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Interview: Hirokazu Kore-eda on After the Storm

The epitome of grace, Kore-eda discusses the lightness of touch that’s become his signature.

Hirokazu Kore-eda
Photo: Film Movement

Hirokazu Kore-eda has mellowed out. Initially renown for bleak, yet spellbinding, works like Maborosi and Nobody Knows—following a young woman widowed by freak happenstance and a gang of children abandoned by their mother, respectively—the filmmaker’s recent output has retained his formal delicacy while probing milder affairs of the heart.

Over the last half-decade, the fragmented family has emerged as Kore-Eda’s driving fascination: I Wish follows a pair of brothers made to live in different neighborhoods after their parents’ divorce, while Like Father, Like Son concerns a pair of infants accidentally swapped at the hospital; and Our Little Sister tells the story of a trio of young women integrating their newly discovered teenage half-sister into their shared household, after the death of the family’s callous patriarch. If some have dinged these as “lesser” Kore-edas, presumably for their lack of dramatic severity, each demonstrates the lightness of touch that’s become the auteur’s signature.

His new film, After the Storm, stars Hiroshi Abe as Ryota, a gambling addict whose aspirations as a writer have refused to pan out, in tandem with the collapse of his marriage to Kyoko (Yôko Maki), and subsequent forge to take sufficient care of their son, Shingo (Taiyô Yoshizawa). Frequently hilarious, the film’s scenes of Ryota’s constant hustle are informed by a certain class divide: Kyoko has already consigned to a better quality of life, while the woebegone Ryota tends to see his own marginal status as confirmation of virtue.

It all culminates in a sweep of set-piece serendipity that would, in nearly any other filmmaker’s hands, run risk of being horribly overwrought: A monsoon forces Kyoko to stay overnight with Ryota and Shingo at the home of her former mother-in-law, Yoshiko (Kirin Kiki). The emotions burbling beneath the film’s surface are tremendous, but kept at bay by the bittersweet ironies of daily life: Over the course of one long night, all four characters have betrayed wildly different expectations for how the tempest will shake out.

Kore-Eda received a rock-star reception when After the Storm played at last year’s Toronto International Film Festival. And in a chat the following morning the filmmaker was, to nobody’s surprise, the epitome of grace.

It would appear that you’re working much faster than in the 1990s or 2000s. What’s changed?

I’m grateful for the fact that my pace of filmmaking has been able to increase in the last five years. Commercially, my films have been more successful in Japan. Of course, they’re not particularly big-budget, but this means that I have a very good relationship with the production and distribution teams. They know what I make is going to be successful, and that certainly helped with the pace. Before that I was making one movie every three years, so my projects were kind of piling up. I really wanted to get them done and I was feeling rushed, like, “I just need to get them out there.”

To your mind, does this new workflow lead to repetition or overlap between themes and ideas? Are you focusing on the same things, or trying to keep the works disparate from one another?

They overlap for sure. For example, right now in my head I have four different projects going on. Two already have scripts, and the other two are in the process of being developed. At any given time I will have three or four in the works. But not all of them will necessarily be made. One I had the script ready for, but we couldn’t get the finances together. The projects don’t always lead to completed films, but they’re always rolling around in my head.

Do you see yourself working within a tradition of melodrama, Japanese or otherwise? The films are dealing with complex issues, such as class, loss, healing, and family, but without being prescriptive.

I would say that After the Storm is much more informed by my personal life than my other movies. Much of it is based on memories of myself as a child. And then there’s the “How do I portray this?” approach, which is based on several things in Japanese tradition: the house, the way in which tatami is depicted. There’s a whole tradition of this and I certainly see myself as fitting in that history, the history of Japanese drama. I particularly relate to the films of Mikio Naruse and Shinichi Kamoshita, a person whose work I watched very much as a child, a director of family dramas for television. He’s about 80 now. And I feel more and more that I’m exploring Naruse, and feeling Kamoshita’s influence, in terms of how to create drama.

The main character of this film has a gambling problem, but he’s not a victim. He’s not an archetype. I found him to be both hilarious and ultimately very moving. Is it easy to write a character like this?

It’s all there in the script, but After the Storm was in fact written with Hiroshi Abe in mind—and also Kirin Kiki. Those actors were chosen before I wrote the film, so whenever I was thinking, “What can Abe do to make people laugh,” that’s the way it was written. What was difficult was finding a balance between the serious and the funny. I don’t really like something serious depicted in a serious way; that’s not my style. The challenge was always the fine line of “How funny do I want this to be?” I must say, having watched the audience’s response here in Toronto, I think the film landed in a very good place.

The films in this more recent period, let’s say starting with I Wish…they’re gentler than some of the early works. Has it gotten easier to tell your stories? Beyond the ease of financing, I mean.

When you’re in your teens and 20s, I found that it was easy to fixate on death: “What is death?” I’m in my 50s now, my father and my mother have both died, many of the people who are close to me have died, and so death is no longer a fixation. It’s very much real, and a part of my life now. I’m still fascinated by what’s missing, what is not present. Whether that’s a person, or something else, death is now so close to reality that perhaps something inside of me has shifted and I’m less fixated on death, more so on loss. I’m coming from a different perspective this time. We can see loss as something missing, but that missing space can be filled with something else, and that creates healing. Maybe the shift is toward seeing loss as a possibility or an opportunity for change, instead of something you want to obsess over. I’ve changed, I’ve become more optimistic in that sense.

Translation by Diedre Tanaka

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