This year’s Cannes Film Festival, which closed last month, saw a timely focus on the issues of sexual harassment that have dominated the film industry press over the last year. The discussion reached a shocking conclusion when actor Asia Argento made a speech during the closing ceremony, accusing disgraced producer Harvey Weinstein of raping her at the festival back in 1997, when she was 21 years old. Argento called the festival his ‘hunting ground’. Elsewhere, president of the jury Cate Blanchett – who is one of only four female presidents in the last 20 years – led 82 women in a protest up the set of red carpeted stairs. The number represented the number of films made by women that had entered the festival during its 70 year history, compared to 1,645 made by men over the same time period.
Amid all these shocks, however, there was another surprise that had a happier tone: Shoplifters, the 13th film from Japanese director Hirokazu Kore-eda, took home the Palme d’Or, marking the culmination of a twenty year-long career in which Kore-eda has delivered some of the best-crafted dramas of modern cinema.
Beginning his career in television, Kore-eda worked as an assistant director for TV documentaries, before making the switch to film with a series of documentaries in the early 1990s. 1995 saw the release of his first feature film, Maborosi, which centred around a widow trying to make sense of the death of her husband, who was hit by a train while out walking by the tracks. The late Roger Ebert gave the film his highest rating, saying “There isn’t a shot in the movie that’s not graceful and pleasing.”
Kore-eda’s real breakthrough came in 2004, with the release of Nobody Knows. Taking inspiration from the 1988 Sugamo child abandonment case, in which a media storm was created when a group of children were found living in a Tokyo apartment after being abandoned by their mother nine months earlier, Nobody Knows centres around four children who are left to fend for themselves. Lead actor Yuya Yagira became the youngest winner of the Cannes Best Actor Prize, for his portrayal of Akira, the eldest child who becomes the de facto head of the family.
“Kore-eda’s dramas explore the push-pull of intimacy and emotion”
From then on, Kore-eda released a film every couple of years, often to critical acclaim. Film critics have often pointed out the debt he owes to Yasujiro Ozu, one of the greatest film directors of the twentieth century. Like Ozu, Kore-eda’s films often centre around the theme of the family, or of relationships, gently exploring how we relate to others in the world around us; that push-pull of intimacy and emotion that comes with living a life closely meshed with others. Kore-eda’s camerawork also conveys a similar sense of stillness as Ozu; often filming from lower angles, Kore-eda will meticulously frame his shots, often interspersing them with what became known in Ozu’s work as ‘pillow shots’ – short clips of the world around the characters, identifying a sense of time and place.
Since 2011, with the release of I Wish, Kore-eda has become more and more well-known to Western cinema-going audiences. Both I Wish and the follow-up Like Father Like Son deal with the theme of the family, probing at our most basic relationships. It is his 2015 film, Our Little Sister, however, which remains by far my favourite Kore-eda film. It’s one of those films that envelops you in a warm hug, one where you leave the cinema feeling a bit lighter and brighter about the world. Based off a manga series, Our Little Sister tells the story of three grown-up sisters, Sachi, Yoshino, and Chika, who live in Kamakura, a small city by the cost. Following the death of their father, from whom they are estranged, their half-sister Suzu from their father’s second marriage comes to live with them, shaking up their everyday routine.
Taking place over a single year, Our Little Sister is a film about the gentle rhythms of life: we follow the sisters as they form a close bond, the seasons changing from winter to spring to summer; and as the seasons change, the food does too. Our Little Sister is a film in which cuisine plays a central part, bringing people together and reflecting the changing world around us – from making plum wine at the height of summer, to bonding over whitebait on toast. It’s a work that revels in the magic of the minutiae of everyday life.
Shoplifters screened at Cannes to critical acclaim, with Peter Bradshaw of The Guardian calling it “a movie made up of delicate brushstrokes: details, moments, looks and smiles.” With any luck, it will be out in UK cinemas later this year, providing us with another dose of humanistic cinema from the Japanese master. There has never been a better time to explore Kore-eda’s extensive back catalogue, and discover his magic for yourself.