Reality's Poetry: Kore-Eda Hirokazu between Fact and Fiction

By Sorensen, Lars-Martin | Film Criticism, Winter-Spring 2011 | Go to article overview

Reality's Poetry: Kore-Eda Hirokazu between Fact and Fiction


Sorensen, Lars-Martin, Film Criticism


One only needs to click into the Internet Movie Database (IMDb) to make sure that the three most famous fiction features by the Japanese director Kore-eda Hirokazu are Maborosi (Maborosi no hikari, 1995), After Life (Wandarufu raifu, 1998), and Nobody Knows (Dare mo shiranai, 2004). These three films have won the director the most critical acclaim and the most international awards. The inspiration for both Maborosi and After Life springs directly from Kore-eda's work as a documentary filmmaker (Mes and Sharp 208, 210). The third and perhaps most successful film, Nobody Knows, was also inspired by one of Kore-eda's TV-documentaries, but not in quite as direct a manner as the other two. There are, in other words, close ties between Kore-eda's fictions and non-fictions. But how, precisely, does Kore-eda apply his lessons learned as a documentary filmmaker when he directs fiction features? And what distinguishes his factual negotiation of an--at times--astoundingly similar material from the ways of his fictions? These are the central questions dealt with in this article.

An exemplary school

Kore-eda launched his career with the TV-documentary Lessons from a Calf (Mo hitotsu no kyoiku--Ina shogakko haru gumi no kiroku, 1991). The film portrays a class at a small-town school. In the first grade, the school kids at center stage decide to borrow a calf from a local farmer. They tend it for a year closely followed by the media, the voice-over explains, and then return the calf to its rightful owner. The interest shown by the media conveys the first impression that the Ina school is a special school, not just any school. In their third grade, the class again decides to become stock breeders. This time, Kore-eda and his crew are on the spot to follow the class for the next nearly two years. During this period, the calf becomes the pivot on which the daily life of the school kids turns. In the mornings they muck out, feed, and caress it in their self-built cow shed. In math classes, they calculate how much fodder a calf eats annually; the cost of the fodder and the financing of the undertaking is discussed. Pupil democracy is taken seriously at Kore-eda's exemplary school in Ina. In the afternoons, the kids gather precisely the sort of hay that has been decided at plenary discussions. Intermittently, the pupils make presentations for classes and parents, and it turns out that taking care of a calf can spark off reflections on topics as remote as human sexual behavior. One day the calf starts menstruating, and this prompts one of the schoolgirls to launch a project on the mysteries of sexual reproduction among cows and humans.

Lessons from a Calf makes use of a measured voice-over, which opens the film and ties temporal gaps together. Here and there inserts of still photos of the daily activities of the kids break the observing flow of moving images. The use of photo inserts conveys the feeling that what we are watching took place in the past, an impression that we are in fact witnessing something that has already become a memory. This slightly nostalgic sensation is enhanced in the end scene by the musical score, a somewhat sentimental school song on how schooldays are over but friendship lasts forever.

Throughout the film, Kore-eda zooms in on the steady flow of everyday routines of the children at the Ina school. Intermittently, the chronological observation is punctuated by small sequences in which the kids recite poems or read aloud their written assignments to the flow of observing images. Therefore, the film mainly falls into Bill Nichols' category of the observational documentary, but the children's voice-overs add a poetic tone to Lessons from a Calf. As for rhetorical style, the measured voice-over and the absence of interviews laden with explanatory information place the film in Carl Plantinga's category of documentaries employing an "open voice". (1)

Home alone

Kore-eda stages the close chronological observation of the everyday life of children again in 2004 with Nobody Knows.

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