In this article, Iwill explore three oedipal films (i.e. Like Father, like Son (2013), After the Storm (2016), and Shoplifters (2018)) of Hirokazu Kore-eda to uncover how he conceptualizes the formation of the familialbond. In order to be able to uncover his
conceptualization of this oedipal bond, I will use the categories of the Real, the Imaginary, and the Symbolic and offer a structural reading of the oedipal conflicts underpinning these three familial dramatic narratives. This structural reading will then allow me to unearth the very dynamic that, according to Kore-eda, underpins the formation of a true oedipal bond and most notably the oedipal bond between father and son.
Oedipal structures in the Real, in the Symbolic, and in the Imaginary. Before offering a structural reading of the familial conflict sunder pinning these films, we need to explain that from a Lacanian psychoanalytic perspective the oedipal bond plays out on three different levels, i.e. the level of the Real, the level of the Symbolic, and the level of the Imaginary.
The oedipal bond in the Real is easy to understand; it denotes the biological bond, the bond based on the genes the child and the parental other share.
The oedipal relation in the Symbolic concerns the inscription of the familial bond in the laws of the Other, i.e. the bond established by the birth certificate. The inscription of the bond in
the Other is, as can be expected, not without effects for the two subjects in play. The subject who accepts in the Symbolic the position of father or mother accepts to be subjected to that signifier, either ‘mother’ or ‘father’, and all what this signifier
entails of societal expectations.
Lastly, I will equate the oedipal bond in the Imaginary with the familial ‘reality’ as structured by a certain Symbolic relational structure, be it a familial structure or a non-familial one. The
familial ‘reality’ concerns the meaning, the emotions, and the ideal images that are created by the interactions of the Symbolic actors (i.e. parental others) that lie at the basis of said familial structure. The structure of oedipal conflicts in Like Father, like Son (2013), After The Storm (2016) and Shoplifters (2018).
Having introduced the three dimensions of the oedipal relation, I can now, in accordance with these dimensions, re-structure the main conflict that underpins Like Father, like Son (2013),After The Storm (2016), and Shoplifters (2018). The conflict in Like Father, Like Son (2013) concerns a conflict between theSymbolic/Imaginary and the Real dimension. While
both fathers have a Symbolic bond with their respective sons and created, in their capacity as father and husband, a particular Imaginary familial context for their sons – Ryota (Masaharu Fukuyama) a more strict environment and Yudai (Lily Franky) a more free one, both fathers are suddenly forced to accept the fact that their son is not their Real son, that there is, in fact, no oedipal bond between them in the Real. While they decide to honour the
Real oedipal bond and swap sons, they eventually reverse their decision and honour the Symbolic bond.
In After The Storm(2016), this conflict plays out between the Real and the Imaginary/ Symbolic dimension. Ryota’s love for gambling has not only ruined his marriage – annulling the Symbolic bond of marriage between man and woman, but also endangers his position as father in the Imaginary and in the Symbolic. Ryota (Hiroshi Abe), Shingo’s father in the Real, is rudely confronted with this dangerwhen he discovers that his ex- wife (Yoko Maki) has a new boyfriend (Daisuke Nonomiya). As a result,he attempts to reconnect with his son, Shingo (Taiyō Yoshizawa).
In Kore-eda’s Shoplifters (2018) the conflict is between the Real/Symbolic and the Imaginary dimension. This conflict is in play within two different relations, the relation between Juri (Miyu Sasaki) and Nobuyo (Sakura Ando) and the relation between Shota (Kairi Jō) and Osamu (Lily Franky). When Nobuyo takes Juri, she ‘steals’ Juri from her mother in the
Real and in the Symbolic and introduces her into a family constellation that, at least at the level ofthe child-parent relation, plays out solely in the Imaginary (Note 1).In the case of Osamu and Shota, the conflict is very similar. While they,at the level of the Imaginary, function like father and son, Shota has, as is later revealed in the narrative, no relation with Osamu in the Real nor in the Symbolic.
“You are my Father”: The necessity of Symbolic nomination.
