After scooping up the Palme D’Or for Shoplifters (Man-biki Kazoku) at the Cannes Film Festival this year director Hirokazu Kore-eda cemented his already generally acknowledged position as Japan’s leading filmmaker. But in addition to being innovative and groundbreaking with his work he is also deeply attached to a tradition that has been lagging in the Japanese film industry of late. His production house, Bunbuku, has taken up the role of the Shochiku and Nikkatsu (et al.) studios of old. That is, he’s training those who come to work for him to be directors in their own right — not only the obvious candidates. Miwa Nishikawa was an assistant director on Kore-eda’s film and she has since naturally moved on to direct her own excellent features. Nanako Hirose, however, fulfilled the role of director’s assistant for Kore-eda. This is a totally different position which is actually, in the biz, a lowly production assistant, people who don’t usually move on to direct. But here we have Hirose’s first feature film, from a script that she wrote herself.

Based on an original story by Kore-eda, Yoake premiered at the prestigious Busan International Film Festival this year. It starts when 50-something widower Tetsuro (Kaoru Kobayashi) finds 20-something Shinichi (Yuya Yagira) unconscious by the river in the small town in which Tetsuro lives. Moved, Tetsuro takes in the seemingly disoriented youth and in addition to letting him stay in his house, gives him a job at the carpentry workshop he runs. The townspeople are immediately suspicious and believe Shinichi is connected to an unsolved incident that took place in the town a few years before. In addition Shoji (Young Dais) and Yoneyama (Tsunekichi Suzuki), the workers at Tetsuro’s shop, are puzzled and cautious.

It soon comes out that Tetsuro’s wife and son were killed in a car accident and the man has not been able to get over it. When Shinichi moves into the son’s room and slowly starts to assume parts of his identity the picture takes on a more intense, thriller-esque vibe. Both men have secrets and their relationship reveals them as the plot unfolds.

For a debut work Hirose’s direction is accomplished and steady. She knows how long to hold on to her characters and which scenes to emphasize. The piece is greatly enhanced by Yagira’s performance, no surprise as he was responsible for Kore-eda’s first accolades at the Cannes fest when he picked the Best Actor award for his role in the auteur’s Nobody Knows in 2004. In addition to appreciating this work, we can expect more great things from the Bunbuku production house as Kore-eda is developing numerous staff members to direct.

(Japanese title: Yoake; 113 min.)