Air Doll (2009) by Hirokazu Koreeda

Bae Doona stars in this modern fairytale about an inflatable sex doll that comes to life. This miracle prompts her go out into the world and explore. Nozomi, as the doll is named, is a wide-eyed innocent to the bizarre behaviours of the citizens of Tokyo. We are treated to several scenes of her attempting to follow what others are doing or understand what is going on that gives us a fresh perspective on the everyday. She stumbles across a DVD rental store, where she is employed as an assistant, forming a close friendship with the young man who works there. At nights she returns to her owner, assuming an inanimate aspect to perform her role as a sex toy. On her daytime perambulations she meets a number of lonely people, including an old man pondering his existence, a middle-aged receptionist trying to recapture her youth, and a young pervert who spies on her in the store. As days go by, Nozomi attempts to fathom some reason for her existence.

Bae Doona’s performance as Nozomi is perfect in its fragile naivete and childlike wonder at the world. Throughout the film we see her becoming more confident and her range of expressions growing as she begins to understand emotions. Comedian Itsuji Itao plays her owner as a comi-tragic figure. We learn a little about him through short scenes of him at work and at home with Nozomi. While it may be tempting to laugh at his situation, we come to see that he is not a bad person, in fact he shows kindness to the doll beyond its basic utility, but rather a man disillusioned with society and withdrawn into his own reality. The same is true of the other characters in the film who are variously struggling to integrate with society or form connections with other people. There is a late cameo from Joe Odagiri as the dollmaker, which provides an interesting moment for Nozomi as she is essentially meeting her Maker.

The screenplay by director Hirokazu Koreeda is based on the original manga by Yoshiie Goda. “Airdoll” is a film that has an intriguing premise. The Little Mermaid is mentioned during the film and is among others one of the key influences, particularly in Nozomi’s later relationship with Junichi (Arata Iura). She is the typical fish-out-of-water, attempting to fit in and find love, albeit with an adult twist. The film is a tough watch at times due to the relentlessly downbeat tone. The various side-characters all have something to say about modern society, whether that is about the focus on youth and beauty, the misunderstanding of the relationship between sex and love, or the search for meaning in an otherwise meaningless life. The film often feels that it is labouring the same point but in slightly different ways. That being said there are few genuinely shocking moments, where the film seems to completely jump the tracks. Not in terms of its own internal logic, but in terms of what an audience might expect. One of these comes near the end of the film and sees a sudden shift from humorous to horrifying. It is peculiar as it cuts across the mild melancholy of what has come before in a brutal way.

Pin Bing Lee’s cinematography takes us right into the world of Tokyo, with sweeping rooftop scenes showing the contradictory nature of the city as a place that is at once bustling yet without any real sense of soul. The opening sequence is a good example of the film’s visual storytelling with Itsuji Itao’s lonely figure sitting on a train travelling around the tracks, trapped in the monotonous daily grind. Likewise Bae Doona’s early experiences with the world that rely on her acute facial expressions and body language before she learns to converse fully with others. Katsuhiko Maeda’s score underlines the melancholic nature of the film, with plaintive piano and strings drifting along and the use of breathing on the soundtrack is a clever device, a nod to the protagonist’s tenuous existence and also creating the sense of the city itself as a living thing.

The film is certainly an interesting watch, with plenty to say about modern life. The depressing, nihilistic tone may be hard for some to swallow, but it is not without its enjoyable moments. Joe Odagiri’s characters asks Nozomi pointedly to tell him if there was anything good in the world, or was it all just one long trial. The audience is left to ponder this question throughout with the meaning of life seeming to always hover just out of reach of the characters. Surprisingly, the sexual politics of the film are left largely unaddressed, although the set-up leaves plenty of room for projection from the audience about the rights and wrongs of relationships. Rather than a personal study the film is best examined as a wider commentary on society. There has been a disconnect between sex and love in society that seems to be damaging the heart of humanity itself and leading to the sort of alienation we witness amongst the characters. A worthwhile watch with a superb central performance and a novel twist on an old idea.

