"I Try to Avoid Being Slushy": Director Hirokazu Kore-eda on his Foreign-Language Oscar Hopeful 'Shoplifters'

Courtesy of Magnolia Pictures
Lily Franky and Jyo Kairi star in 'Shoplifters.' "I give them various things to try out, but never gave them a script or the story," says Kore-eda of how he auditions young actors.

Director Hirokazu Kore-eda deconstructs the shortlisted blockbuster, his preoccupation with familial bonds and why he won't be making a $100  million Hollywood production anytime soon.

Hirokazu Kore-eda’s 13th feature, Shoplifters, has helped cement the filmmaker’s position as Japan’s foremost chronicler of what it means to be human. And as with many of the auteur’s deliberate, nuanced character studies — which he writes, directs and edits — his latest drama examines everyday life in Tokyo through the prism of familial connections, this time centering on an extended family of petty thieves who, despite barely surviving, take in a young girl they suspect is suffering from abuse and neglect at home.

Following on from the success of Like Father, Like Son, which took the jury prize at Cannes in 2013, Shoplifters won the Palme d'Or in May and has been lauded worldwide. The Oscar-shortlisted Shoplifters was also a blockbuster at home, earning just over $40 million at the Japan box office. It also sparked controversy: After his Cannes triumph, Kore-eda, 56, was not congratulated by Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe, leading to speculation that the film’s implied critique of Japan’s economic disparity was not to the conservative leader’s liking. 

Kore-eda sat down with THR at the offices of his Bun-Buku production company in Tokyo's Shibuya district to talk about how his own family situation has shifted his filmmaking, how one film can't change the world and the death of his muse Kirin Kiki shortly after Shoplifters was released.

What inspired the idea for the film?

After I'd shot Like Father, Like Son, I had a vague idea about doing a story about a family that goes beyond blood ties. So then thinking about how to link the family aside from blood, I thought about them being connected by crime, the parents teaching the children to be criminals. That was the start, about four years ago, and I started slowly writing the script, while working on other things, with Lily Franky and Kiki Kirin in mind. Then about two years back, there was a case in the news of a family who had been making a living by shoplifting, around Osaka. They had sold all the other stuff they stole for money to live on, but kept some fishing rods. They kept the rods in their house and that was how they got caught. I thought they must have really liked fishing, which intrigued me. I started by writing a scene based on that, though it ended up having a different connotation in the film.

Is Shoplifters intended to be a commentary on income inequality in contemporary Japan?

I’m asked this a lot: Is a film an indictment of something? When I’m asked if I am angry at the government, at society, at the system — none of that is my intention. If there is anger, it is at all of us, the people who pretend not to see such people as a family, who close their eyes to what is happening. In the first half, there is sympathy for the family, and somehow we want them to continue like that, but then the police come into the picture to break them up, because that is the socially responsible thing to do. I think audiences probably start to feel uncomfortable in the latter part of the film. If that case really occurred, we would surely take the stance of the police: that it wasn't a real family, it was connected by crime, it couldn't continue like that and that is was awful. I made the film with the idea of examining how we as a people view and judge the fringes of society.

Do you think the film led to any kind of discussion of poverty in Japan?

I don't think one film is going to change anything, and that's not my intention either. Because I think it's a dangerous thing to make a film with that in mind. However, I made Nobody Knows, which was based on a real incident that happened in 1988. But even in 2004, 16 years later, people were largely unaware of the word 'neglect' in Japan. But since that time, it has begun to be used in the media in terms of children not being taken care of. So it's possible that this film may have some influence in the future, though films shouldn't be made with that intention.

Family has been the central theme of your films and the question of what makes a family is at the core of Shoplifters. Why is this theme so important to you?

From a very personal perspective, over the last 15 years or so I lost my parents and became a parent myself and realized how, as the members and their roles in a family unit shift like the links in a chain, it connects with the next generation, which is fascinating. When I made family dramas in my 40s, they were from the perspective of a son, but then — I'm 56 now — I started to make them from the standpoint of a parent and that is a new experience. And in terms of portraying humans, it's a really useful way of doing it; as in this film, to show someone as a daughter, as a sister, as a wife, as a mother. People are multi-faceted within a family. Working within the constraints of a budget, family dramas are a great medium through which to depict people.

You always get very natural performances from children, is there a secret?

