There’s a moment in Shoplifters – Hiorkazu Kore-eda’s intensely moving drama about a surrogate family living on the law-breaking outer edges of Tokyo – where a young boy called Shota turns to look over his shoulder, and silently mouths the word ‘dad’.
Shota (Jyo Kairi) is sitting on a bus having just said a muted goodbye to Osamu (Lily Franky, one of Japan’s great actors), who has acted as a father figure to him during their time together as part of a group of petty criminals. Posing as kin to avoid detection by the law, they have spent the past few years getting by on the garden-variety misdemeanours suggested by the film’s title. Their story is one of familial bonds forged by experience rather than blood, of lost childhoods (and adulthoods), and of poverty that is criminalised by modern society.
Featuring monumental performances from Sakura Andô (whose final scene is one of several emotionally devastating moments) and Kirin Kiki – 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 Japanese master Hirokazu Kore-eda. He would soon follow it up with his first film made outside Japan in The Truth, starring Juliette Binoche, Catherine Deneuve and Ethan Hawke, showing that his feel for family dynamics and pent-up emotion can work in any language.
The Magic of Kore-eda
The scene on the bus in Shoplifters is an important one. As someone who lost a parent when they were young, I’m susceptible to on screen moments like this, which are often likely to knock me sideways. But what’s more important, I think, is that a moment so direct and lacking in ambiguity could easily come across as obvious, even crass, if it appeared in another film. Or more pointedly, in a film by almost any other filmmaker. That, simply, is the magic of Kore-eda.
With Shoplifters’ being awarded the Palme d’Or at Cannes in 2018, interest in Kore-eda’s work reached a new high water mark, with the film becoming his most successful outside of Japan. The Truth, made in a combination of French and English, will have brought him to an even wider international audience. And it’s exciting that Kore-eda will be heading to Korea to make his next film, titled Baby, Box, Broke, which will star Parasite’s Song Kang-ho. For those unfamiliar with the director’s work to date, there is no better time to delve into his spectacular filmography.
The Cinema of Childhood
Shoplifters underlined that Kore-eda has long been hailed as a master of depicting childhood, and working with child actors. There is a cliche in filmmaking that says never to work with children or animals, of course. But Kore-eda has excelled in getting incredible turns out of young actors, generally doing so without a script, creating play-led scenarios to produce 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, inexperienced casts, 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. The fact that Spielberg wants to produce an American remake of Kore-eda’s 2013 film Like Father, Like Son certainly doesn’t feel like a coincidence.
Less commented upon with Kore-eda’s films are the dabbles with genre, and not just in the terms of the childlike fantasy worlds of I Wish. Some of these have been less successful, with the 2009 manga adaptation Airdoll (the story of an inflatable doll that comes to life and learns to experience love) feeling 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, whilst Hana was a sly deconstruction of the historical samurai picture. Its slowness, comic tone and feeling for the inconsequential puzzled audiences in 2006, but it is a film ripe for reassessment.
The same can be said for The Third Murder, Kore-eda’s 2017 foray into crime thriller terrain. That film uses a deconstructed potboiler format to explore the legacy of trauma and memory – a constant theme present in his debut feature Maborosi all the way through to career highpoints Still Walking and After Life – as well as an indictment of the Japanese criminal justice system, a theme he brings to the fore again in Shoplifters. Knotty and intelligent works, they reward repeat viewings.
Politics and the Personal
The political edge to Kore-eda’s film also often go unrecognised, despite being ever present. Although it is rarely discussed, Kore-eda’s career started in the world of documentary filmmaking, and he has continued to use news stories for inspiration for his films, with Nobody Knows and several others being based on real events. The undertow of social commentary is ever present, adding an additional, spiky element to films like Like Father, Like Son, which uses a children-swapped-at-birth setup to heart-wrenching effect. That film not only brilliantly depicts the lives of children, but also subtly explores the impact of family responsibilities on adults, the influence of Japan’s class dynamics, and the attitudes of his country’s bourgeois middle class. Given the complex blend of humanism and societal deconstruction running through all his work, it’s no surprise that Kore-eda sees himself as being aligned with a British filmmaker with a similar predilection for fierce human and political conscience: Ken Loach.
This emotive humanism is where Kore-eda finds his deepest resonance. And whilst this is often channeled through children and families, it is specifically the absence of family members that has inspired his richest films. It’s a dynamic that links his 1995 debut Mabaorosi (a portrait of a woman looking to rebuild her life after her partner commits suicide) to films like Nobody Knows and Our Little Sister (about a disparate family coming together after their father’s death).
This thematic blend finds its apotheosis in Still Walking, a deeply personal story of a family reunion taking place under a cloud of grief; and After Life, a parable about memory and the meaning of living taking place in the afterlife. Exposing the impact of familial absence to poignant, thought provoking, heartbreaking effect, these and many other films 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.
This article was originally written by Tyneside Cinema’s Head of Film, Andrew Simpson, to tie in with our Hirokazu Kore-eda retrospective in 2019. A large selection of Kore-eda films are available to view now on BFI Player, Amazon Prime, iTunes and various other platforms. Happy viewing!