Hirokazu Kore-eda: ‘They compare me to Ozu. But I’m more like Ken Loach’
The Japanese auteur talks about his Cannes-competition drama Our Little Sister, absences in families, and his TV-movie and fast-food childhood
Thu 21 May 2015
hen I meet the Japanese auteur Hirokazu Kore–eda, it is in a shady and pleasant Cannes garden, where he sits next to his interpreter, through whom questions and answers must be channelled: a set-up that creates an unmistakably courtly atmosphere of reverence – not inappropriate.
We meet after the premiere of his latest film, Our Little Sister. It is a drama of sweetness and delicacy derived from the manga Umimachi Diary by Akimi Yoshida, about three adult sisters who have lived together in a house belonging to their grandmother after their parents’ divorce, and who agree to take responsibility for their 13-year-old half-sister after their father’s death.
This is another of the heartfelt, painful “family dramas” in which Kore-eda now seems to specialise – such as the baby-swap film Like Father, Like Son(2013), I Wish (2011), in which two young siblings live apart after their parents’ marital breakdown, Still Walking (2008), in which a family is tormented by the loss of a son killed saving another boy from drowning and, indeed, Nobody Knows (2004), in which a 12-year-old kid has to look after his younger siblings when their mother walks out. The pathos and poignancy has led Kore-eda to be compared to the great master Yasujiro Ozu. I have loved Kore-eda’s work since I saw his strange cult movie After Life (1998), about an imaginary place in which we can choose our happiest memory, and live in it for ever after we die.
I ask Kore-eda about the importance of absences in families: the painful gaps. “I loved making a story about this,” he replies. “It is important to have a story about a family with some family members missing. But someone else is there, trying to take over the role of parents. They try to reconstruct that family bond. I love that sort of story. It affects me a lot.”
He goes on to explain that creating and filling gaps is what families are all about: “In the last 15 years, I lost my father, I lost my mother and I have a daughter. I have become a father. So I have realised that we always try to get ‘in between’. Something is missing, so we always try to take over. From the older generation to the next generation.”
I ask about his own family, and his siblings – two older sisters growing up in 60s and 70s Tokyo. Did his parents like cinema? Kore-eda’s eyes light up. “My mother loved films! She adored Ingrid Bergman, Joan Fontaine, Vivien Leigh. We couldn’t afford to go together to the cinema, but she was always watching their movies on TV. She stopped all family business or discussions to watch these movies. We would watch together. So I adored film – like her.”
I ventured to say that his mother must have been delighted when he told her that he wanted to be a movie director. At this idea, Kore-eda laughs and shakes his head. “No. My mother was really against it when I said I wanted to make films. She said that I should be a civil servant. Because that was safe, and it had security. But my mother was always very proud of my movies, and would give videocassettes of them to all the neighbours.”
And how about his father, I ask. Kore-eda’s smile is replaced with a sombre expression. “My father did not have a lot of security in his life. He did odd jobs. He had a real struggle to make money. He lost a lot of time in his 20s, after the war, because he was sent to a forced-labour camp in Siberia.” Kore-eda’s father was a soldier in the Kwantung army in the Japanese puppet state of Manchuria, defeated by Soviet forces in August 1945, a catastrophe for Japan that, almost as much as Hiroshima, hastened the surrender. Despite this formal capitulation, the Soviets treated captured troops as PoWs rather than civilian internees: Kore-eda Sr was one of approximately 500,000 men sent to labour camps. About a tenth of them died out there, and they were not all finally released until the early 1950s. “When he was drunk,” says Kore-eda quietly, “he would always tell us how horrible the Russians were.”
I ask how he reacts to being compared to Yasujiro Ozu. “I of course take it as a compliment,” he replies carefully. “I try to say thank you. But I think that my work is more like Mikio Naruse [the Japanese director of sombre working-class dramas] – and Ken Loach.”
I can’t resist asking about After Life, and how perplexingly difficult I found it to think of a truly “heavenly” memory in which I might want to spend eternity. Kore-eda smiles and shakes his head a little: “If you can’t choose, it means that you are still alive. Choose, and you’re dead.”
I mention that my favourite line in his works is said by the amiable slacker dad in I Wish: “Not everything has to be significant. Imagine if everything had meaning. You would choke!” It’s a sublime aesthetic credo. Is he aware of attaching significance to detail in his films?
“Details are important in a very small and subtle way,” he says. “In Our Little Sister, food is important: for example, when the women speak about the plum wine and the white fish.”
What food did his mother serve Kore-eda and his sisters? “We used to have prawn tempura: that was my mother’s favourite dish. But she had to go out to work, instead of my father, so she couldn’t find the time to cook nice meals. So we ate more modern food: a lot of frozen and instant food. But I never complained about it to my mother.” It occurs to me that Kore-eda is painting a picture of his home life that is rather different from the formal Ozu-esque poise of his films: the Kore-edas sitting on the couch, eating a ready meal, watching a Joan Fontaine movie on TV.
But, as Kore-eda says when talking about the incidental details in films, you always have to focus what lies beneath: “What are the characters really talking about?” he says. “Not wine or food … but family.”