings as she had expected.

Reading statements from the actual trial involving the Nishi-sugamo children, Kore-eda sensed that there was something that took place in that apartment that demonstrated the richness of a child's sense of compassion and ingenuity. "I intended to express that with words other than 'hell'" (Tsukahara).

What is water to children abandoned in an urban apartment? A necessity for taking a bath, for cooking cheap ramen, even for the carefully tended plants grown from seeds in the empty ramen cups. Water is also essential for oldest daughter Kyoko's chosen job of daily clothes washing--a job that seems to keep her balanced in the present, despite the gradual erosion of her hopes. The hidden children's first joyous excursion out of their secret hiding place is to a neighborhood park where they can play but also where they can later gather water from a pump to carry back to their apartment.

And when the water is turned off for lack of funds to pay the bill? The beginning of the end. Tempers and garbage pile up. There is nothing to cool off the summer heat, nothing for cleansing.

For Nobody Knows, Kore-eda claims influence from films like Truffaut's 400 Blows (Les Quatre cents' coups', 1959) and Loach's Kes (1970). A statement from Loach about the filming of Kes seems appropriate for the Japanese film as well:

I was aware at the time of not trying to let the camera do the work, but of letting the people in front of the camera tell the story, so that the camera was a sympathetic observer. And you had to get what was in front of the camera absolutely right and true, and if it was right and true, and you photographed it sympathetically, then it would work (qtd. in Leigh 60).

In his review of Nobody Knows, New York Times film critic A.O. Scott observed how Kore-eda avoids a melodramatic or "too cute" approach to depicting children, and instead "directs his dry-eyed young actors with an extraordinary mixture of tenderness and detachment, hovering between the children's point of view and that of a stricken, sympathetic adult" (E2).

Kore-eda's original screenplay takes place across four seasons and--following reality--was filmed during the autumn and winter; then the director had to wait until summer vacation to complete the filming.

(One of the few specific requests he made of his young actors was to not cut their hair before shooting again!) Before filming the summer sequences, the director asked the children to draw pictures of the apartment as they remembered it--the verandah, genkan (area inside the door), walls. This helped him develop the plot for the summer episodes, and also it helped him recall the space as it had been. Koreeda decided not to give the children any lines to try to learn; rather, he whispered each line to them just before filming a scene. By not giving the children set lines to memorize, he hoped to create an atmosphere for them where going to film was like going to play. Nevertheless, he noted how the main actor, Yagira Yuya, became more adult-like over the year, just like the character he was portraying.

Akira is accused of shoplifting at the 7-11 store where he frequently stands and reads manga (comic books) for free. Only the greater power of observation of a young clerk reveals that other boys had put the stolen goods in Akira's bag. ("Nobody knows" does not always equal "nobody cares.") When another clerk becomes aware of Akira's increasingly frantic efforts to keep the family together, he saves leftovers from the store's food counter for him. Akira waits at the back of the store with his blue bucket to receive the handouts. (This is the same bucket the children use to wash out their clothes in the neighborhood park once their water is shut off.)

At one point, the mother returns briefly with small gifts for each child. She paints ten-year-old Kyoko's fingernails, but then berates her when the girl inadvertently spills the bottle of polish. A few days later, the only trace of the mother is that stain on the floor.

As funds disappear, Akira tracks down the different fathers he can find--a cab driver, a lackey in a Pachinko parlor. He senses their worthlessness, yet hopes against hope in his desperate attempt to hold the family together. All he gets for his efforts is a meal, small change, and vulgar talk about his mother. In an interview, Kore-eda offers no excuses for the fathers but is more charitable in his thoughts toward the mother. As he told one interviewer, "She was the victim of her particular circumstance and maybe she loved her children in her own way" (Sato). From a tip given by his mother, Akira imagines that his father is working at the airport. What is an airport but an exciting harbor the child can only imagine? A young boy presses his face against the glass of the train traveling out to the airport, imagining planes arriving and leaving, full of the promise of home. The train leading out to the airport passes over a large body of water. Light glints off its surface like tarnished jewels.

