A Family Affair: Japanese auteur Hirokazu Kore-eda on his Palme d’Or winner ‘Shoplifters’

Hirokazu Kore-eda has long been a darling of the festival circuit, but he reached the pinnacle of art house esteem in May, when his latest film, Shoplifters, won the coveted Palme d’Or at Cannes. Following the lives of a poverty-stricken family living in Tokyo who steal from local shops in order to survive, the film is what Kore-eda has called his first “socially conscious film.” Like many of the director’s other works, Shoplifters revolves around the question of what makes a family, and it is filled with moments of startling intimacy and heartbreaking revelation.

Shoplifters has also proven to be Kore-eda’s largest commercial success to date, grossing US $37.8 million in Japan and another $14 million in China, where it has become the highest-grossing live-action Japanese film ever released in the country. In 2013, the director caught the eye of no less than Steven Spielberg, who purchased the rights to remake his acclaimed drama Like Father, Like Son at Dreamworks (the studio has since released the rights). Now, Kore-eda is in the midst of shooting his first film outside Japan, the largely French-language La Vérité starring Catherine Deneuve, Ethan Hawke, and Juliette Binoche.

In advance of the November 23 release of Shoplifters in the U.S., Kore-eda took some time to speak with us about winning Cannes’s big prize, why he avoids having his characters cry, and what commercial success means to him.

Congratulations on winning the Palme d’Or. How did it feel?

I certainly didn’t make a film for this purpose, so it wasn’t what I had in mind. However, the Palme d’Or is a very special award, and it has helped for example within my country to increase the commercial success of the movie, so that more people have come to see it, and it also has increased the possibilities in terms of my next film of where I might go. So in that sense I’m very grateful for that.

Shoplifters is a movie about families, and what really defines a family, and that’s a subject you’ve explored in other films before this. I’m curious if that comes out of any of your own personal experiences.

This particular film was much more about looking at family and society and the place that the two meet, and then the friction that can occur between the two. So that was where I began thinking about this particular film. So it was sort of bigger than just my personal experience. However, having said that, there are certain aspects of the film that are very much personal.

For example, the scene where the little boy puts his face out from the closet and views the various people in the house from that sort of safe space, that was very much about myself when I was young. I also liked to hide in the closet and look out from there. That was my safe space. Or for example, the idea where the child slowly becomes more aware of who the father is and what he’s really like, and the vision that he had of his father gets slowly broken—I also experienced that myself as I grew up.

You’re known for your improvisational technique while filming. Can you discuss something that happened during the process of filming Shoplifters that came out of that technique that you were particularly thrilled by?

So the word improvisation, I don’t know if that’s exactly what I do. But if one was to say, “Something happening on set that wasn’t in the script,” then one example of that would be where Nobuyo [Sakura Ando] is arrested, and she’s taken in for questioning, and there’s this particular line, “What did the children call you?” And that was not in the script. I actually wrote it on a piece of paper and handed it to the person who was asking the question and said, “Here, say this.” And she read it out to Nobuyo, and she hears that for the first time and starts crying. So that was all improvised in the moment.

Shoplifters actress Kirin Kiki died last month. You’ve worked with her many times. What does her loss mean for you as a filmmaker?

From the perspective of making films, we were much more than just a director and an actor. I would say that she was an invaluable partner to me, and so the loss is great. At the same time, I look at the ten years that we’ve worked together and feel that there is a sort of treasure that has been built up over the years, which will always be mine. So working with her remains a part of me in that sense.

Your filmmaking has been described by some as unsentimental. Is sentiment something that you as a filmmaker work against? I noticed that many of the characters in this movie don’t want people to see them cry, for example.

I certainly think it’s important not to get too “wet.” And I also feel strongly that I don’t want the children to cry. I think it’s kind of wicked to make children cry. So I think that when children are laughing, even though they’re sad, that’s really sad. So for me, the actress Ando Sakura, when she’s in her role of Nobuyo and she actually cries, that’s very unusual for me. Not that I think the way she cries is “wet,” but—not sentimental, in other words.

Why do you think it’s cruel to make children cry, as a director?

Part of it is that I really work with the children in the moment, so they don’t get their script beforehand. And really, I whisper the words to them and the emotion that they’re feeling in the moment. So to me, it’s a little unfair to make them cry, basically, which is what I would be doing. And also, I don’t remember seeing a film where I really liked it when I saw children cry. It’s something I don’t like. Yeah, I’m not very fond of it, that’s for sure.

It’s interesting because you make these very intimate human dramas, and I think people who watch films like this think, “Oh, the director must only watch other films like this.” But I’m curious if you watch more commercial films—I imagine you would—and if so, which of them recently have you seen and enjoyed?

So my daughter is 11 right now, and we go to the movies together, so I’ll be seeing something more commercial and appropriate for that age. Minions, for example, we definitely went to see Minions. But there weren’t too many Minions in it, so she was a little bit disappointed in it. So I do also watch large major films.

The movie was very successful at the Japanese box office, as well as the Chinese box office, actually. Is commercial success gratifying to you as a filmmaker?

I think most directors need to really win once in a while, so that they get the smell of money, and that makes them feel a little bit—I don’t know that they should win every time, I don’t know if that’s good. But once in a while, having a win like this is a good thing.

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