Interview: Kore-eda Hirokazu on the Invisible People of Shoplifters

Kore-eda Hirokazu discusses what motivated him to make his Palme d’Or-winning triumph.

Hirokazu Kore-eda
Photo: Magnolia Pictures

When Slant last talked to filmmaker Kore-eda Hirokazu, Steve Macfarlane remarked in his introduction that the Japanese writer-director was becoming best known for his family dramas. Eighteen months later, it’s no longer just conjecture, as Kore-eda is now cemented as one of global cinema’s foremost humanist filmmakers in domestic dramas. It’s a fact reinforced by Cate Blanchett’s jury at the Cannes Film Festival bestowing the prestigious Palme d’Or on Kore-eda for his latest film, Shoplifters.

A tale of six people across three generations sharing a small home on the margins of Tokyo, Shoplifters feels cut from the same cloth as earlier Kore-eda efforts like Our Little Sister and I Wish. It differs in a key way, though saying how might ruin Kore-eda’s delicate reveal over the course of the film. But like the aforementioned films, Shoplifters maintains Kore-eda’s tremendous empathy and keen eye for how social conditions inform personal decisions.

I chatted with Kore-eda talked about how Shoplifters culls details from his own experiences to bring the film’s makeshift family to life, what motivated him to make the film, and the status of the English-language remake of Like Father, Like Son being developed by Steven Spielberg.

Like so many of your films, Shoplifters feels so free of the irony and pessimism that’s so pervasive in cinema today. How do you stay so optimistic, relatively speaking, about the ultimate inherent goodness of people?

I think maybe deep down I’m a pessimist. Having said that, it’s true that I do feel strongly that I do not want to make movies where the audience stands up at the end and says, “Man, I don’t want to ever see another human again or wish the world would end.” I do not want to make that kind of a movie.

In Shoplifters, you explore complex questions like nature versus nurture or chosen families versus biological families when it comes to what makes a family, and you do so by presenting “evidence” that each side could use to argue their case. Do you approach your films with the anticipation that people might emerge with two completely different interpretations?

In some ways that is true. I would feel it would be very arrogant of me to say, “This is the right way, this is what the conclusion you should come to.” And it would also be very irresponsible. For example, if I said, “Yes, of course blood doesn’t matter,” well, I’m not so sure about that. Like in the movie Like Father, Like Son, if I was faced with that situation where my child was not my own blood-related child, it’s not that I would stop loving that child. But I would also want to meet the child that was connected to me through blood. I believe that is human nature. To get all liberal and say it should all be the same, well, I don’t know. I think people can be both liberal and maybe conservative too.

Is the fact that Osamu and his family resort to shoplifting and living off the grandmother’s pension an indictment of larger structural forces in Japan that don’t allow enough opportunities to earn a living wage doing decent work?

It is definitely not a criticism of society, but the feeling that I had going into this movie was definitely anger. It’s not so much anger at a system or at a politician, but rather, as Cate Blanchett put it [during Cannes], “These are invisible people.” Who makes these people invisible? It’s our society as a whole, every one of us. I think this is an issue that I feel very strongly about.

Much of Shoplifters feels like it could take place in any time, but Aki’s work as providing sexual pleasures for men who she can’t see behind a glass partition feels wholly contemporary. How did you come to include this profession in the film?

I think it’s connected to that invisibility we were just talking about. First of all, that kind of work does actually exist in Japan, it wasn’t created. When you think about it, the old lady who lives there is the only one who the last name belongs to. Everyone else uses the same last name, but that isn’t actually their last name. On top of that, the name she uses when she’s hidden behind the mirror is her younger sister’s name. So, behind the magic mirror, she becomes her younger sister. That all is part of that sense of invisibility, that no one can quite see them for who they really are—or see them at all.

Many of your more recent films have been more “personal” in the sense that they pull heavily from your own life. Though the origins of Shoplifters derive more from your research of communities falling through the holes in the safety net, is it any less personal?

I don’t think I feel that different about it. The movies that I made before that were theoretically more personal were not all personal. Every piece of information is not totally autobiographical. In this case, I can’t say that there aren’t elements of the family that aren’t personal as well. I don’t know that I can divide it out that clearly. Still Walking and After the Storm were quite personal movies, and a lot of autobiographical elements were in those movies, it’s true. But at the same time, it has to be a film. So, while it has a large autobiographical element to it, the important element is how to distance yourself from it so that you can look at it in a more objective way and create something that is entertaining. So, yes, there is that process involved, but it still has to be a movie.

And in a different way, this would be kind of the reverse process where you’re looking at a larger picture, but there’s elements of myself in it. I grew up in a family where there were six people living in a very small space. And because I often didn’t have a space, like the boy in the movie, I would sleep in the closet and peek out between the doors. That was my personal space because I had nowhere else to go. And I did have a grandfather who would go to the entranceway and cut his nails. Small details like that definitely come from my own experience as a child, and I’ve included them because I find that it kind of anchors the film a bit. Otherwise it would float away if it was all theoretical.

Without spoiling the ending, the third act of Shoplifters has a pretty stark shift in your aesthetic from warm long shots to pretty stark closer shots that frame the characters dead center. Did you always know that the look of the film needed to change when the stakes do?

I had some awareness of this as well, but the person who really clarified that and put it into action was Mr. Kondo [Ryuto], the director of photography. He really was the person who made that happen.

Since you mentioned Like Father, Like Son, what’s the status of the English-language remake?

It’s following a somewhat meandering path, but it is still in the process of being developed. I have not given up yet!

Like Father, Like Son hits that paradoxical sweet spot of being so specific that it can play universally. Did you also aim for that with Shoplifters?

It’s interesting that you ask that because I have received repeatedly responses from audiences in Europe and North America how much what this film depicts is happening everywhere. I feel hopeful that maybe in fact that maybe it is something that would lead to a remake. But before we even go there, most important to me is that this film is shown in as many theaters in the United States as possible and seen by as many people as possible.

Translation by Deidre Tanaka

Marshall Shaffer

Marshall Shaffer is a New York-based film journalist. His interviews, reviews, and other commentary on film also appear regularly in Slashfilm, Decider, and Little White Lies.

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