In viewing Nobody Knows, I was reminded of the moving testimonies in Robert Coles's groundbreaking The Moral Life of Children. Writing about a child from one of Brazil's poorest favela, Coles observes: "For Eduardo, 'moral purpose' comes down to an often-professed desire to stay alive, to stay free, and to stay worthy of adults whom he has had occasion to respect, no matter how flawed, limited, inadequate they may be" (124). Coles's eloquent description of Eduardo could speak as well of his Japanese counterpart Akira. Coles continues:
 He has learned after only ten years on earth to stay alive, to
 master a modern city, to spar with death...a grown mind's moral
 imagination at work in the continuing life of one of this earth's
 vulnerable children (135).

Nobody Knows reminds us, subtly, that those four children are compelling individuals. The director stresses what the children have, not what they lack. In fact, we measure our own lives--not by our greater prosperity and stability--but by how enriched we have become in sharing the children's resolve and hope for the future--what the director refers to as their two main qualities: takumashisa (sturdiness, resoluteness) and kowareyasusa (vulnerability, literally "being easily broken"). As Aaron Gerow perceptively observes: "In the distance between our world and that of these children, we realize we have come out on the wrong end of Kore-eda's profoundly detailed exploration of reality in cinema" ("Breakdown"). In one scene--as the camera pulls back to reveal crowds swirling around Akira (who has reluctantly seen his mother off at the train station)--we realize it could be any of us, swallowed up in the teeming city with no one around who knows, or cares.

As the situation in the apartment deteriorates, Kore-eda de-centers more and more of the shots, stressing the children's vulnerability. And yet an odd balance is restored each time through Akira's small, but heroic, efforts. At the grimmest moments, Kore-eda adjusts the lighting so it is either blindingly bright (and matched by a shaky hand-held camera) or so it casts grotesque shadows. The effect is eerie and profoundly moving. The passage of time is marked by small changes--the deepening of Akira's voice, the switch from frozen hands in winter to skin streaked with sweat in summer. As resources

become more and more stretched, the children use whatever they can find for drawing paper, including the overdue gas bill. In such extreme circumstances, tragedy is just around the corner. It is as Emma Wilson wrote in Cinema's Missing Children." "Child death insists without sense, without taste, without place in representation. It is unnatural and unredeemable" (110).

So many questions remain about the children of Nobody Knows--never having attended school, never having spent time with their fathers, not even properly registered at birth: What thoughts do they wake up to each morning? What do they do all day in their narrow confine? How do they mark the passing of their days? When Kyoko quietly implores her mother to send her to school, the mother (in a rare moment of realistic reflection) reminds her that "kids at school make fun of kids without dads."

At the close of Nobody Knows, we still have to ask ourselves who this "nobody" in the title truly is. What great absence allows four children to be so alone and so unnoticed in the midst of one of the world's great cities? While this film does not offer the kind of cathartic scene by water found in the ending of Maborosi and Distance, its ending is equally open to interpretation (and possibilities). But this carries with it the implied question--Does anybody know how many other children are left behind by those who show little regard for the way the most vulnerable fall into the margins?

Still Walking (Aruitemo, aruitemo, 2008)

Kore-eda continues his attention to those who are marginalized in Still Walking. All is not what it seems on the surface in the Yokoyama family reunion by the sea. Later we learn there was a son who survived and another who perished. (The oldest son Junpei had drowned fifteen years earlier trying to save a neighborhood boy, Yoshio.) The reactions of each family member to the corpulent, somewhat slovenly presence of Yoshio (now in his twenties) help us see their true nature. As Brandon Wee writes in his Cinema Scope review: "[...] not only have they [the Yokoyamas] been unable to find closure to their bereavement, but [they] are in tacit agreement that moving on isn't an option" (54-55).

