Cannes: Director Hirokazu Koreeda on the Manga-Inspired Drama 'Our Little Sister' (Q&A)

The Japanese helmer discusses returning to Cannes with his competition entry and how Steven Spielberg indirectly helped him get financing.

A longtime favorite of the international festival circuit, Hirokazu Koreeda scored a breakout hit in 2013 with his last film, Like Father, Like Son. The babies-swapped-at-birth drama earned more than $30 million at the box office in Japan, won the Jury Prize at Cannes and was picked up for a remake by Steven Spielberg’s DreamWorks (Spielberg was head of the jury). His follow-up, Our Little Sister, the tale of three sisters getting to know their young half-sibling after their father’s funeral, will get the red-carpet treatment in Cannes on May 15.

Koreeda, 52, talked to THR about the luxury of a bigger budget, the appeal of making films about families and why it’s good to not have too many hits.

Our Little Sister is based on a women’s manga. How did you come across the original comic and decide to film it?

I read it soon after it was published. I’ve been a fan of Yoshida Akimi’s manga for a long time; she’s one of a few women’s manga writers that I always read. As I was reading it, I thought, “Somebody is going to film this — in that case, I want to be the one to do it.” I wasn’t looking for a film project when I read it.

What was it about the story that appealed to you?

It was the element of children who had been left or abandoned by their parents, and then one of them getting taken in to live with the other sisters. And that girl is the daughter of the woman who led to the breakup of their own happy family — that’s one of the interesting elements. The story of abandoned children links it with my own film Nobody Knows [Koreeda’s debut film at Cannes, in 2004], but it actually didn’t occur to me until afterward.

The actress who plays the younger sister is Suzu Hirose, whose character is also called Suzu. Was that the name in the original manga?

Yes, it was the same name, just a coincidence. But as soon as she auditioned for the part, everyone there thought, “This is Suzu.” She was that perfect for the part — her acting is excellent and she has subtlety. In fact, finding her was a big thing for this film. 

In rewriting the manga for the film, you must have changed some elements and cut others. What are the biggest differences from the original story?

I don’t actually think it’s very different, but the original title is Umimachi Diary, and it was written like a journal. That was part of the manga’s appeal, but to put that into a two-hour film centered on the four sisters, mainly Suzu and Sachi, I had to change things. It was a big challenge.

How did you re-create the changing of the seasons?
We shot in spring, summer and winter, over 10 months. Staying true to that part of the original story was one of the few requests from the manga’s author. There aren’t major happenings in the story, so that transition of the characters along with the seasons is really vital.

There are three funeral scenes in the film — are they from the original manga?

Yes, it’s all from the manga, though people wearing mourning clothes three times is probably a lot in one film. Somehow, it’s good, though, mourning wear. [Laughs.] This is a tale of people who have gone: the father of the four sisters, Suzu’s mother, the grandmother. And though they’re no longer there physically, their presence is felt by the other characters. It’s the story of how the town moves through time as well as the people, as they come and go.   

Your last film, Like Father, Like Son, was a hit at the box office in Japan, won an award at Cannes and got picked up by Spielberg for a remake. How much has that changed things for you?

It has gotten easier to raise money. It’s definitely good to have a hit from time to time, though not too often. If you have a few hits in a row, people start to think every film you make will be a hit, which is a big mistake. Compared to 10 years ago, I have bigger budgets, but not too big; they have to be paid back in the end. But I was able to shoot across four seasons this time, which was a kind of luxury. There were parts of the filming that were beyond my control, but that worked out very well — like the fact that the actress playing Suzu was growing up and maturing as we shot; it was incredibly fortunate that occurred across the time we were making the film.

You said you were surprised to get selected for Cannes again after your last film was in competition.

Yes, up until now it’s been about every 10 years: Once in my thirties, once in my forties and then in my fifties for Like Father, Like Son, so I thought the next time would be when I was in my sixties. I think the fact that the last film was well received there is a big factor. I’m very happy, though — it honestly is the ultimate place for this film’s world premiere.

Your last two films have been focused on families. Is that a theme you’ll continue exploring?

I’m not planning to only make films about families, but they are interesting. The role of the family house in this film was also powerful. The way the older sister becomes a mother to the younger one, but then her dimension as a daughter comes to the fore when her own mother returns. It’s within the setting of a family that those elements are expressed.

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