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Linda C. Ehrlich

Feb 5, 2021

The Films of Kore-eda Hirokazu

An Elemental Cinema

Palgrave Macmillan 2019

The Films of Kore-eda Hirokazu: An Elemental Cinema (Palgrave MacMillan, 2019) draws readers into the first 13 feature films and 5 of the documentaries of award-winning Japanese film director Kore-eda Hirokazu. With his recent top prize at the Cannes Film Festival for Shoplifters, Kore-eda is arguably Japan’s greatest living director with an international viewership. He approaches difficult subjects (child abandonment, suicide, marginality) with a realistic and compassionate eye. The lyrical tone of the writing of Japanese film scholar Linda C. Ehrlich perfectly complements the understated, yet powerful, tone of the films. From An Elemental Cinema, readers will gain a special understanding of Kore-eda’s films through a novel connection to the natural elements as reflected in Japanese traditional aesthetics. An Elemental Cinema presents Kore-eda’s oeuvre as a connected whole with overarching thematic concerns, despite frequent generic experimentation. It also offers an example of how the poetics of cinema can be practiced in writing, as well as on the screen, and helps readers understand the films of this contemporary director as works of art that relate to their own lives.

I asked Linda the following questions about the philosophical themes that appear in the Kore-eda films: (1)"betweenness," (2) "emptiness," and (3) "ma" (or "interval"). 

(1) Kore-eda tends to focus on the “in-between” status of people or things in Japan, and we can draw many profound implications from this. I requested Linda to elaborate on this aspect of "betweenness" in the works of Kore-eda. I asked why it is important for understanding his films and why this concept appears to be so valuable for Kore-eda as the director of these films. 

(2) Nobody Knows (2004), for instance, uses luggage or a bucket that literally carries the life and the death of the children that nobody knows. The modern Rashōmon, The Third Murder (2018), presents the protagonist as a vessel that reveals the death of justice in Japanese law practice. The emptiness allows the Air Doll (2009) to swell and cultivate her kokoro (heart-and-mind) while demonstrating how human beings and their societies can rid themselves of their meaning in their selfish interactions with each other. In light of these images of emptiness, I asked the following: 

  1. What does Koreeda try to achieve by reflecting on these manifestations of “emptiness”, or what this book calls "air"? 

(3) On the one hand, it seems that the notion of nakama or the intersubjective patterns of our mutual connections that define our self-identities (in Japanese Ethics) suggest that as long as we fit in these patterns or kata, we can substantiate our self-identity and thereby ethically ground our social interactions. Traditionally, what sustains these patterns or aidagara is a self-negating compassion. On the other hand, many characters in these films have a strong drive towards an objective connection (like a biological or blood relation that is not subject to any social interaction) as a foundation of their self-identities. This conflict between the self-less care of the other for the other and the self-centred need to be special and indispensable to the other shows up in many parts of Kore-eda's internationally successful movies, including Like Father, Like Son (2013) and Shoplifters (2018). In light of this, I asked Linda: 

  1. Do you think this interval, internal contradiction, or ma of being human (ningen 人間) is one of the primary concerns in Koreeda’s films, especially the ones that focus on family relations?

Linda's answers to these philosophical questions reflected her rigorous attention to the artistic details of Kore-eda's works. I have no doubt that our discussion will make listeners feel like revisiting these films in the near future. 

Linda C. Ehrlich—writer, teacher, editor—has published extensively about world cinema, art, and traditional theatre in a number of acclaimed academic journals. She published The Cinema of Víctor Erice: An Open Window (Rowman & Littlefield, 2007), co-edited the Cinematic Landscapes: Observations on the Visual Arts and Cinema of China and Japan (University of Texas Press, 1994 & 2000),and the forthcoming Yamamba: In Search of the Japanese Mountain Witch (Stone Bridge Press, 2021). Her creative engagement with films and traditional theatres has also led to many crossover books, DVD commentaries, and poetry collections. 

Takeshi Morisato is philosopher and sometimes academic. He specializes in comparative and Japanese philosophy but he is also interested in making Japan and philosophy accessible to a wider audience.

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Takeshi Morisato

Takeshi Morisato is philosopher and sometimes academic. He is the editor of the European Journal of Japanese Philosophy. He specializes in comparative and Japanese philosophy but he is also interested in making Japan and philosophy accessible to a wider audience.

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