In person, Japanese director Kore-eda Hirokazu is gentle and thoughtful, with a frequent warm, shy smile—of the directors we’ve met, he perhaps comes closest to being the true embodiment of his films. But his humility is all the more remarkable for the body of work it covers: since establishing himself instantly as a filmmaker of rare sensitivity with 1995’s “Maborosi” and breaking through internationally with his vision of a bureaucratic yet sympathetic Purgatory in “After Life,” he has brought films to Cannes four times, and earlier this year won the Jury Prize and the Ecumenical Jury Prize for the extraordinarily affecting “Like Father Like Son.” (Read our A grade review from Cannes here.)
Kore-eda has in fact worked across many genres, from fantasy (“After Life,” “Air Doll“), through dramas inspired by true events both public (“Distance“) and personal (“Still Walking,” “Nobody Knows“), and even a Samurai comedy in “Hana,” but his themes and motifs are common to all and instantly recognizable: more than anything else, Kore-eda is concerned with family, and while the specificity of the families he depicts may be thoroughly saturated in a Japanese culture that can seem alien to a Western eye, somehow the emotions he touches upon and the insights he finds are universal and often heartbreakingly truthful.
Prior to the tribute, at which Kore-eda was visibly, sincerely moved by the warmth of his standing ovation and made a speech in which he accepted his award not in the spirit of congratulation but as a promise held in trust against future films on which he pledged to “try my very best,” we had the rare pleasure of an interview with the director. With the aid of a translator, we discussed his trusting Steven Spielberg with the keys to a remake, how he achieves his films’ remarkable performances, especially from children, and how he evolved the storytelling techniques that have established him so firmly at the modern vanguard of the Japanese humanist tradition.
It’s strange that we find ourselves in this situation [Kore-eda spoke through a translator] as one of the questions I wanted to ask you was whether you feel that Western audiences, who obviously experience your films in subtitled format, ever lose anything in translation?
Films are more universal and less dependent on words than, say theater, so I would hope that not too much is lost … But also, in the Japanese language we don’t have the past tense. I mean, we have the past and the present but it’s very vague and also you don’t have a subject of the verb. So the Japanese language is very ambiguous. But in the subtitles, you have to choose a tense, you have to put a subject—many details. So I think because of this precision that we have to put into the subtitled language, be it French or English or whatever, it doesn’t exist in Japanese so maybe some of the ambiguity is lost.
And the nuance you achieve in your scripting feels so naturalistic as to seem improvised, yet I understand that’s not necessarily the case?
It’s true it’s not pure improvisation but at the same time it’s not written beforehand at all. I have a scenario, but I change it according to the shooting of the day. Because the shooting of the day I edit and the next day I can change what I shoot according to what has happened. So finally it’s written, of course, but it’s not written beforehand. It’s written, and confirmed in between and all throughout the process of shooting.
I wonder if that’s one factor that contributes to the sense I get very strongly from your films of them unfolding very much in the present tense, in which the present is almost a kind of waystation between the characters’ pasts and their futures?
It’s true. When I shoot the characters I always think of the way they are going to be seen as characters having a past and having a future and I always think of the time [period of the film] as a being a result of the their past and their future. I’m very conscious of the fact that people are going to see them as they are now, but what they will understand of their characters will be because of their past and their future. So that is very true.
Another characterizing element of your films is the level of performance you get from your younger cast members, especially in films like “Like Father Like Son” and “I Wish.” What techniques have you developed to elicit such unselfconscious and natural acting from children?
When I choose child actors, I chose them for their personalities. And then I work with their own vocabulary, so I’m not imposing text or dialogue on them, I’m just receiving. I’m catching their dialogue and putting it in my film. I try to use as much as possible their own vocabulary, so that it comes from them and not from me. I try as much as I can to capture what they say, and, you know I’ve made quite a few films [with children] now and I’m quite confident in my way with them … For example the younger brother of the boy in the bigger family [in “Like Father, Like Son”] that part was not written at all, it was totally improvised, and I wrote it according to what he was saying. I try to make them say things that I want them to say, but I want them to say it, and then I write that down and it’s confirmed as part of the script.
Many of your films are inspired by a thought or a memory you have of your own family. What role does personal experience play for you at the concept stage of a new film?
“Like Father, Like Son” is inspired by my relationship with my daughter [later, introducing the film Kore-eda expanded that he would look at his daughter and wonder about his bond with her, was it nature or nurture, and that was what planted the seed for the exploration of these themes albeit in an entirely new framework about babies switched at birth]. But even in other films which might seem more directly taken from my life] even in “Still Walking” and “Nobody Knows,” yes, always some part is based on my personal experience, but it’s also fiction. It’s very much fiction. In fact next for me, well, there are two projects actually, and one is a rather small one a little bit in the mood of “Still Walking”—a relationship between a mother and adult son. I’m working on the scenario now—even here [in Marrakech] I’m writing, finalizing the scenario. And there is another one that is still a secret, a mystery, but it’s another one about family.
We recently reported that Steven Spielberg, who was President of the Cannes jury that awarded the Jury prize to “Like Father Like Son” has bought the rights to an American remake. How involved will you be with that film?
I’m not going to be directly involved in any way, because I have my next project lined up already. But I said I would like to go to the shoot because, first of all, I’m a big fan of Mr. Spielberg and, well, he is not going to direct it I don’t think, but I said I’d love to go to the shoot. But that’s all, I have my own projects.
Are you at all worried at, you know, the prospect of the dreaded American remake?
[Laughs] I trust him. I told him when I met him I was a bit afraid, I said, “Please be free to adapt it for American society, like the relationships between the husbands and the wives —you can adapt that any way you like.” And Spielberg said “No, I’m trying to keep it as ‘Japanese’—that is, as close to the original—as much as I can.” So I left him free to do as he wished but he says he wants to keep it to the original…whatever happens, I trust him.
“Like Father Like Son” opens on Friday, January 17th. This is a reprint of our interview from the 2013 Marrakech Film Festival.