The Third Murder (2017) by Hirokazu Koreeda

When lawyer Tomoaki Shigemori (Masaharu Fukuyama) is brought in to defend Misumi (Koji Yakusho) on a charge of murder, it appears to be an open and shut case. Misumi confesses to the crime and appears remorseless. However, as Shigemori delves into his past and the details surrounding the crime a different story begins to emerge.

Writer-director Hirokazu Koreeda has made his name as an incredible film-maker with a string of family-focussed stories (“Our Little Sister”, “Like Father, Like Son”). With “The Third Murder” he brings his careful observations of human behaviour to the courtroom drama. The plot of the story is straightforward, with a lawyer defending a man he believes is guilty, but the world is packed with characters and moments that make deeper connections to universal themes. It is a dialogue- heavy film with characters spending a lot of time discussing the case details. This can make for a dry experience at times, but is made enjoyable in two main ways. Firstly, by turning the film into something more akin to a detective drama, with Shigemori interviewing various individuals and cross-examining the suspect, Misumi. In fact, the film shies away from courtroom scenes until its final third. Secondly, the performances, particularly from Masaharu Fukuyama and Koji Yakusho are exceptional, showing their experience and charisma on screen. Most of the standout scenes are featuring only the two of them conversing through a plexiglass screen. Mikiya Takimoto’s cinematography is slick and has a sombre tone that is fitting for the story.

“The Third Murder” investigates the very notion of truth. The lawyers are shown to be individuals for whom the truth is of relatively little importance. Their job is to have their clients acquitted, whether they are guilty or not. In fact, this very point is raised at one point by the prosecution attorney. It also looks at the notion of crime and guilt in relation to provocation, by contextualising the murder. Crime is a subject that provokes strong emotions but is rarely black and white. This film does a good job of explaining the potential pitfalls in jumping to conclusions.

Shoplifters (2018)

A boy named Shota (Jyo Kairi) is taken around by Osamu (Lily Franky) on shoplifting sprees, stealing food and other necessary items. Osamu lives with his partner Nobuyo (Sakura Ando), older woman, Hatsue (Kirin Kiki),and her grand-daughter Aki (Mayu Matsuoka). The precise relationships between the characters are not established until much later, but the five live together as a family unit. Nobuyo works at a laundry for low pay, Hatsue lives off her pension, and Yuki makes money working at a peep show. When Osamu and Shota come across a five-year old girl, Yuri (Miyu Sasaki), sleeping outside they decide to take her in. Despite initial concerns that this might be considered kidnapping, the group decide to treat her as a surrogate daughter. Yuri’s own parents are abusive and the family feel she would be safer with them. When they hear police are looking for her on the news they cut her hair and rename her Lin. As the search for the missing girl closes in, the bonds of family are sorely tested.

With films such as “Our Little Sister” and “Like Father,Like Son”, writer and director Hirokazu Koreeda has established himself as a master of the family drama. In “Shoplifters” he once again shows tremendous skill in creating a believable family dynamic, with the overlapping, meandering dialogue completely drawing you in to the story. The actors all give exceptional performances that further engenders a feeling of familiarity from the beginning. Particularly noteworthy are Sakura Ando, who transitions effortlessly from the hard-edged working woman to maternal compassion for Yuri,and the late Kirin Kiki, star of other Koreeda films, who plays the grandmother. Jyo Kairi and Miyu Sasaki also do an incredible job of bringing to life the two youngest members of the family. The brilliance of Koreeda’s direction is in its subtlety. Every scene is well shot and framed but in a way that never draws attention to itself. The film draws you in so completely, that it is easy to forget that these are actors being directed, or that the camera has been set up or locations dressed. Everything is done with such apparent ease that you can almost step through the screen into the drama and forget that this is artifice and not a fly-on-the-wall documentary. Early scenes of the household, piled high with the assorted flotsam of a disorderly life, are a great way of establishing the characters quickly. The film then proceeds to add detail to these sketches by showing a little of each life. Every character has their own particular problems. “Shoplifters” also uses humour amidst the bleakness of the characters situations and is not afraid of portraying morally ambiguous protagonists. This realism in style and story makes for a completely engrossing drama.