What does the structural reading of the conflicts that underpin Kore-eda’s oedipal narratives show? What each narrative shows is that neither the Imaginary, Symbolic nor the Real dimension is enough to establish a true oedipal bond. Kore-eda uncovers the need for a certain speech-act on the part of the child, the need for what I would the call the child’s Symbolic nomination. A Symbolic nomination is a form of “speech that commits”, a“unity
of speechinsofar as it founds the position of the two subjects” (Lacan, 1993, p. 37).Within the oedipal situation, this Symbolic nomination takes the form of ‘You are my father’ (or ‘You are my mother’). By giving such Symbolic nomination the child does not only implicitly states ‘I am your son’ but also establishes the parental subject in “theposition of being recognized by (…) [him/her], by means of which [he/she] will be able to recognize
(…) [the parental other] (Lacan, 1993, p. 51).
In the case of Like Father, Like Son (2013), the importance of Symbolic nomination is explored within the dynamic between Ryota and Ryusei. When, after swapping the children, Ryota explains the various house-rules to Ryusei, his natural son, his last rule (i.e. “I must call you father and mother”) is immediately met with resistance; he demands an explanation because, as he argues, Ryota is not his father. What Ryuseiwith his refusal confronts Ryota with is that he, as child, has already Symbolically nominated Yudai as his father. Ryusei’s refusal also causes Ryota to question what a father really is. What Ryota in fact comes to realize is that, even though he is Symbolically nominated as father by Keita, his son in the Symbolic, he has not yet fully accepted this Symbolic nomination and not fully assumed the position of Keita’s father.
With Like Father, Like Son(2013), Kore-eda shows that the Symbolic bond between son and father – a bond only truly established if the child’s Symbolic nomination is fully accepted –
and the Imaginary familial context as structured by this bond as well the other bonds (i.e. the mother-son bond and the bond between husband-wife) will always win over the Real biological connection. It is, as Kore-eda clearly underlines, very difficult to overturn a child’s Symbolic nomination once it has been given and extremely difficult for the parental other to erase the Symbolic nomination once he has fully accepted it.
The dimension of Symbolic nomination is also touched upon in Kore-Eda’s After the Storm(2016). Ryota’s sudden desire to reconnect with his son has, in fact, everything to do with the dimension of Symbolic nomination. His desire to reconnect is, first and foremost, function of a fear to lose his son’s Symbolic nomination, i.e. the ‘papa’ by which Shingo addresses himself to Ryota. Ryota’s acts (e.g. buying lottery tickets together, shelter for the typhoon in the nearby playground, … etc.) have no other aim thanto maintain thisSymbolic nomination, because it is only by securing this nomination that he will not lose Shingo, who retains his Symbolic position as son in relation to him, as Real presence. In Shoplifters(2018) the true drama revolves around the notion of Symbolic nomination. The drama of the narrativeis thus not so much that the Japanese government,against all counter-indications, chooses to honor the Real maternal oedipal relation and the inscription of this Real relation in the Symbolic, but that the children (i.e. Juri and Shota), despite being in a warmer Imaginary familial context, are not able or have great difficulty to give Nobuyo and Osamu their parental Symbolic nomination.
This aspect is beautifully brought to the fore in the sequence where Shota complains about Juri joining him and Osamu on their shoplifting trips. Osamu tries to install a sister and brother bond between Shota and Juri – “she is your sister.”, but Shota flatly refuses. The same night, Shota accepts Osamu’s nomination of Juri as his sister, but refuses to use the signifier father for Osamu (Note 2). In Juri’s case, the Symbolic nomination has already happened,
hereby underlining the difficulty to reverse a Symbolic nomination once it has been given. In Shota’s case, it is less clear why he is unable to give Osamu the Symbolic nomination of father, but it is nevertheless clear that he cannot take this important Symbolic step yet. Eventually, Shota will nominate Osamu Symbolically as his fatherbut without Osamu hearing it (Note 3).
The importance of the Imaginary context for establishing the father. What makes the Symbolic nomination of the child possible? Kore-eda shows that what allows the child to Symbolically nominate his/her parental figure as father or mother is the Imaginary aspect of the (familial) context. This should, in fact, not surprise us as the child is always born within an Imaginary context that he, by being born, radically rewrites. In the case of Like Father, Like Son (2013), it is due to the accumulation of small fleeting moments of shared happiness, moments driven by the oedipal relation in the Symbolic and made effective by the Symbolic nomination by the son, that the exchange of children fails. The accumulation of Imaginary
moments, an accumulation that supports the child’s Symbolic nomination, have allowed a true and difficult to erase Symbolic bond to be established. It is, in other words, because the child has found its roots in a certain Imaginary environment, an environment created by the specific interactions of his parents, and because his Symbolical nomination has been given that the other familial environment will always be somewhat Other to him (Note 4).
