When Cate Blanchett handed Kore-eda Hirokazu the Palme d’Or at Cannes in May, the “Shoplifters” director froze in place for a moment, as though paralyzed by the weight of the world’s most prestigious film award. Kore-eda had good reason to be shell-shocked. Despite emerging as the most feted Japanese filmmaker of his generation, being anointed as “Ozu’s heir” more times than he could count, and even winning the Cannes Jury Prize in 2013, Kore-eda still never thought this day would come.
The last time a film of his had been invited to screen at the festival (2016’s achingly wounded “After the Storm”), it had been relegated to the Un Certain Regard sidebar, a demotion that often anticipates a director’s irrelevance. And while Kore-eda had weathered that demotion before, his next feature — a grim murder-mystery that found him veering away from the kind of gentle family dramas that made him famous — skipped Cannes altogether. “The Third Murder” premiered instead at Venice, where it became one of the most poorly reviewed films of Kore-eda’s long and brilliant career.
Just eight months later, Kore-eda was standing on the gold-flecked stage of the Palais and receiving this beautiful gift from Galadriel herself. After a few seconds that felt like years, Blanchett motioned for the filmmaker to approach the podium, and Kore-eda was eager to accept her direction. “My legs are shaking,” he said into the microphone, exuding the same delicate sweetness that’s imbued into his movies. But while Kore-eda may have seemed uncertain about what to do while he was on stage, he knew exactly what he wanted to do after he stepped down from it: Meet Ethan Hawke.
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Kore-eda, catching his breath in between screenings at the high-altitude Telluride Film Festival in early September, laughed about his newfound confidence: “Immediately after winning the Palme I flew to New York to offer Ethan a role in my next movie,” the director said with the help of a translator. “Because of the timing, it was really difficult for him to say no!” The film, Kore-eda’s first international production, is now shooting in Paris — sure enough, Hawke is playing the male lead.
In all likelihood, a wise and worldly actor like Hawke didn’t need Cannes to convince him that Kore-eda is a rare master of the form. Like any number of dedicated cinephiles, he may have been moved by the vanguard beauty of “Maboroshi,” or forever changed by the soulful imagination of “After Life,” a wistful drama set in death’s waiting room. Hawke might have been gutted by the desolation of “Nobody Knows,” the most famous of Kore-eda’s many films about the inner lives of children, or “Still Walking,” which galvanized the director’s fascination with family bonds (like many American viewers, Hawke was almost certainly deprived of Kore-eda’s less commercial work, such as his sex doll fairy tale and his fragmented drama about the aftermath of a Japanese terrorist attack).
And yet, even if Hawke had already have been the filmmaker’s biggest fan, Kore-eda still had to make “Shoplifters” before they could ever hope to work together; he needed to bring one phase of his career to a close so that he could start on another. This is the masterpiece that Kore-eda has been building towards for much of the 21st century, the staggering culmination of a cinematic inquiry that has motivated the most brilliant stretch of his body of work — the fact that “Shoplifters” won the Palme d’Or was just icing on the cake.
“People have called this a ‘culmination,’” Kore-eda said, “but that wasn’t my intention. Over the course of my career I’ve had a number of different recurring themes and motifs, and I didn’t knowingly set out to incorporate them all into this one film, but now that I look back on it I can see that they are all in there.”
Kore-eda has long been preoccupied with the various forces that do — or do not — hold a family together. “Like Father, Like Son” and “Our Little Sister” question the binding power of blood, “Still Walking” investigates the performative inertia of loss, “After the Storm” examines the stability that money can buy, “I Wish” hinges on hope, and all of them touch upon sex and memory in some way. With “Shoplifters,” Kore-eda has found a premise that allows him to touch upon all of these forces at once, and test their collective strength.
The story of a marginally employed man and his wife who live in a hovel on the outskirts of Tokyo with a pre-teen boy, a twenty-something woman, and an aging grandmother, “Shoplifters” begins when the Shibata family takes in a stray girl they find hiding from her abusive parents. But all is not as it seems, and sheltering the adorable young Juri soon threatens to dissolve the bonds of this beautifully loving group. You’d have to go all the way back to the haunted social-realism of 2004’s “Nobody Knows” to find another Kore-eda film that stings like this one — that so lucidly vivisects the loneliness of not belonging to anyone, and the messiness of sticking together. “Shoplifters” is a masterpiece.
