Where to Start with Hirokazu Kore-eda

Born in Tokyo in 1962, acclaimed Japanese filmmaker Hirokazu Kore-eda’s passion for cinema was fostered by his mother from an early age as they watched many a classic film on TV together throughout his childhood. 

Getting his start in the film industry as an assistant director on small-screen documentaries, he made his narrative feature debut in 1995 with Marborosi and immediately attracted attention at film festivals. Over the following three decades, Kore-eda has become one of the most critically-acclaimed and influential directors in the world, cementing his legacy as a filmmaking great of the late 20th and early 21st centuries both in his native Japan and around the world.

Best-known for low-key, realistic dramas focussing on often unconventional family units and marginalised groups in contemporary Japan, he has also shown flexibility with magical realist tales (After Life), semi-autobiographical stories (Still Walking), twist-filled mysteries (The Third Murder, Monster) and oddball satires (Air Doll).

Throughout his career, Kore-eda has developed strong collaborative relationships with a core group of actors, particularly Susumu Terajima, Arata Iura, Yui Natsukawa, Kirin Kiki and Lily Franky, as well as regular cinematographer Yutaka Yamasaki.

Kore-eda picks his everyday locations well, has a forensic eye for detail, and keeps tight control over every aspect of his productions, handling the editing of footage personally. He is apparently unperturbed by working outside of his home country or in a different language to his first, in recent years having successfully brought his distinct style to films made in France and South Korea (The Truth and Broker, respectively).

With 16 features to his name and many subjects explored in great depth, where should you begin with the career of this modern Japanese master? Allow this Guide from The Film Magazine to offer some suggestions on Where to Start with Hirokazu Kore-eda.

1. Nobody Knows (2004)

Arguably the most powerful and painful of Hirokazu Kore-eda’s many family dramas, Nobody Knows puts you behind the sad eyes of suffering abandoned children and refuses to give you an easy out.

An immature single mother (You) abandons her young children alone in their cramped Tokyo apartment for long periods, leaving her eldest son Akira (Yuya Yagira) to look after his three young siblings who have been smuggled in without the landlord’s knowledge in increasingly desperate circumstances. With their limited food and money, and clean clothes running out, Akira attracts the attention of bullied highschooler Saki (Hanae Kan) and soon has to make some difficult decisions to save his more vulnerable siblings from malnourishment and squalor. 

Inspired by an upsetting real case reported in the press in the mid-1990s, this is hard-hitting in the extreme, particularly during the scenes of children trying to make meagre food go further, but it makes you truly appreciate the little moments of tranquillity and happiness all the more, as well as the moments in which these kids are actually allowed to be kids for tragically short periods of time. The only way the littler children are going to get through this is through play, but eventually the reality of their situation reasserts itself in a heartbreakingly definitive way. 

There might not be another director working today who is more adept at getting naturalistic performances out of children than Kore-eda. The lead of Nobody Knows, Yuya Yagira, became the youngest ever winner of Cannes Film Festival’s Best Actor prize when the film premiered there, and when you realise to what extent to film will revolve around Akira’s stubborn determination to act beyond his years and the authentic chemistry he has with the younger actors portraying his siblings, you can easily see why. Singer-turned-TV personality and actress You lights up the screen in her brief appearance as the mother, which makes it all the more understandable and ultimately tragic that her younger children idolise her just as Akira is old enough to realise how infrequently they are all on her mind. 

Nobody Knows extols the virtues of unbreakable family bonds and of the surprising resilience of children not yet old enough to understand the extent to which they are neglected, but it is no fairy tale and acknowledges that childhood will end a lot faster for kids who are left behind to fend for themselves.

2. Like Father, Like Son (2013)

Broker wasn’t Hirokazu Kore-eda’s first film about unconventional adoption processes; a decade before he released the Cannes Jury Prize-winning Like Father, Like Son.

What happens when parents discover their biological children were switched at birth due to a clerical error? Two Japanese families, the middle-class Nonomiyas (Masaharu Fukuyama and Machiko Ono) and the working-class Saikis (Lily Franky and Yoko Maki), must make the unimaginable decision to give the sons they’ve raised for six years back to their birth families or to raise them as their own, ultimately agreeing to a trial period for the boys and their respective families. 

