‘Shoplifters’ Director Pierces Japan’s Darker Side | Modern Society of USA

‘Shoplifters’ Director Pierces Japan’s Darker Side

‘Shoplifters’ Director Pierces Japan’s Darker Side

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.

“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. 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.

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