“One of my major life realizations,” Kore-eda said, “is that having a child is not enough to make you a parent.” Family, he agreed, is an idea that you have to reaffirm every day. “I think my films reflect my own sense of crisis about that, and this film — in which the binding agent is ultimately neither the blood relationship nor the time the Shibatas spend together — brings that crisis to a head.” It does so by approaching its themes with an unusually pronounced degree of skepticism; after more than 10 years of picking apart the basic concept of family (the nuclear Japanese family, in particular), Kore-eda summoned the courage to ask his audience if it really even mattered.
In an interview conducted for the movie’s press notes, Kore-eda said that “After the 2011 earthquake, I didn’t feel comfortable with people saying repeatedly that a family bond is important. So I wanted to explore it by depicting a family linked by crime.”
When asked about that in Telluride, Kore-eda was quick to clarify that the 3/11 disaster didn’t change things so much as it reframed them: “The traditional concept of family was already being dismantled or destroyed in Japan, and 3/11 just made it obvious that was happening. I believe you can no longer interpret the true value or purpose of family based on the antiquated traditional tropes of Japanese society. In ‘Shoplifters,’ I was looking at three generations living together, because that’s typically what you’d find in a Japanese household. But I wanted to play with that, and show that even within those terms the nuclear family is undergoing a permanent change.”
Kore-eda insisted that he had no pretensions of defining what the model family should look like nowadays, only that he was interested in posing the question. “I’m not an expert on this,” he said, “but I can speak in some very specific scenarios.”
He remembered back to 2002, when he was just starting to audition children to play the lead characters in “Nobody Knows.” “At that time, all the kids we saw were living in close proximity to their grandma or grandpa or both, and you could hear it in their vocabulary,” he said. “There were children who really loved it. But based in my experience over the last 15 years looking at families specifically in the Tokyo area, that has ceased to be the case. More elderly people are living alone. It’s very rare these days to see a family where the children have that kind of close contact with their grandparents, or live in traditional family structures.”
To watch Kore-eda’s films — and certainly to hear him talk about them — it’s clear that he’s not interested in judging this perceived degradation of traditional norms. These movies don’t lament what’s been lost so much as they wonder about what’s been found, a dynamic that allows even the most devastating pieces of Kore-eda’s work to feel intrinsically hopeful (his thoughts on the ending of “Shoplifters” were too spoiler-heavy to share here, but they made it clear the director savors that bittersweet aftertaste). His films are less concerned with passing a verdict on the state of things than they are in studying the various mechanisms that bind people together, and the performative elements required to keep us that way.
Japaneseness itself has become one of those elements in these stories, or perhaps even an aspect that’s baked into them all. And as Kore-eda has emerged as the contemporary film world’s most prominent ambassador of Japanese cinema, his popularity has endowed his films with a potentially uncomfortable pressure to crystallize what “Japaneseness” means to the outside world. “I think a lot about the weight of the responsibility of being considered by some to be representative of Japanese filmmaking,” he said, scoffing at the idea that any one person could be representative of a national cinema: “There are a lot of Japanese films being made! The trouble is that fewer and fewer of them are being shown on the big screen in Europe and elsewhere.”
Kore-eda reflected on the risks faced by Japanese filmmakers when trying to sell their work to the international market. He lamented that the tail often wags the dog, in that foreign buyers are only interested in Japanese films that reinforce tired notions of what Japaneseness should be (or that people fear that’s true of foreign buyers, which leads to the same result).
“In my career, I see two tendencies that for me personally strike a balance: Family dramas have been my bread and butter, but I also have a tendency to make films that are a little experimental,” he said. “Not all of those experimental films are going to be well-received.” He cited the muted response to “The Third Murder,” which was made “outside of his forte.” However, Kore-eda insisted that he doesn’t judge his work by how far it travels: “The films that don’t get international distribution aren’t deficient in any way. Sure, I’d love to see ‘Air Doll’ on the big screen, but that’s not everything.”
