May 2018, Cannes, France. Film fans, critics, and media from all over the world sat and watched in anticipation, waiting for the name to be unveiled: the winner of this year’s Palme d’Or, Cannes Film Festival’s most prestigious prize. Hirokazu Kore-eda, Shoplifters. The name echoed, the audience applauded, Japan rejoiced, and film critics nodded in agreement: Kore-eda had long captured movie fans’ hearts and his award was wholeheartedly endorsed.
Described by the media as “Japanese cinema’s humanist extraordinaire” (Film Comment, US), and “Japanese master whose films never lack heart” (AFP), today, Kore-eda is one of the most internationally acclaimed Japanese directors. Known over the last 20 years as a master of works that delicately opens a window into the Japanese (often invisible sides of) the family household, Kore-eda shows the soft intimacy and imperfections of what it means to be human. More specifically, what it means to be human in Japan.
A key factor contributing to his acclaimed career is Kore-eda’s subtle skill of telling stories about real people in real life situations: protagonists undergoing real hardships that we, the viewers, have difficulties imagining would exist in a socially-organized country such as Japan. His stories are about ultimately having to accept and acknowledge the pain of change, or that of absence. Through his films, he shows us a side of Japan that has long been ignored and invisible, yet is just as real as every other aspect of the society.
In celebration of the director’s award, we’ve put together a list of five of his earlier works that are equally as captivating and revealing as Shoplifters; five works that skillfully capture the essence of the human heart.
After Life, ワンダフルライフ（1999年）
The message of this human drama is simple and clear from the start: Life after death exists. And if you were to take only one memory with you to the other world, your most precious memory, what would it be?
The transition from life to death in this movie takes form first as a limbo that acts as a social service system where the recently deceased can choose one memory to relive for the rest of their next life. Each person must externalize their memory so it can be recreated and filmed before they go to the next life to experience it on repeat forever. This movie makes the viewer question how we measure the worth of our memories and the validity of the methods we use to either preserve or erase them. Kore-eda has based the script on real accounts from real people — not actors; bringing to life, in death, the innate power of details, and calling into question the design that captures them.
Lead actors: ARATA, Erika Oda
Nobody knows, 誰も知らない（2004年）
Inspired by true events, Nobody Knows follows four children abandoned by their mother in the vast metropolis of Tokyo. The viewer is invited inside the confines of their small apartment where their absent mother has forbid them to leave, save for the eldest sibling, Akira, who adopts the role of substitute parent. Somewhere between documentary and understated drama, the film observes the four half-siblings as they try to survive on instant cup noodles, yellowing toy pianos, and the distant prospect of one day being able to go outside to watch planes fly at Haneda. Faced with poverty and challenges that no five to twelve year old are prepared to face, Kore-eda’s film gives the viewer permission to subtly and slowly digest their reality without overtly asking us to.
Lead actors: Yuya Yagira, Ayu Kitaura, YOU
Like Father, Like Son そして父になる（2013年）
A couple learns that their six-year-old son isn’t really theirs. Switched at birth, the two boys grow up in entirely different households. In a struggle to choose between their real son and the son they’ve raised, businessman and neglectful father Ryota has to confront the idea of nature vs. nurture. Urged by his own father to choose blood over anything and urged by his wife to consider the son they have raised, this film reflects on the delicate nature of how we value what we love and how the threat of its absence can transform us — and most importantly, what makes us a parent. Viewers will be immersed into this movie through its numerous emotionally-tense scenes with intermittent bows of politeness, hushed voices, and raised ones, as well as the stark contrasts at play in an environment, which, ironically, in the world of parenthood, are often meant for the wellbeing of our children.
Lead actors: Masaharu Fukuyama, Yoko Maki, Lily Franky
After the storm, 海よりもまだ深く（2016年）
An endearing, lighthearted tale of a late-blooming detective and once award-winning writer, After the storm tells the story of Ryota whose life has spiraled to a somewhat low. Currently indulging a gambling problem, and not having written anything worthwhile in years, Ryota makes an attempt to repair his relationship with his family. His ex-wife is tired of his failures and broken promises, and his sister suspects him of borrowing money from their mother. He in return suspects her of doing the same. In an effort to bond with his son, he takes him out during a storm in a touching scene that reflects on one’s existence. The dynamic characters in this drama bring smiles, humor, and a slow-paced emotional journey to try to correct past mistakes. As we watch, we can’t help but think of the meaning of the title of this movie, which in Japanese translates as “(Something) deeper even than the ocean.”
Lead actors: Hiroshi Abe, Kiki Kirin, Yoko Maki
The Third Murder, 三度目の殺人（2017年）
A crime thriller inspired by Kore-eda’s interest in exploring the real intentions of the legal justice system and the philosophical ethics of those participating in it. A dark story where a man confesses to the violent crime he is being tried for despite certainly facing the death penalty if found guilty. However, the man accused starts to change his story when he talks to his lawyer, Shigemori, who eventually also starts to question the evidence and circumstances surrounding the case. Is a man guilty because of past crimes? Is a man better or worse for the motive behind the crime? What validates killing another human being — and what validates the death penalty? A departure from Kore-eda’s family dramas, this film still manages to capture what he does best — question and harness the tangibility of humanity on screen in all its imperfections.
Lead actors: Masaharu Fukuyama, Suzu Hirose, Kōji Yakusho
At times, distinctly present in Kore-eda’s films are the gaps — the spaces where something needs to be filled, or where changes feel the need to be made. An absent mother, a finding of oneself, a family member that you can’t define, an idea that you can’t swallow or manage. Indulging in one of his films is like watching a flower unfold, it’s petals eventually falling to the ground in a peaceful and yet painful truth. An audience surely has much to learn about themselves, their hearts, and their minds on Kore-eda’s screen.