Like Father, Like Son has the feeling of a social experiment presented as an emotionally-charged comedy-drama, where two very different parenting styles and family experiences (poor but affectionate vs affluent and distant) are compared and contrasted against each other for their respective merits and drawbacks.

Your heart goes out to the two adorable boys, Keita and Ryusei (Keita Ninomiya and Shogen Hwang) as their lives are up-ended and their loyalties and affections confused at a crucial point in their development. The film’s best and most telling moments come in the interactions between the two fathers (Fukuyama and Franky excel in the one-on-ones), neither of whom have the answers but are still keen to impress the other man with how they (want to appear to) have got their respective home lives sorted.

What makes a family? Blood or who raised you? Nature or nurture? As shown time and time again in his work, Kore-eda is passionate about highlighting social issues and talking about how traditional values in his home country can be damaging to many living there today; how your family’s reputation and outward appearance is put above your family’s happiness. Why should you care if your child turns out not to be biological if everything they are is because of your choices as a parent?

After the film brought Kore-eda newfound attention and box office success around the world, an inevitable English-language remake was proposed. Thankfully, a decade on, this still hasn’t manifested.

3. Shoplifters (2018)

Shoplifters Review

Attracting an impressive list of awards attention including an Oscar nomination and winning the Cannes Palme d’Or, this socially conscious contemporary fable acted as a second breakthrough for Hirokazu Kore-eda and brought him a new legion of fans around the world.

The Shibata clan, a found family in Tokyo, welcome a young girl under their roof after she has been neglected and locked out by her parents in the dead of winter. They teach her to survive on what they can steal in a country where theft, no matter how desperate the motivation, is seen as a particularly shameful crime.

Kore-eda always gives his audience time to get to know and love his ensembles, and every actor brings so much depth to their characters. Much like Fagin from “Oliver Twist”, Lily Franky’s Osamu seems to have genuine affection for the kids he has taught to steal, and yet he puts them unnecessarily in harm’s way and seems more driven by compulsion than a need to survive at a certain point. His wife Nobuyo (Sakura Ando) is more protective of their chosen family but will go along with her husband’s schemes until he has boxed them into a corner. The elderly Hatsue (a dignified late-career turn from Kirin Kiki), whose pension they have relied on for a long time, just seems happy to have a family surrounding her in her twilight years. The younger members of the family (chiefly Mayu Matsuoka and Kairi Jo), whether they have willingly chosen to be part of Osamu’s operation or stick with him out of necessity, all go through their crises of conscience, asking (just as we do): how far would you go for your loved ones?

Though there are moments of agonising pathos and rapturous joy, it is the quiet, seemingly unremarkable moments that really make Shoplifters – dinner time and bath time, the family enjoying each other’s company and goofing off with each other, a sympathetic shopkeeper imploring the adult across from him not to make a young child his accomplice. 

There is a warmth and a gentle humour to much of Shoplifters, but also a palpable anger about how a sizeable section of Japanese society has been abandoned by its institutions; those in power refusing welfare reforms to help those desperate enough to steal in a society where it is such a shameful act. Shoplifters may well be Kore-eda’s most thematically universal film, and it is certainly among his most crowd-pleasing and visually beautiful works as well.

Recommended for you: More “Where to Start with…” Guides

If you would like some more varied Hirokazu Kore-eda film recommendations after watching the above, Our Little Sister is an incredibly heartfelt coming-of-age film, Air Doll is a bizarro comedy Manga adaptation, and Monster will keep you guessing before emotionally destroying you in its final moments.

There’s a reason Hirokazu Kore-eda’s films have transcended geographical origins and have even begun to cross over with audiences outside of film festivals: his stories connect. Much like British proponents of naturalism and social justice, Ken Loach and Mike Leigh, or Japan’s own Yasujirō Ozu, Kore-eda’s politically-engaged stories following real people facing real challenges stemming from inequality and disenfranchisement are only connecting more strongly over time as the world regresses further. Kore-eda’s films are about important issues, but more than anything they are fundamentally humanist. His portrayal of family – whatever form it takes – still has the power to give you hope for the future.

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