For a film that is book-ended by funerals, this is that rarest of things – a genuinely happy story for mature grown-ups. Kore-eda is constantly compared to Yasujirō Ozu which is not, by any means, a comparsion to be sniffed at but the likeness does seem lazy; ‘well, they’re Japanese and they make dramas about folk’. He himself, in a recent interview, said that he thought his works much closer to the working class dramas of Mikio Naruse* and Ken Loach. There seemed, also, to be a lot of Mike Leigh in this tale of women bonding, bickering and getting by over a year of home truths thrown up by the vagaries of family.
Sachi is the eldest Kôda sister and almost matron to flighty Yoshima and carefree youngest, Chika. Upon news of their estranged father’s death, they travel from their home in Kamakura to attend the funeral with his other family. Here they meet their 14 year-old half-sister, Suzu, who has now been left with no one but a self-pitying step-mother. Impressed by the girl’s maturity but worried for her wellbeing, they offer to take her home and fend for her. Initially all is well, as Suzu blends right in with the kids in her new school and home life with her big sisters but bubbling under are the effects of the father’s legacy and Sachi’s own secrets regarding her reasons for Suzu’s adoption.
Those last two caveats make this sound like the film has great, simmering tension ready to tear these women asunder but this is not that film (although consider Shotgun Stories as a male counterpart to this tale of the fallout from a father’s sins). It is a film about the goodness of people that is optimistic without being naive. It is a depiction of asian women who are strong, multifaceted, working women and not just screeching sexpots. They have men in and out of their lives and they spend a lot of time in the kitchen but these things do not define them. Indeed, food is a recurring motif throughout the film that somehow reflects the themes of family (the recipes passed down through generations) and secrets (Chika eats curry when her sisters aren’t around).
The comparison of Kore-eda with Mike Leigh seems more relevant than the other directors mentioned, not only because of the story about modern women but also his subtle use of cinematography. Only when you see Leigh’s films on the big screen do you notice how much he moves the camera (Vera Drake) and in this, there is much use of shots tracking in on the characters or across rooms as if nosing in on these passing moments. Also, there is Kore-eda’s precise use of focus, especially in medium-four-shots; framing Suzu amongst her sisters, wanting to be a part of the dynamic, whilst keeping the other three in shot, emphasising their bond and desire to embrace her more fully.
This is a gentle piece of clear-eyed positivity that really filled me with joy!
*Of who’s work I have seen bugger all but I will attempt to rectum-fy that.