During the family gathering, the matriarch Toshiko (Kiki Kirin) offers successive rounds of food and rejection, of balms and fissures. The film opens with an everyday scene of mother and daughter Chinami (YOU) peeling daikon and carrots (perhaps a covert tribute to the last film Ozu wanted to make?)4 In this film that moves gently between the whimsical and the ironic, Kore-eda includes many endearing close-ups of the grandmother's hands: cooking, crocheting, straightening up, yet he reminds us not to romanticize her. To the family she refers to Yoshio, the boy saved from drowning, as "kudaranai ningen" (worthless person). And later she prepares pajamas for her own son Ryota (Abe Hiroshi) but not for his stepson Atsushi (Tanaka Shohei), and she advises Ryota not to have any children with his wife, the widowed Yukari (Natsukawa Yui), so he can divorce her more easily! Kore-eda certainly takes a dry-eyed approach here as well. We recognize the dynamics of momentary happiness and underlying tension in this portrait of a family.

Nothing is resolved for the family by being together by the ocean, but small steps are taken. As in Maborosi, stepfather and stepson bathe together, starting to deepen a new sense of family. The patriarch Kyohei (Harada Yoshio), a retired doctor who had earlier shown no interest in the ocean, and son Ryota--long estranged--take an outing together by the shore, as the stepson spots a boat that has capsized (reminding us of the grounded boat in Maborosi as well). By the ocean, father and son reach a certain equilibrium that had evaded them.


This subtle change is brought about in part by the insecure Ryota's sudden realization that his father is now an old man and no longer as imposing as be had once seemed.

In the traditional visit to the gravesite (ohaka mairi), water is poured on the gravestone to "cool it down" (Tosbiko murmurs: "atsui kara, kimochi ga ii deshoo" [it's hot, this feels good, doesn't it]). The gravestones face out to the sea, but those who come to tend them have their backs to the beautiful view. Soon the occupants will change, the visitors will change, but the tradition of pouring ladles of water over the stones will continue. The family reunion near the ocean is bracketed by two scenes of this ritual pouring of water over gravestones, which offer us a very subtle indication of the irrevocable passing of time.



Three generations and then only two, and then .... All that seems to carry through the years, rounding off the edges, are some vague memories and ladles of water to cool off the remaining stones. As in a late Mizoguchi film, the camera moves up, away from the small human forms, to offer us a view of the sea.

Reflecting back on his documentary Without Memory (Kiroku ga ushinawareta toki, 1996), Kore-eda mused how he would like to make a film in which the positive aspects of "forgetting" could be explored (Ehrlich and Kishi). That film is Still Walking, a film about the passing on of stories, and then forgetting who told them.

Air Doll (Kuki ningyo, 2009)

Air Doll opens with heavy rain and an odd, uncomfortable solitude. The first scene of transformation from doll into woman shows Nozomi (Bae Doona) reaching for a raindrop, like Helen Keller becoming aware of the connection between object and name through the feel of water on the hand. Nozomi's transformation from lifelike to living deepens as the river becomes one of the key sites for her unfolding love of life. As she emancipates herself from a life of servitude, the river transports her. She waves in delight at people peering down at her from bridges above.

With her new friend (and unspoken love) Junichi (Arata), she takes her first trip to the ocean and finds treasures there which others would overlook, such as a bottle with a stone in it that doubles as a musical instrument. New words like "to remember" or "birthday" are revelations. As we watch Nozomi's dream of floating deep within a large body of water, we realize how limited is her understanding of the physical laws of the world.

The most lyrical scenes in Air Doll take place by water. The most difficult scenes to interpret--and the most haunting--have to do with emptiness filled with air.

