Orson Welles has made films with his right hand and films with his left hand,” Francois Truffaut once wrote. “In the right-handed films, there is always snow, and in the left-handed ones there are always gunshots.”

By a similar token, one might say that Japanese writer-director Hirokazu Kore-eda has made films with his head and films with his heart. The “head” films (which would include Maborosi, Still Walking, and The Third Murder) tend to be unsparing in their scrutiny of characters and the social codes they live by, while the “heart” films (which would include After Life, Air Doll, and I Wish) tend to be more sentimental, focusing on growth and reconciliation. Yet the distinction between Kore-eda’s two sides isn’t as hard and fast as it is with Welles. One reason why Nobody Knows, Our Little Sister, and Like Father, Like Son are such powerful films is that they begin as “heart” films and move unexpectedly into “head” territory. Some of the best Japanese movies of the 21st century, they draw you in with their sympathetic character portraits, then surprise you with their complex insights about the difficulties of family relationships. (In contrast, Kore-eda’s Hana and After the Storm start out tough and then go soft, which is why I consider them minor works.) Continue reading