The Ties That Bind: An Interview with Hirokazu Kore-eda
After a decade of exploring the outer limits of existence, from what remains of our lives after death in the strange, transcendent After Life (1998), to the story of a blow-up sex doll come to life in Air Doll (2009), the films of Hirokazu Kore-eda have begun to settle down.
Following his 2011 drama, I Wish, the latter part of the acclaimed Japanese director’s career has squarely focused on the family - dealing with birth, loss and the decay of the family unit. His gentle, contemplative approach to filmmaking has earned numerous comparisons to Japanese cinema legend, Yasujirō Ozu, but Kore-eda himself has always preferred comparison to directors such as Ken Loach and Mikio Naruse, those known for their compassionate depiction of the working classes. This is probably best seen in Nobody Knows (2004) and Like Father, Like Son (2013), two films that needled at poverty and class difference.
Kore-eda’s latest film, Shoplifters, which took the Palme d’Or for main feature at Cannes earlier this year, might be the best synthesis of his recurring themes. The film follows a group of outcasts who make ends meet through various jobs and occasional thievery. We join their lives as they discover an abandoned young girl and decide to ‘adopt’ her and to teach her to survive in the only way they know how. Shoplifters is an exploration of family and the ties that bind us all together, viewed through the prism of social class identity. It’s a keenly observed and heartbreaking tale of what is ultimately a surrogate family in dire circumstances.
Writer and Curzon Podcast regular, Kambole Campbell, caught up with the director to discuss the film.
KAMBOLE: What inspired you to write and direct this particular story?
KORE-EDA: My film Like Father, Like Son was about blood ties and time. What makes a family? Ever since I finished that film, I thought more about that question. What ties a family together? Is it possible to have family beyond blood? What about portraying a family that is bound only by crime? So, I started researching criminal families, and I came across an article about a family of shoplifters. This family was living off the sale of shoplifted items they would sell on so that they didn’t leave behind any evidence of their crimes. But the police found a couple of expensive fishing rods in their home, which they were able to trace back to a reported theft. I imagined that maybe the father and the son liked to fish, so they probably kept the rods for themselves. That was the first scene I wrote.
This particular scene comes later in the film. It’s a fairly typical image of father and son bonding, but coloured by the fact that the rods they were fishing with were stolen during their first robbery with Yuri in tow.
KAMBOLE: What interests you about the difference between families living in privilege and in poverty? And specifically with the family in Shoplifters, what was it about their living situation that was most important for you to convey?
KORE-EDA: I was researching families who were living off of criminal activity, and that led to poorer families. I had a clear idea before I started filming. At the Cannes Film Festival, Cate Blanchett said many of the films in competition were about invisible people, and I think the theme was to make visible the people we don’t want to see, the people we don’t want to exist. And what people don’t want to see is poverty. I think Shoplifters was one of those films. I tried to make these people more visible.
KAMBOLE: I’d like to walk back a bit to Like Father, Like Son because there is another connective thread between these two films and that is Lily Franky. Could talk about your working relationship with him, and why you wanted him in this patriarchal role again?
KORE-EDA: I already had him in mind when I wrote the script. He’s not known overseas, but in Japan he’s known for playing criminals and villains.
KAMBOLE: Yes, I’ve seen some of his credits like Yakuza Apocalypse.
KORE-EDA: If you remember from Like Father, Like Son, there isn’t a big crime but it’s the small things like the scene at the food court.
In Like Father, Like Son, Lily Franky plays Yudai, the biological father of Keita, a six-year old boy who was mistakenly switched with another child at birth and so was raised by a family not his own. Yudai and his family have money troubles and so when he learns about this mistake he is more than happy to make the hospital pay his expenses where he can by way of making amends for this devastating error.
KORE-EDA: Yudai goes to pay for some food and he asks for the receipt to be paid out to the hospital rather than himself. It’s the little fraudulent things. Franky’s very good at portraying that kind of little villainy.
KAMBOLE: The score is lovely and surprisingly varied. Throughout your career you’ve collaborated with a number of different composers, and I wondered what you think the composer Haruomi Hosono brings to this film?
KORE-EDA: I write, direct and edit all my films, so I like to have somebody who breathes new air into it every time, and I think music gives me that variation. The cameraman I used for this film was somebody I’ve never worked with before and when I talked to him during pre-production, he said he wanted to take very realistic shots, he wanted to add poetry to some moments here and there. And I thought of Hosono’s music.
KAMBOLE: Your next project, The Truth, stars Catherine Deneuve as a diva actress, as well as Ethan Hawke and Juliette Binoche. What do you find exciting about this new project?
KORE-EDA: Catherine Deneuve is very charming, she’s very lovely. I’m having fun filming her. And I’m having a really good time working with Ethan Hawke. I like him in Richard Linklater’s films. I think he values what comes up out of the moment in filming. He understands what I’m trying to get out of the children.
KAMBOLE: Speaking of children, what’s your main drive when directing children? What are you always looking for in performances from children?
KORE-EDA: I think children bring a freshness to each scene. They tend to break down what the adults are trying to do. As a filmmaker, I think I’m more aware of trying to portray things from a child’s point of view, or a deceased person’s point of view. How would a child or a deceased person regard a situation? I think working with children really gives me that perspective.
Shoplifters is a deceptively complex and moving study of the inner lives of people that would otherwise go unnoticed. As with Kore-eda’s other family dramas, Shoplifters is based in a truth stranger than fiction, but what’s most interesting about his films is discovering the humanity behind these outlandish stories. Of his later works, this film might be the one with the most bite. It’s sweet and profoundly moving but never saccharine - it’s too painfully aware of the precarious reality of this manner of living in poverty for that.
[Words by Kambole Campbell]
You can hear Kambole on the Shoplifters episode of the Curzon Podcast.
Shoplifters plays on Curzon screens from Friday 23 November.