Yes, I like my Quentin Tarantinos and my Martin Scorseses. I enjoy TV series about New Jersey mobsters doing mobsterish things (like breaking kneecaps) or Ancient Romans doing Ancient Roman things (like slicing through kneecaps – remember the Thirteenth!). I don’t mind watching films and TV that walk the dark, cruel side.
But sometimes I think that gentleness is more difficult to pull off and pull off well, at least for an entire movie. Think about it: how many films do you know that you’d consider good and that you’d describe first and foremost as gentle? The problem is that “gentle” sounds milquetoast and boring, but it shouldn’t be mistaken for its blander distant cousins, “timid” and “nice”.
The Japanese director Hirokazu Koreeda is one of the best directors when it comes to gentle films. His work is by no means harmless in its themes, even if it’s decidedly low on kneecapping – his characters deal with painful issues, which is never more apparent than in Nobody Knows, in which a disturbed young mother leaves her four children to fend for themselves. While tragedy is increasingly likely to strike as the film proceeds, Koreeda is not interested in making a domestic disaster movie where we sit on the edge of our seats waiting for the worst to happen. His guiding feeling towards the people he depicts seems to be compassion, as he bears witness to the fact that living, let alone being good, is hard, people are often prone to weakness, fear and pettiness – but we all deserve compassion.
Still Walking, a film in which disaster has already struck, years ago, permanently damaging a family, is similarly suffused with empathy. It’s not happy-clappy, sappy “we’re all human beings so let’s group hug!” empathy – Koreeda’s film does not shy away from the characters’ selfishness and cruelty in any way, but he urges us to look closer, not to condone but to understand, which in the end may be much harder and more uncomfortable than sitting in judgment.
For all the enjoyment I get out of films and TV series that wouldn’t know ‘gentle’ if it held them and stroked their hair, there is something soothing, even healing about Koreeda’s films. While I love visiting the more brutal worlds of many of his fellow directors, it is his world that I would want to live in. (And even be dead in – his After Life, my first experience of Koreeda’s films, is a wonderful, witty and, yes, gentle take on death and memory.)