“Shoplifters” fits neatly in with recent Koreeda film in dealing with issues of family and belonging. It also raises more serious questions, as in his earlier film “Nobody Knows”, with themes of child neglect and abuse. This is tackled in a subtle way in the film and is more potent for it. The film also looks at poverty and its effects on people. All of the characters are struggling to make ends meet with poorly paid, dangerous or degrading work. It creates sympathy for the characters while highlighting the terrible reality that they face. The most pertinent and poignant question the film asks concerns the meaning of family. “Shoplifters” offers a glimmer of hope that there are people out there who are caring and compassionate, but the heart-breaking ending is a significant statement against the oftentimes harmful nature of societal convention.

Our Little Sister (2015)

Sochi, Yoshino and Chika are three sisters who live together in a large house in a seaside town. Abandoned by their father 15 years ago after an affair, they have settled into a relaxed existence, when news of their father’s death and impending funeral reach them. On attending the funeral they meet their younger half sister, Suzu, for the first time and invite her to live with them. Suzu decides to move town and live in their house, beginning a new school and new life with her older sisters. The story shows us a little of each of their lives and how they work together to support each other.

Written and directed by Hirokazu Koreeda (I Wish) the film moves at a relaxed pace with a sense of realism, shying away from melodrama, as we see the everyday trials of the sisters. Their interactions seem perfectly natural, helped by the fantastic acting of all the leads and supporting cast, Haruka Ayase, Masami Nagasawa, Suzu Hirose and Kaho. The characters are all likeable with distinct personalities. Rather than watching a standard plot unfold, instead it feels as though we are simply spending time with them, as we see them cooking, eating, working or at school, and it is intriguing to see what happens. Each character is given their own arc and the film is paced to give everyone just enough time to develop. The direction is likewise calm and measured, with beautifully composed shots, and the fantastic settings, such as the old house and the seaside town, used to full effect in capturing a sense of place.

A subtle examination of family life and sisterly affection. Amazing direction and acting make this an enjoyable experience.

Like Father, Like Son (2013)

Given the wrong children at birth, two sets of parents are left with the overwhelming decision: to exchange their six year-old sons, Keita and Ryusei, re-uniting them with their biological parents, or to choose the child they have raised for six years. Through this tragic occurrence we are given an insight into the lives of the two young boys and their parents.

Written and directed by Hirokazu Koreeda, this film features many of his trademarks, from the focus on family and parenthood, down to minute details of small-talk about fireworks, a sense of the passing seasons, railway crossings, and an instantly recognizable “clean” directorial style. We are undoubtedly in Koreeda’s world once again, and that means nothing short of brilliance. This is by far one of the most heartbreaking of his films, as we witness the tortuous decision the two sets of parents have to make. Every character, mothers, fathers, and children is put through the emotional wringer. Towards the end you cannot help but be moved by the situation they find themselves unwittingly in. The film offers plenty of food for thought, with both sets of parents (particularly the fathers) being very different, one strict and work-orientated, the other carefree and family-focused. This allows for an exploration of the nature versus nurture debate, the extent to which our lives are pre-destined dependant on our circumstances at birth, as well as many more discussions of parenthood, and in particular fatherhood. The casting and acting is spot-on, and the two young boys do a great job. Needless to say, as with most Koreeda films, the direction and music lead you through the film’s delicately constructed world, leaving little to complain about.

The film does a fine job of giving every character enough time to breath, you feel especially for the mother of Keita, but the real focus is Keita’s father. This hardworking businessman presents a touching portrayal of fatherhood as he struggles to connect with either son. I cannot recommend this film enough. I found it captivating, with believably nuanced characters, poignant story, and fantastic acting.