Unmasked: The films of Kore-eda Hirokazu

Film director, Kore-eda Hirokazu

(b. 1962) Japanese film director Kore-eda Hirokazu loves Frankenstein because the monster is “just so melancholic”. The films he makes are just as gritty, tackling issues such as class divide, social isolation and individual resilience in the face of adversity.

In Nobody Knows (2004), Kore-eda depicts the story of four children between five and twelve years old. They are half-siblings, each having different fathers. As the three youngest children live in the apartment illegally without the landlord’s knowledge or permission, they can’t go outside or be seen in the apartment, and do not attend school. Their mother leaves them alone for weeks, and eventually abandons them. Forced to survive on their own, they can only rely on each other to face the multiple challenges in front of them. Nobody Knows won several awards, including Best Actor at the 2004 Cannes Film Festival as well as Best Film and Best Director awards at the 47th Hochi Film Awards festival.

Like Father, Like Son (2013) portrays two sets of parents who are from middle and lower class respectively. One day, they got a call from the hospital who tells them that their six-year-old sons were mistakenly switched at birth in the hospital. The parents now face a painful dilemma: switch the boys again or leave things as they are. Their decision is not only about blood lines but also social class. It is one that will leave them psychologically battered. Like Father, Like Son won the Jury Prize at the 2013 Cannes Film Festival.

Shoplifters (2018) is a poignant story of a family of social outcasts who rescued a little girl from abusive parents, then brought her into their clan of petty thievery. In an early scene Shota, a boy of roughly 11 or 12, steals items at the grocery store with dad Osamu serving as the lookout. When they arrive home with the loot, Osamu’s wife Nobuyo, treats this misadventure not just as normal but also routine, suggesting that virtually everything they eat and own is obtained illegally.

The film is also a meditation on family. When not shoplifting, the family spend their days bantering or simply huddled together in their crammed and shabby hut to avoid the cold outside and there is a warmth (both figuratively and literally) that makes their poverty bearable. Shoplifters was a box-office hit in Japan. It also won the Palme D’Or at the Cannes Film Festival and received an Oscar nomination for Best Foreign Language Film.

Here are four stills from the movie.

In an interview, Kore-eda said that he wants to make films that let viewers reflect on the impact of social isolation and class invisibility. “I don’t portray people or make movies where viewers can easily find hope.”, he said. “Some people want to see characters who grow and become stronger over the course of a movie. But I don’t want to make such a movie. It’s such a lie.” On this premise, Kore-eda has consistently produced well-made films that tug at the collective consciousness of a world that has little time for the marginals of society.

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