Interview with Hirokazu Kore-eda, the director of “Shoplifters”
Shoplifters is my favorite Foreign Film of 2018 (sorry, Roma). I didn’t know that Hirokazu Kore-eda’s latest film would be my favorite when I interviewed Hirokazu Kore-eda a few hours after watching the film, but I also didn’t realize at the time how much the film would stick with me. This is a fascinating and powerful film about social class amongst other things. It’s a great film and one that shines a bright light on important themes that are universal. I was absolutely delighted to chat with Hirokazu Kore-eda about the film and talk about the themes in great detail.
Scott Menzel: Hi, good afternoon. First and foremost, congratulations on another fantastic film.
Hirokazu Kore-eda: Thank you very much.
Scott Menzel: My first question is what has it been like for you personally to travel around the world to all these different festivals and receive this sort of praise for this film?
Hirokazu Kore-eda: Of course, I’m very happy to receive this reception. When I was making the film, I certainly had no concept of the fact that this would be a huge impact on my career, or really make a substantial difference in things. For me, it was just a basic film, so this is very big, and it’s good that I’ve arrived at this level where it’s making a substantial difference, and I’m certainly looking forward to the release in the US.
Scott Menzel: Glad to hear that! Your films always feel unique and very personal film for you because you write, direct, and edit. With Shoplifters, what was the inspiration behind it, and what was it that made you want to tell this story?
Hirokazu Kore-eda: First, there are two different things that lead to this point. One was right after Like Father, Like Son, it occurred to me that in terms of I want to continue to work with family, but this time, I wanted to look at the motif of a family that is not connected by blood. What would that look like? If the parents did not have the children themselves, they’re not blood connected, and that was the starting point five years ago.
The other aspect that led to this particular film was that in the news, recently, there have been, over the past two or three years, something that has occurred is called pension fraud, and what this is is that the parent will die, and the children who have relied on the income from the parents’ pension hide the deaths and keep the body at home and continue to collect pensions for many years, and so the children will live off of this. This was actually happening. It’s a bit of a social issue in Japan, and that was the other thing that contributed to this film.
Scott Menzel: Wow. That’s really fascinating. Obviously, stories like that do not make it here in the United States, so that’s all very alarming and new news to me.
Hirokazu Kore-eda: It’s true. In a sense, this has been happening, but it’s something that I’m sure that the Japanese are very ashamed of, that that kind of poverty exists where people have to rely on their parents’ pensions for so long. It was something that they didn’t want to allow. They didn’t want the world to know about that. They didn’t want to let that news out. When I used that idea in this film, I was criticized on the internet a lot for exposing that shameful part of Japan.
Scott Menzel: No, I appreciate you sharing that side of the story, because as I’m sure you’re very well aware, whenever Tokyo is displayed in the feature films, there is always the beautiful side of it, or the technological side of things, where it’s like, “Oh, look at all this technology, look at all this beautiful food. Look at how wonderful this city is.” So, your film shows a different side to the city, and also a serious issue that I feel like is not often discussed in films like yours.
Hirokazu Kore-eda: Thank you for saying that. In the same way, I would say The Florida Project by Sean Baker, in Japan, people are very shocked by that, that in somewhere like Florida, there is this reality as well, and it was very shocking, but also very informing, and they felt good that they could see that aspect too.
Scott Menzel: Yeah. Unfortunately, I think it’s a global issue more than anything else, and it exists everywhere, no matter where we are in the world, because you have huge areas that are populated and you think, on the surface, has so much money. Take Los Angeles for example, you have so much industry here with Hollywood, and movie stars, and sports teams, but yet, you have the biggest homeless population, probably, in the United States.
Hirokazu Kore-eda: Yes. I was very impressed by Cate Blanchett when she said that what makes this movie strong is that it depicts the invisible people, and I think that, no matter where you go, the movies that make visible what is invisible are very powerful.
Scott Menzel: No, I completely agree. I think the film is very remarkable in showing different sides of a city and like you said, people who are pretty much invisible, but I do want to also commend you on another thing, is you often work with young actors, and they always tend to have a significant role in many of your films. How do you go about finding such dynamic young actors, and why do you often put these young people at the center of each one of your stories?
