TOKYO — As befits a director whose movies chart the untidiness of Japanese family life, the office of Hirokazu Kore-eda is cluttered with piles of papers, books, photographs, videocassettes and CDs. But it’s the dozens of Frankenstein dolls perched around the room that really capture his emotional point of view.
“I love Frankenstein,” Mr. Kore-eda said, reverently. “He is just so melancholy.”
Mr. Kore-eda, 56, whose latest work, “Shoplifters,” has received an Oscar nomination for best foreign language film and has been a box office hit in Japan, specializes in stories about people who endure almost unbearable sadness.
In “Shoplifters,” which won the Palme d’Or at the Cannes Film Festival last May, a group of outcasts who live together as a family rescue a little girl from abusive parents and induct her into their clan of petty thievery. For a while, their ragtag clan seems more authentically connected than some families that share DNA. But — spoiler alert — ethical doubts late in the movie lead to a devastating rupture.
Mr. Kore-eda says his films represent an implicit criticism of modern Japan. They tackle themes of isolation and social invisibility, as well as the numbing of souls that can come with professional success.
“Nobody Knows,” one of Mr. Kore-eda’s best-known films internationally before “Shoplifters,” is the story of four young children abandoned by their mother in their small Tokyo apartment. In “Like Father, Like Son,” which won the Jury Prize in Cannes in 2013, two sets of parents learn that their 6-year-old sons were switched at birth in the hospital, leading to agonizing decisions that expose class divisions between the families and leave them psychologically battered.
“I don’t portray people or make movies where viewers can easily find hope,” said Mr. Kore-eda, during an interview in his studio in the Shibuya neighborhood of Tokyo. “Some people want to see characters who grow and become stronger over the course of a film. But I don’t want to make such a movie.”
“It’s such a lie,” he added. “And I don’t want to tell a lie.”
Mr. Kore-eda’s vision is starkly at odds with that of Japan’s leaders. With the economy enjoying modest expansion after decades of stagnation, Prime Minister Shinzo Abe, in a speech at the World Economic Forum’s annual meeting in Davos last month, pronounced a “long-awaited positive feedback cycle” and trumpeted Japan as having a “hope-driven economy.”
Such rosy rhetoric belies the demographic challenges that Japan faces, with a declining and rapidly aging population and mounting labor shortages. It also overlooks the insecurity that many Japanese feel working in contract or part-time jobs with scant chance of advancement. A little over one in six people live in poverty. And those who hold full-time jobs are often forced to toil for such long hours that some of them are dying from overwork.
Against this backdrop, Mr. Kore-eda has identified a society where local ties have weakened and nationalism is on the rise, particularly under Mr. Abe’s right-leaning government.
So when, after he won the Palme d’Or, the country’s education minister invited Mr. Kore-eda for a congratulatory meeting, the director demurred.
“I didn’t get the point of why they were trying to congratulate me,” Mr. Kore-eda said. “I don’t think it’s right for the government and moviemakers to get too close. So I wanted to keep a distance from the government.”
“Shoplifters” was made in part with government funding, and some critics on social media have bashed the director as anti-Japan or hypocritical. “You took the money and then say that you want to keep a distance” from the government, wrote one blogger. “What a convenient excuse you make.” On Twitter, Tsuneyasu Takeda, a conservative commentator, accused Mr. Kore-eda of being a “shoplifting director.”
Mr. Kore-eda told an interviewer from Mainichi Shimbun, a Japanese daily, that he was grateful for the public money but viewed it as a subsidy from taxpayers rather than a grant from any particular administration.
“If you think of culture as something that transcends the state,” he said, “then you understand that cultural grants don’t always coincide with the interests of the state.”
The son of a soldier who served in the Japanese Kwantung Army during World War II in the puppet state of Manchukuo in China, Mr. Kore-eda grew up attuned to the vagaries of class within his own family. His father, who was a Soviet prisoner of war in Siberia, hopped from job to job, an anomaly in the postwar era of lifetime employment.
Mr. Kore-eda remembered visiting his father at work at a chemical factory on the outskirts of Tokyo, anticipating that he would observe him dressed in a lab coat mixing compounds in test tubes. Instead, Mr. Kore-eda found his father on the factory floor, wearing a jumpsuit covered in oil stains.
“I could tell he was not well treated or respected in the company,” said Mr. Kore-eda, who is now married with an elementary school-age daughter. “It was really shocking, and after coming home I could not really tell him how I felt about him. I felt pity for him.”
His mother, who had grown up in a wealthy family, ended up supporting her children when her husband could not find or keep a job. She worked at a recycling factory and a cake-making plant. Mr. Kore-eda said his two older sisters had warned him not to talk about their mother’s work history, out of embarrassment.
She nourished a love of movies in her son, watching Western films starring her favorites, Vivien Leigh and Joan Fontaine, on television with him after school.
But it was Mr. Kore-eda’s father who ultimately supported his decision to pursue a career as an artist. His mother urged him to find more stable employment.
At Waseda University in Tokyo, Mr. Kore-eda started out intending to become a novelist. But he watched a lot of Japanese television dramas and considered switching to screenwriting. He often cut class to go to the cinema to watch movies by Italian greats like Rossellini, Fellini and Visconti.
“It’s a bit cringy to say,” he said, a trace of a smile emerging from his salt-and-pepper stubble.
After graduation, he started out making documentaries, but switched to fictional, feature-length films in 1995 with “Maborosi,” the story of a woman recovering from the suicide of her husband. Stephen Holden, writing in The New York Times, described it as “a pictorial tone poem of astonishing visual intensity and emotional depth.”
The seed of “Shoplifters,” Mr. Kore-eda said, came from a news article about an entire family put on trial for shoplifting in Osaka, Japan’s third-largest city. And after making “Like Father, Like Son,” he wanted to further explore the theme of family beyond blood bonds.
In Japan, he said, “people still put a big emphasis on blood ties and family bonds,” a fixation that he sees as sometimes unhealthy.
Masahiro Yamada, a sociologist at Chuo University who has written about Mr. Kore-eda’s films, said that “Shoplifters” was a rebuke of the traditional view of the Japanese family, where only blood relations can be trusted.
“There are many families whose members don’t communicate or interact well,” Mr. Yamada said. “But the mock family members in the movie care for each other more than some real families.”
In their own way, Mr. Kore-eda’s movies offer slivers of optimism as well as moments of impish humor. But does he still have hope for his country?
He paused for several beats.
“I have not thrown away hope,” he said.
Orignially published in NYT.