No secret, just being patient with them. You have to be able to wait long enough to create a situation where they can do what they need to do; it takes longer than with adults. There’s a reason why they don’t want to do it — they’re tired, they’re hungry, or something’s wrong. For example, the lines I’ve written aren’t the language they would usually use, so it doesn’t flow. In that case, I tell them to change it into their own words. On this film, with Miyu, the youngest girl, she began to realize after the grandma had died and been buried, that the story was going to get sad, so she didn't want to carry on doing it. Then, with the scene where she had to lie to the police about how many people they went to the seaside with, she didn't feel confident she could do that, so we waited nearly two hours for her to go into the room.

How did you come up with the idea of juxtaposing petty-criminal behavior against familial love and what did you mean to convey through that contrast?

Their behavior, rather than straightforward love. They were people who had been cast out of family groups and came together to regain some of that — that rebuilding was the core of it. I don't see that and their criminal behavior as a contrast. They were connected by crime.

Shoplifters, like your other films, is full of warmth but never crosses the line into sentimentality; do you consciously work at achieving this balance?

Thank you. I do try to avoid being slushy. I'm definitely not asking the audience to simply sympathize and cry with this family; it's better if they can follow along a little more dispassionately.

Your films have a very subtle sensibility, with themes gathering slowly and profound moments arriving almost by implication. Is that an approach you've deliberately taken?

I'm often told my stories are slow paced, but that's not my intention at all. I guess it's just my rhythm and heartbeat. Of course with this film, it starts slowly, but the rhythm changes in the second half, raising the tension, which was a deliberate choice I made.

Kiki Kirin passed away shortly after the film was released. You've worked with her many times, what kind of impact did her death have on you?

As well as working on six films together over the last decade, Kirin-san lived just five minutes away from here. So we often went out to eat together and she would give us stuff she no longer needed, like a sofa, which we would all go and carry here [to the studio]. It was an unusual relationship, not really like a director and actor — she was a good partner. But she wasn't the type to hold back, she would tell you off for not doing things properly, so I had to make films that we'd be proud of. When you took a script to her, you had to explain your vision clearly; of course you should do that with all actors, but I really had to it with Kirin-san. Having an actor like that was really a blessing for a director. I wanted to her to see me as a real director. Honestly, I'm not sure what I'll do now. I can't look for a replacement for her. In the way that my directing changed when my parents died and I became a parent, she was the mother figure in my filmmaking community and I have to adjust to that loss. It'll take me a little more time yet.

What did you want to communicate with that final scene of the little girl on the balcony?

I don't think explaining the last scene is something that I should do as a director. There are people who will see it as a hopeless situation and those who see it more positively, and that's fine. I don't see it as just going back to the way it was. The scene before where the little girl shakes her head and refuses to go to her mother; that was something she was previously unable to do. She may still suffer abuse, but she's changed.

Were you surprised by the film’s success, both in terms of acclaim and box office?

We didn't spend as much as we did on, say, The Third Murder. I don't really think about casting actors in order to pull in audiences, but this time I didn't give that any thought, I was just focused on the production. It wasn't really low-budget, but I thought it might do 500 or 600 million yen ($4.5 – $5.4 million) in Japan, but it finished with 10 times that. Of course, the Palme d'Or was big. When I finished it, the reaction from those around me was very positive. I thought it had some universality and it felt right, but I didn't think it would do this well. I'm grateful. I'll make another film [laughs].

You just finished shooting The Truth in France, in French and English. Have you considered working on a Hollywood project?

More than doing a Hollywood project, there are actors from abroad I’d like to work with. I got to work with Ethan Hawke on [The Truth]. I wondered if a director who can only speak Japanese can work with actors from overseas. But after doing it in France, I thought that actually I can do it. If you have good actors and shared values, you can actually understand a lot of what is happening.

Your films are full of subtleties, did you worry about nuances getting lost in other languages?

Yes, I'm still worried. I had a fully bilingual translator by my side for the whole two months, and everything went through her, checking nuances. With English, I can understand a little, so I end up trying to listen to it, but with French, I can't understand it all, so I could focus just on the rhythm and the feeling. I think it worked out okay. I'll be editing from now on, working with the French staff as well, so it will take some time.

What would landing an Oscar nomination mean to you?

Until I've actually received a nomination I won't really know. But it would open doors for me in terms of who I get to work with and where, in the same way that Cannes did. I would have more options. I’m hopeful. But I’m not hoping that it will suddenly lead me to work on a $100 million Hollywood film.

A version of this story first appeared in the Jan. 4 issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine. To receive the magazine, click here to subscribe.