Hirokazu Kore-eda: First of all, I would say that I tend to make what I would call family dramas, and of course, you have to have children if you’re creating a family, but that’s how it started, but I found that as I did it, I became really interested. It became very interesting and fun to work with these children, and for example, the two children in this film, neither of them had any acting experience at all before this film. I brought them in, and what I find when you bring these children in, and you work with them is that the adult actors change. They become much more lively and natural in the way that they act, and I guess, at some point, I realized this, and I guess, became really attracted to the idea of having children and the impact that it had.
Scott Menzel: Do you find that there is any struggle in terms of working with young actors, or in this case, young children who have not actually acted before?
Hirokazu Kore-eda: Just to clarify, I have worked with children in many of my films, and all of them have never had experienced before. I always go out and pick non-acting children to work in my films, so just, I wanted to put that out there. In terms of the struggle, it does take time. You have to give extra time to work with these children. When I choose these children, I have an audition, and I pick out who I want to the audition, and then when we get to set, I never give them the script. No child that I’ve worked with has been given a script beforehand, and when I get to the actual part where they’re going to be acting, I give them the lines myself, and work with them and coach them. What I find is that it’s actually really enjoyable, both for them and for myself that way. I also, because I’ve been doing this now for several years, I tend to have a fairly high success rate in choosing children that are able to work with me in that way.
Scott Menzel: That’s fascinating, and it also shows how you are able to create such authentic performances from these child actors over and over again in so many of your films. I think it’s a unique gift that you have, and it’s something that very few directors, I think, here in the United States do.
Hirokazu Kore-eda: It’s true, I guess by working with these children, I learned. I discovered that the best way to do it was just to communicate verbally their lines, rather than giving them in a written format, and over time, this really worked, and so I just kept doing it. But, interestingly, I loved the movie Kramer Kramer, directed by Robert Benton, and one time I bought the movie with all the extra, the making of and everything, and I went over it, and I found through that, that in fact, the child in that movie was also given his lines every day by the assistant director each morning when they came in to set, so I discovered that it wasn’t just me that was doing this.
Scott Menzel: Very interesting. Another thing that I did not know. That’s fascinating. I wanted to ask a question about Lily Franky. You worked with him a few times. What is it about him as an actor that prompts you to approach him for future projects and wanting to keep working with him?
Hirokazu Kore-eda: The first time I worked with him was in Like Father, Like Son. I think there are aspects of human nature that he can depict in a way that very few other Japanese actors can do, so the kind of sneaky, not so nice, lazy … those traits, which he really is good at depicting. They’re pretty uniquely his.
The other thing is that I find he works really well with the children, almost to the point where I would say he’s director number two, in that when he’s with them, he has this way of pulling them along, and helping them to deliver their lines and things like that in a way, just by his character, that is very powerful, and so that aspect of it, I really appreciate.
Scott Menzel: I think that’s interesting to have an actor as well as a director who are on the same page with that. Again, it only adds to the quality that is found in these films. It’s just a natural, authentic feel. Don’t get me wrong, it does exist in other films, but it’s just very rare to see.
Hirokazu Kore-eda: Thank you very much. I’m actually using the same techniques right now. I’m working on a film in France, and there are children in that film as well, and I’m using the same techniques.
Scott Menzel: Great. It is almost like you should probably … kind of jokingly, but maybe not so much, teach a class about this, and how important it is to view child actors on the same level as adults, and pitch these kinds of ideas and how you’ve been able to get such realistic portrayals out of them because of this way of doing things.
Hirokazu Kore-eda: I would be happy to do that if I ever have the opportunity. There is no deep secret.
Scott Menzel: Okay. I just wanted to talk a little bit real quick. I know you have to go, and I do appreciate you talking to me. It’s weird saying this, but I loved the scenes of Yuri and Shota when they were stealing stuff from the store. I just thought their eye movements and their hand signaling and things like that was just fascinating to watch. Did you research shoplifters in Tokyo, and how did you get those signals down, and how did you know how to create those movements?
Hirokazu Kore-eda: I think if they were actually that visible in their signs, they would actually get caught, so I’m not sure about that. The little hand signal where they sort of twiddling their thumbs, that’s a kind of a magic that binds the family, that it’s a symbolic hand movement that binds them culturally in a way.
Some of what I did there was just part of the characterization of the children, but at the same time, I did look through security cameras at various stores, and one of the moves that I did incorporate from that was where one person comes and builds a wall, and then another person takes something from behind that, so often, shoplifting was done in groups, was something that I learned.
Scott Menzel: Thank you so very much again for this wonderful interview and congratulations on the film.
Hirokazu Kore-eda:Thank you very much.