The Magic of Hirokazu Kore-eda
There’s a moment in Shoplifters - Hiorkazu Kore-eda’s masterful, moving portrait of a surrogate family living on the law-breaking outer edges of Tokyo - where a young boy called Shota (Jyo Kairi), turns to look over his shoulder, and silently mouths the word ‘dad’.
Context: Shota is sitting on a bus having just said a muted goodbye to Osamu (played by Lily Franky, one of Japan’s great actors), who has acted as a father figure to Shota during their time together as part of a group of petty criminals. Sharing a home and posing as genuine kin to avoid detection by the law, they have spent the past few years getting by on the garden-variety misdemeanors that provide the film’s title. Their story is one of familial bonds forged by experience rather than blood, of lost childhoods (not to mention adulthoods), and of the way poverty is effectively criminalised by modern, capitalist societies. Featuring monumental performances from the likes of Sakura Andô (whose monologue in the film’s final scenes provides one of several emotionally devastating moments) and Kirin Kiki – a storied actor who tragically passed away shortly after the film’s release – Shoplifters was one of the best films of 2018, and a career high point for its creator, the Japanese master Hirokazu Kore-eda.
The scene on the bus in Shoplifters is an important one. Firstly, in a spirit of full disclosure, I’m a sucker for this kind of paternal yearning: I lost my father when I was 23, and any moment like this is liable to knock me sideways. I’m ready to explore this type of emotional terrain, finding it all too easy to be touched deeply by moments like this when they unfold on screen. But that moment on the bus is also one that’s so direct, so lacking in any ambiguity as to its meaning, that it would arguably come across as obvious, even crass, if it appeared in any other film. Or more pointedly, in a film by almost any other filmmaker. That, simply, is the magic of Kore-eda.
The scene on the bus is also the perfect encapsulation of Kore-eda’s thematic hangups: that of family, childhood, trauma, and the fissures within contemporary Japanese society. With Shoplifters’ being awarded the Palme d’Or at Cannes last year - probably the most prestigious prize in cinema outside of that coveted Best Picture Oscar - interest in Kore-eda’s work has reached a new high water mark. As if to underline the point, Shoplifters was Kore-eda’s most successful ever film outside of Japan, by some distance. And thanks to distributors like Arrow Films, Thunderbird and now the BFI (who are releasing four of Kore-eda’s best works, including his vital, little-seen debut Maborosi), his films are more widely available in the UK than ever before.
Shoplifters underlined that Kore-eda has long been hailed as a master of depicting childhood, and working with child actors, which he has often approached without a script, creating play-led scenarios resulting in extraordinarily convincing, spontaneous performances. A particularly moving example is I Wish, a story of two brothers separated by divorce, who fantasise that their dreams will come true at the moment the Japanese bullet-trains connecting their homes intersect. I Wish starred real brothers in its lead roles, but even that natural sibling connection can’t compare to Nobody Knows, Kore-eda’s 2004 film about a group of children fending for themselves in their apartment after their mother abandons them. As a pair these two films show not just a knack for wringing big performances from young cast members, but an innate understanding of child psychology, and the hidden, often imaginary worlds they create. It’s for this reason that Kore-eda’s work has often been compared to that of America’s great director of childhood, Steven Spielberg. That Spielberg is set to produce an American remake of Kore-eda’s 2013 film Like Father, Like Son is not a coincidence.
A less commented-on facet of Kore-eda’s cinema has been some dabbling with genre, and not just in the terms of the childlike fantasy worlds of I Wish. Some of these have been less successful than his most beloved films. The 2009 manga adaptation Airdoll, which tells the story of an inflatable doll that comes to life and learns to experience love, was ultimately a film about urban loneliness, but feels less emotionally resonant than much of Kore-eda’s other work; another manga adaptation, Our Little Sister (2015), is a much more recognisable exploration of family dynamics in the classic Kore-eda mould. Hana, meanwhile, was a sly deconstruction of the historical samurai picture. Its slowness, comic tone and feeling for the inconsequential may have puzzled audiences in 2006, but it is a film ripe for reassessment. A similar argument could be made for The Third Murder, Kore-eda’s recent foray into crime thriller terrain, which uses a deconstructed potboiler format to explore the legacy of trauma and memory - a constant theme in his work, from Maborosi through to career highpoints Still Walking and After Life, along with many more - as well as an indictment of the Japanese criminal justice system, a theme he brings to the fore again in Shoplifters.
The political edge touched on above is another facet of Kore-eda’s work that is perhaps rarely discussed, but I would argue is ever present. Some of this may lie in Kore-eda’s career start having come in documentary, or his continued use of real news stories for inspiration, with Nobody Knows and others based on real world events. Wherever it comes from, this undertow is ever present, adding an additional, spiky element to Kore-eda’s films. Like Father, Like Son, for instance, uses a children-swapped-at-birth setup to heart-wrenching effect - Kore-eda is not only great at depicting children, but also in exploring the impact of children on adults - but is also an exploration of class dynamics, one that actively critiques the attitudes of the country’s bourgeois middle class. This complex blend of humanism and societal deconstruction begs comparisons to a British filmmaker with a similar predilection for fierce human and political conscience: Ken Loach. Indeed, Kore-eda himself said as much in a 2015 interview with The Guardian.
That deeply emotive empathy and humanism is where Kore-eda’s films find the deepest resonance, and has been evidenced in subtle, devastating ways throughout his career. Clearly this has often been focused on the familial, with a particular preoccupation being the absence of a family member, a dynamic that links a host of films, including Mabaorosi, a portrait of a widow looking to rebuild her life after her partner commits suicide. Rarely seen in the UK, it is being reissued as part of the new Kore-eda season, and is absolutely essential. Nobody Knows and Our Little Sister (which explores the legacy of a father’s death on his disparate family) negotiate similar territory, as does Still Walking, a deeply personal story of a family reunion taking place in the aftermath of the death of one of its youngest members in a tragic accident, and the complex relationships it leaves behind between parents and siblings. That last film may be Kore-eda’s masterpiece alongside After Life, which used the notion of life after death to explore memory and what it means to be alive, to poignant, thought provoking, heartbreaking effect. These and many other works reveal Kore-eda to be a filmmaker who understands the ties that bind us, as well as the emotional brittleness separating human beings from one another. A truly special voice in cinema, and an unmissable body of work.
- Andrew Simpson, Director of Film Programme at Tyneside Cinema
To celebrate Hirokazu Kore-eda's films, and to coincide with the BFI’s re-release of haunting fiction feature debut Maborosi, we are delighted to present a retrospective of some of Kore-eda’s finest work across April and May 2019.
View our full programme here.