Director's Cut: Hirokazu Kore-eda ('Like Father, Like Son')

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It hardly feels like hyperbole to say that Hirokazu Kore-eda is Japan’s greatest working filmmaker, especially when that’s arguably been the case for more than a decade. The 51-year-old auteur began his career with a focus on documentaries, but first gained global attention with the 1995 release of his somber and soulful debut fiction film “Maboroshi”. If that picture established his talent, Kore-eda’s follow-up confirmed his value – so far as this writer is concerned, “After Life” is perhaps the 2nd best film of the 1990s and comfortably one of the best Japanese films ever made (extreme praise given my personal predilection for the nation’s cinema). A transcendentally light story in which the spirits of the recently deceased spend a week in heaven’s waiting room, where they’re tasked to select a single memory from their lives to recreate on film and take with them into eternity, “After Life” is as beautifully haunting a self-portrait as the movies have ever known.

Kore-eda’s work has proudly worn the influence of forebears like Yasujiro Ozu (2008’s “Still Walking” being his most explicit homage to the late master), but his films remain stubbornly his own. Equally comfortable with sentiment and savagery – and often combining the two to indelible effect – Kore-eda’s efforts all evince a quiet but spellbinding confidence, the filmmaker trusting that the impact of his sincerity will be impossible to deny. From the crushing neo-realism of “Nobody Knows” to the fantastically fable-esque “Air Doll” (a criminally under-seen fairy tale about an inflatable sex doll who comes to life in modern Tokyo), his movies have a knack for sublimating the ineffable into the real, stories impossible to divorce from their Japanese context that nevertheless have a profound universality that makes them accessible to viewers the world over (distribution remaining the biggest hurdle).

The latest phase of Kore-eda’s career has seen him focus on children in a way that harkens back to the likes of Oshima’s “Boy” and Kinoshita’s “Twenty-Four Eyes”. Films like “I Wish” are a masterclass in how to make movies about kids that are cute but never maudlin, touching but never invasively so. The children in his movies are impossibly adorable, but believably so, their cuteness always a paved road to something more significant. His latest film, “Like Father, Like Son” (which opens in theaters this Friday before becoming available across VOD platforms on the 23rd), epitomizes what Kore-eda does best. A contemporary riff on the time-old story of babies who were switched at birth, “Like Father, Like Son” twists a familiar premise into a galvanizing and exceedingly moving study of fatherhood, which is never as simple as it seems.

A lot of films pull tears from their audiences, but “Like Father, Like Son” is the rare film that actually earns them. It’s also further, albeit unnecessary proof that Kore-eda’s stars may have gotten shorter, but his work has never aimed higher. Last September – about five minutes after news broke that Steven Spielberg’s production company would be remaking “Like Father, Like Son” – I had the opportunity to speak to the filmmaker (through the help of a translator) at the Trump Hotel when he was in town for the New York Film Festival. My transparent fandom soon gave way to a personal conversation about Kore-eda’s journey into fatherhood, and how that guided the trajectory of his directorial career.

FILM.COM: The films that you’ve made after the 3/11 incident have been very sweet, a marked contrast to the likes of “Nobody Knows” and “Distance”, and I wonder if that’s been a conscious reaction or if maybe your personal life has triggered a greater interest in domestic stories? 

HIROKAZU KORE-EDA: You said “sweet”?

Yeah...

This is my first film since the Fukushima disaster, “I Wish” was actually made before that, so in terms of the sweetness or warmth that you’re describing, this is something that I’ve been striving for from a more personal point of view. Since “Still Walking” this has been something that I’ve been conscious of incorporating, and it is very different from “Nobody Knows”, so I’m looking more to discover what’s around me and to move in that direction. I think I’ve been doing that for the last five or six years.

Your films are often about people who leave things behind, be they memories or sometimes even other people. But “Like Father Like Son” is the first of your films in which the characters can actually go back and fix things, the opportunity to undo past mistakes is still available to them. I wonder if parenthood is the only chance we have to really start over in life? 

Are you talking about the main character in this film?

Yes. Ryota. 

In terms of Ryota with his child, when I actually had my child it really made me think for the first time about my relationship with my dad, even though he had already passed away. There was a lot of “Oh, this is what he must have been thinking at that time.” So I began to sort of rewrite my memories of him and become closer or more intimate with my father in that way.

And this character as well, in terms of looking at his child or through his child, is thinking about his childhood and his relationship with his father as well. So it’s sort of this three part relationship between your father, you, and your child. And this is the case for Ryota. This is what I was thinking about when making the film more than anything else.

Your films are very generally and genuinely humane, but there’s also something ineffably Japanese about them. “Still Walking” and “Air Doll” in particular strike me as stories that could only have been told in Japan. I wonder if you feel that way about this story, which I related to very personally, and I know there’s an American remake in the works... if you feel the way this story unfolds, if that could play out in a similar way anywhere? 

I don’t strive to make films that are universal or to pick an international motif, so I think that might be why you get the sense that they’re fundamentally Japanese in nature. But in terms of “Like Father Like Son”, when it was shown in Cannes there were many offers and discussions about remakes, and it was thought to be that would have universal appeal. Again, this is other people that were thinking that, not something that I had strived for, because in my mind I don’t think that the film is all that different from “Still Walking” in terms of its Japaneseness.