Concluding notes

In comparison to films like Boorman's Deliverance (1972) or Jia Zhang-ke's Still Life (Sanxia haoren, 2006), for example, water is not a key protagonist in any Kore-eda film. Instead, it is an evocative symbol, an indicator of change, a metaphor for psychological transformation, and a reminder of fragile balances. For those processes to happen, it is not enough for the protagonist just to gaze at a body of water: he or she must interact with it. Water, in Kore-eda's world, travels two ways: towards healing and also towards a reminder of what is irrevocably past. His films move from scenes of water in which a protagonist cries out against the past (Maborosi), to ones that bum up the past (Distance), to more gentle forms of commemoration and forgetting (Still Walking), and discovery and dreaming (Air Doll).

In an interview added to the DVD of The Intruder (L 'Intrus, 2004), French director Claire Denis remarked that a beautiful landscape is dangerous for a filmmaker because it can "hypnotize" her. Kore-eda seems very aware of this danger and, like a Chinese painter, always moves from a contemplation of the landscape to a refocusing on the human figure, albeit small. He also works in the mode described by R Adams Sitney (in his description of Renoir's A Day in the Country [Une Partie de campagne], 1936): "The most subtle uses of natural beauty in narrative cinema occur when contexts render the landscape and the weather ambiguous" (116).

Part of his attention on the human dimension is, for Kore-eda, the placing of the family in the foreground, although the family is often not a traditional one. In fact, it might even be a newly configured one, made up of stepchildren, or only of children, or of a group of people who have been forced to share a similar (undesired) fate. (As one reviewer observed about Distance: "Each of the cult members has willfully left behind a real-life family to join a replacement 'family,' the Arc of Truth, headed by a charismatic leader/father figure" [Morrison 58-59].) Although the last figure on the screen in Distance is alone in the landscape, such is not the case in Maborosi, Nobody Knows, or Still Walking. I am reminded of the beautiful words of poet Mark Strand:
 It may be that landscape is not merely a way out of the confines of
 the city and the deplorable conditions which flourished along with
 progress, but a way out of the exhausted and claustrophobic
 limitations of the self, and not necessarily a self without mystery
 and purpose, but one so pampered, so examined, so named and
 renamed, that it must go elsewhere to reconstitute its energies

Water in a Kore-eda film is a refrain offering no answers. More than physical sustenance, bodies of water draw forth painful memories and offer up the possibility of forgetting. We are left with the paradox ofwater--a scarcity that appears abundant--so much a part of the everyday and yet also in constant transformation. Nothing is solved, or resolved in a Kore-eda film by standing near a large body of water, but it helps free troubled characters to move on.

Works Cited

Coles, Robert. The Moral Life of Children. Boston: Atlantic Monthly P, 1986. Print.

Ehrlich, Linda C., and Kishi Yoshiko. 2004 Viennale retrospective: 208-212. Interview with Kore-eda Hirokazu, at TV Man Union, May 2003. Also see Ehrlich and Kishi, "The Filmmaker as Listener: A New Look at Kore-eda," Cinemaya 61-62 (2003-04): 38-45. Print.

Gerow, Aaron and Tanaka Junko. "Documentarists of Japan #12: Koreeda Hirokazu." Documentary Box #13 (1999). Web. 10 Aug. 2009.

Inouye, Charles Shiro. Evanescence and Form: An Introduction to Japanese Culture. New York: Palgrave, 2008. Print.

Keene, Donald. Anthology of Japanese Literature. New York: Grove P, 1955. Print.

Lefebvre, Martin. "Between Setting and Landscape in the Cinema." Landscape and Film. Ed. Martin Lefebvre. New York: Routledge, 2006. 19-54. Print.

Leigh, Jacob. The Cinema of Ken Loach. Art in the Service of the People. London: Wallflower, 2002. Print.

Meinig, D. W. "The Beholding Eye: Ten Versions of the Same Scene." The Interpretation of Ordinary Landscapes: Geographical Essays. Ed. D. W. Meinig and John Brinckerhoff Jackson. New York: Oxford UP, 1979.33-47. Print.

Melby, David. Landscapes of the Mind. Wastelands, Wildernesses, and Other Allegories of Space in Cinema. New York: Routledge, 2010. Print.