The truth, as always, is more complicated. Kore-eda cited the formative experience he had with “After Life” in 1998, which premiered at the Toronto International Film Festival after a programmer sent the director a handwritten fax proclaiming his love for the movie. But a gala debut wasn’t enough to get the movie sold. The director sighed: “I received very blunt information from the agent saying that this isn’t the kind of film that people want — they didn’t want to see people in heaven, they wanted the kind of typical Japanese film that would be representative of a national cinema.” Emotionally inhibited parents drinking sake on tatami mats, rogue samurai wandering the countryside, geishas scuffling around the Gion, that sort of thing.
It could have been a devastating moment, but Kore-eda chose to see it as a call to action. “That process made me realize that I don’t have to make what other people want,” he said. “‘After Life’ led me to have confidence that if I make something that I love, there will be fans and critics out there who will love it also, and won’t start putting labels on it.” To his point, “After Life” now regularly appears on (American) lists of the best films of the ’90s. “I feel really fortunate that I’ve been able to find those people,” Kore-eda continued, “even when I’ve wanted to make films just because I liked them.”
While “Shoplifters” definitely falls into the “family drama” category of Kore-eda’s work, the nuance and twistiness of its story constantly reinforces the sheer power of the director’s imagination. In addition to winning the Palme, the film has been a massive hit in Japan, and Kore-eda hopes that its success makes allows him to spread his wings from here: “One of the benefits that I’m hoping to see from this is for it to be easier for me to make films with the kind of original content that I want to use.”
In other words, movies that don’t traffic in the kinds of tropes that foreign audiences might otherwise require from a Japanese auteur. And what better way for Kore-eda to do that than to make a film that doesn’t take place in Japan at all?
“This is actually a really big adventure for me,” Kore-eda said of his France-based new feature, which co-stars Hawke and Juliette Binoche as a married couple who return to Paris after the latter’s mother — a famous actress played by Catherine Deneuve — publishes a controversial autobiography. “Making a film while trying to overcome the language barrier is something that will be a huge challenge for this production,” the director said, “but at the same time, the basis for it is still a kind of family drama. It’s a film where I feel like I can dig into the question of ‘what is acting?’ ‘What is a performance?’”
Shooting under the title “Verite,” or “Truth,” it sounds like the project has the potential to knot together the two tendencies of Kore-eda’s career like never before. Interestingly, “Truth” is based on an unproduced stage play that Kore-eda wrote 15 years ago, or right before he embarked on his current string of movies about family ties; it’s as if he had to work through an entire phase of his own filmmaking before he was ready to move on and dust off some of his older ideas.
“In my career, there are three periods,” he said. “Up until ‘I Wish,’ in 2011, I feel that was the first period of my filmmaking.” That’s a pretty long first period, given that he began making features in 1991. “‘Like Father, Like Son’ was when the second period started,” he said, “and it ended with ‘Shoplifters.’ Now, I am moving into the third era of my films.”
Asked which of his films are his personal favorites, Kore-eda — in characteristic fashion — expounded upon a familiar adage until it felt new: “It’s like asking someone which of their 10 kids you like the most. You may have one child who’s just ridiculously successful and making tons of money, and then you have this other child who’s living in poverty, but they’re just so lovable.” He grew silent for a moment, and then went on: “I would say there are two children who are most similar to myself. ‘Nobody Knows’ is the film that I became a director to make. ‘Still Walking’ is special to me because I made it shortly after losing my mother. Having said that, I also have to mention ‘Like Father, Like Son,’ because that film took me to the next level, to the point where I couldn’t believe this was really my career.”
At that point, Kore-eda’s producer piped up from the corner of the room in the Telluride mountain condo: “Yes,” she said sweetly, “this really is your career.” Kore-eda smiled, stood up, and had to catch his breath all over again.
Magnolia Pictures will release “Shoplifters” in theaters on Friday, November 23.