In terms of the two films that have had talks of being remade in the United States, “After Life” and “Like Father Like Son”, I’ve noticed that these are the two of my films that had the clearest story or narrative.

The compositions in your films are typically still and calm, but children – which have increasingly come to factor in your work – are so wild and unpredictable. I wonder if working with kids has forced you at all to change the way you work with the camera? 

In terms of children, I’ve been consciously wanting to film them for the last 10 years, since “Nobody Knows”. So I don’t think that my approach has really changed that much during that time. Of course in the work, incorporating non-professional children who are going to be acting has to be balanced with the whole movie in terms of the adult actors and how they’re playing off each other.  

I actually strive to incorporate the children’s actual vocabulary into the movie, it’s not a matter of me giving them lines so much as it is discovering their words and working them into the lines that I’ve created. This time, Yudai-san (Riri Furanki) used the expressions “Oh my God!” and “Whyyyy”, and these were things that he actually said a lot during the auditions. So this was really his expression and his habit, and I thought it was an interesting expression of his personal appeal.

I think the film looks very beautiful, but it’s one of the first times you haven’t worked with your usual cinematographer Takimoto Mikiya. I read somewhere that you saw the work of this film’s cinematographer, Yamazaki Yutaka, in a TV commercial and thought that he was the right fit for “Like Father Like Son”. I wonder what it was that you saw in that ad that made you feel like you needed to hire him?

Just to clarify, I had worked with Yamazaki-san, the new person this time was Tanizaki-san.

[I say sorry in Japanese, which causes momentary confusion. I’m asked if I can speak Japanese, and I explain that I really only know how to apologize.]

So in terms of Mr. Takimoto, it was actually a commercial for Daiywa House, which is a construction company, and it depicted a couple and Lily Frank, who plays Yudai, actually played the father in that. It was a short commercial, it was only one minute, which is very rare in Japan, but in terms of the design of the shots and how the people were depicted it was very different. It was very gentle and slow. How the spaces were shot told you everything you needed to know about how this family lived their lives. So I went to find out who the cinematographer was, and it turns out that we’d actually worked together before – he had done the still photography on “Air Doll” so I knew that he was a great photographer. My intention with “Like Father Like Son” was to create something very stylish and urban, and if you had to say if it was warm or cool I’d say that it was a cooler look, and I knew from his commercial that this was a look that he could create.

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I’m very curious about the nurse who switches the babies. I was thinking about her a lot after the film, and I wonder if what her action say about how all of us can shape each others’ lives – a lesson that I think Ryota needs to learn – if Ryota could ever grow to forgive her? 

“Forgiveness”, that’s a tough word.

I can’t say that that’s not possible, but I think what I was trying to depict is Ryota’s eventual understanding, and how he learned from the nurse’s new family situation. As to whether that might develop into forgiveness, that’s hard to say.

But in terms of his wife, Midori, I didn’t want hatred to emerge from that, more of her becoming strong as a result of that and sort of rebounding. We have the scene where he goes to return the money that she provided, and what he encounters there is something he never had – something similar to his childhood, but not something he ever had. And that’s the stepson who’s protecting his stepmom, and that child is even more mature than Ryota is. So for Ryota this is a large defeat and an important chance for him to learn.

My sense as a foreigner is that patriarchy and blood is very important, and this film quite clearly makes the case that nurturing is equally or even more important. To that end, was this film seemed as something of a radical statement in Japan? 

I think that there has been a lot of change. When I was doing research into these switched-at-birth cases, they were all in the 1970s, and in 100% of cases the kids were eventually exchanged, so they were prioritizing the blood relationship. The fact that I was surprised by this, though, indicates that things have changed a lot over the last 40 years. In Japan, however, adoption is still a very uncommon process, which I think shows how much people still place on bloodlines, and is also very emblematic of Japanese society as a whole. It’s the same for the main character in this film as well. He’s taking one step towards a different kind of family relationship that’s not based on blood, and it indicated to Japanese audiences that it is a valid choice, but I think – especially for fathers – the emphasis is still on blood. And in regards to that, one thing that I was trying to present with this movie was a different kind of message.

One message that came across very strongly to me in the film is that it takes time to become a father, it doesn’t necessarily happen the moment the child is born. Ryota is the father that I’m afraid of becoming one day... so I wonder if there actually is a moment when you do feel “okay, now I am a father”?

I actually have a daughter, and she would never be able to go to sleep without her mom at her side, it was just always that way. But last year, for the first time, my wife went out one night and it was just the two of us, my daughter and I. And my daughter was saying “No, there’s no way I’m going to be able to go to sleep without mom here”, but I was able to put her to bed. And her mom was very surprised when she got home. So I think that was the moment when I realized that I was on my way to becoming a father, that I had ascended one step up the stairs even if I’m not quite at the top yet. But the distance between us became smaller.

“Like Father, Like Son” opens in theaters on 1/17/2014, and on VOD 1/23/2014.