Like Father, Like Son (2018) also illustrates that the Symbolic nomination by the child as such is not enough for a true Symbolic oedipal relation to be established. The Symbolic nomination also needs to be accepted. Ryota can only fully assume the Symbolic nomination of his son and become his father (in the Symbolic) by being confronted with the effect this Symbolic nomination sorts in the Imaginary. It is only by seeing the pictures his Symbolic-Imaginary son took of him while he was sleeping that he can fully understand that Keita has Symbolically nominated him, and no one else, as father.
The importance of the Imaginary is also evident in After The Storm (2016). Ryota’s acts are all acts in the Imaginary. The moments of shared happiness that Ryota creates are Imaginary because these acts aim to create parental meaning between Ryota and Shingo and aim to salvage a partial familial context. Ryota uses these small moments to ensure that the signifier ‘father’, a signifier given by Shingo and accepted by Ryota, does not lose its signified. It is by ensuring that their relation as father and son has meaning that he can secure his Symbolic nomination and ensure that he can keep on playing a role, by composing a minimal oedipal context for Shingo, his son’s future coming-into-being as subject.
With Shoplifters(2018), Kore-eda adds an important caveat to the importance of the Imaginary. While the bonds between the children and Osamu and Nobuyo are supported by a concatenation of fleeting touching Imaginary parental moments neither child is willing to give these parental other’s their Symbolic nomination. Kore-eda underlines that the dimension of the Imaginary- i.e. the Imaginary familial context – is often not enough to enable the child to Symbolic nominate a parental other as father or mother. The act of giving a Symbolic nomination, while function of the Imaginary, necessitates a pre-existing inscription in the Symbolic. If the Imaginary familial context, the semblance of a family, has a legitimation in the Symbolic, the Symbolic nomination is more easily given by the child and a true Symbolic parental relation can be more easily established.
With his three oedipal dramas, Kore-eda shows that the establishment of a true Symbolic oedipal bond does not depend on any Real connection, but on a speech-act by the child. Only the child, as embedded in the Imaginary familial context structured by parental figures, can give the parental other the Symbolic right to become his father (or mother). Yet, Kore-eda also warns that, despite the fact that the Symbolic inscription of the oedipal relation does not transform the Real father into the child’s Symbolic father, a Symbolic legitimation of the parental bond is nevertheless a necessary condition for the child to be able to
Symbolically nominate his Real father as Symbolic father.
Note 1:We should nevertheless state that there is one relation in the shoplifting family that has a Real and Symbolic basis, i.e. the relation between Aki and Hatsue, and one relation with a Symbolic basis, i.e. the relation between Osamu and Nobuyo.
Note 2:Shota’s acceptation of Osamu’s nomination of Juri as his sister has little to do with the notion of Symbolic nomination. His acceptance is little more than an empty gesture that does not really change their relationship at the Imaginary and the Symbolic level.
Note 3:While Shota eventually nominates Osamu Symbolically as father, the fact that Osamu is not able to accept this nomination means that this Symbolic oedipal relation, while functional for Shota, remains non-functional.
Note 4: Kore-eda also underlines in his narrative, via Keita, that the child can attempt to rescind his Symbolic nomination. But that such rescinding is difficult is revealed in Keita’s statement, “Papa is not my papa anymore”, in which he both affirms Ryota as his father as well as rejects him as father.
Lacan, J.(1993). The seminar of Jacques Lacan, Book 3: The psychoses 1955–1956. (Miller, J.-A. (Ed.), R. Grigg, Trans.). W. W. Norton & Company.
Pieter-Jan Van Haecke is a freelance researcher and film-critic currently living in Japan. His research interests concern Lacanian psychoanalytic theory and Japanese cinema. By using Lacanian theory in his approach to Japanese cinema, he aims to explore the complexity of the Japanese Other and elucidate the myriad of ways Japanese subjects are able to become subject in this specific social context.