Sitney, R Adams. "Landscape in the Cinema: the Rhythms of the World and the Camera." Landscape, Natural Beauty, and the Arts'. Ed. Salim Kemall and Ivan Gaskell. New York: Cambridge UP, 1993. 103-126. Print.

Strand, Mark. "Landscape and the Poetry of the Self." The Weather of Words: Poetic Invention. New York: Knopf, 2000.105-121. Print.

Wilson, Emma. Cinema's Missing Children. London: Wallflower, 2003. Print.


Brown, Georgia. "Ghosts, Review of Maborosi." Village Voice 41, 10 September 1996: 37. Print.

Ehrlich, Linda C. Rev. of Nobody Knows. Film Quarterly 59:2 (Winter 2005-06): 45-50. Print.

Ellis, John. Rev. of After Life. Film Quarterly 57.1 (Fall 2003): 32-37. Print.

Gerow, Aaron. "The Breakdown of a Tiny, Insular World." Special to The Daily Yomiuri 5 Aug. 2004. n. pag. Web. n.d.

--. Interview with Koreeda Hirokazu. The Daily Yomiuri 24 May 2001. n. pag. Web. n.d. Also see "Interview: Various Kinds of Distance" ("Interview: Samazamana 'disutansu.'") Interview of Koreeda Hirokazu by Aaron Gerow. Distance (official theater pamphlet). Tokyo: Distance Seisaku linkai, 2001. 10-13. In Japanese.

Holden, Stephen. Rev. of Maborosi: "Suicide, Mourning and a Different Sense of Reality." The New York Times 6 March 1996.

Print. Also see "In Death, a Fond Remembrance of Things Past." The New York Times 12 May 1999: E5. Print.

Mes, Tom. Rev. of Distance. Midnight Eye. 10 May 2001. Web. n.d.

Morrison, Susan. "Distance: Hirokazu Kore-eda." Cine Action 57 (March 2002): 58-59. Print.

Okubo, Kenichi. "ttirokazu Kore-eda on the Making of Maborosi. (Excerpted from an Interview with Kenichi Okubo)." Maborosi Press Notes. New York: Milestone Film and Video, 1996.6-8. Print.

Rojas, Alexander. "Distance (2001)."Film Monthly. 2 Apr. 2004. Web. n.d.

Sato, Kuriko. "Interview: Hirokazu Kore-eda." Midnight Eye 28 June 2004. Web. n.d.

Thomas, Kevin. "Maborosi Takes Powerful Journey of Spirit." Los Angeles Times 19 Sept. 1996, n. pag. Web. n.d.

Tsukahara, Mami. "Kore-eda: A Man of Humanity and Intelligence." The Daily Yomiuri, Arts Weekend section, 8 Aug. 2004. n. pag. Web. n.d.

Wee, Brandon. "Still Walking." Cinema Scope 37 (Winter 2009): 54-55. Print.


(1) Note the translation by Donald Keene: "The flow of the river is ceaseless and its water is never the same. The bubbles that float in the pools, now vanishing, now forming, are not of long duration: so in the world are man and his dwellings" (Anthology of Japanese Literature [New York.: Grove P, 1955]: 197.)

(2) Maborosi no hikari was published in 1979 by Shincho publishers. The author, Miyamoto Teru, has won the prestigious Akutagawa award for literature. Another Miyamoto Teru novel Doro no kawa (Muddy River) was made into a 1981 film by director Oguri Kohei.

(3) Also see Ian Reader, Religious' Violence in Contemporary Japan: The Case of Shinrikyo (Honolulu: U of Hawai'i P, 2000).

(4) Based on a script by Ozu which he was working on when he died, Radishes and carrots (Daikon to ninjin) was subsequently directed by Shibuya Minoru in 1964.
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Title Annotation:portrayal of bodies of water in the movies of Kore-eda Hirokazu
Author:Ehrlich, Linda C.
Publication:Film Criticism
Article Type:Critical essay
Geographic Code:9JAPA
Date:Apr 13, 2011
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