Hirokazu Koreeda: finding the universal in the subtle tensions that bind family

Renowned director Hirokazu Koreeda latest film Our Little Sister is a family drama without any major crises - and film festivals are in love with it

  Hirokazu Koreeda: “My mother always said that I should have become  a civil servant and she was  very disappointed when I went into film.” (Photo by Juan Naharro Gimenez/Getty Images)

Hirokazu Koreeda: “My mother always said that I should have become a civil servant and she was very disappointed when I went into film.” (Photo by Juan Naharro Gimenez/Getty Images)

 

Our Little Sister, the latest film from Hirokazu Koreeda, could not be confused with any sort of avant garde experiment, but it remains a defiantly odd beast. Adapted from Umimachi Diary, a popular manga by Akimi Yoshida, this lovely, delicate tale concerns three sisters who, following their father’s death, take in his much younger daughter.

You would expect tensions to develop between the three housemates and their half-sister, but that’s not how this story works. They get on well. Then they get on better still. This is a film with few catastrophes. Script gurus would not approve.

“That’s right,” Koreeda tells me. “It is not a story about a big problem and overcoming that problem. That’s hard for a film-maker and also for an audience. But that was what attracted me to the story.”

Somehow this film without crises has worked for festival audiences throughout the world. Mind you, the 53-year-old Japanese film-maker has never had much problem communicating with international film-goers. His first dramatic feature, Maborosi, won a prize at the Venice Film Festival in 1995.

In more recent years, as he has become increasingly interested in the subtle tensions that bind family, films such as Still Walking and Like Father Like Son have cemented the already robust reputation.

Overseas reactions

That’s interesting. The comment about Yasujiro Ozu – another film-maker who enjoyed prodding at the weak spots in family relations – may just confirm how few Japanese directors register outside their home country. Perhaps overseas critics are just grabbing the best available reference point.

“Maybe. When I have been told that my films remind people of Ozu I have never been too convinced. But maybe it is to do with that point about time. Maybe time goes in a circle for him too.”

Koreeda was exposed to American films at a young age. It seems that his mother was a serious film buff. We will do our best to read as much as possible into that.

“My mother used to work in a bank in Tokyo,” he says. “It was a busy district and after work she used to go and watch films. She loved Ingrid Bergman and Vivien Leigh. She liked Casablanca.

“Once she got married she didn’t have time to go to the cinema, but every time they’d screen a classic film on TV we’d watch it together.” His father had been a prisoner during and after the second World War. He was captured in Manchuria and served for two years working on railroads in Siberia. Koreeda remembers his dad talking about “waking up beside a colleague who was dead”.

It sounds as if the young Koreeda had a tough upbringing. Though Japan boomed in the early 1960s, his family never seemed to have enough to get by. There was no running water and the stove was heated with firewood.

Not surprisingly, his mother was unsure when her clever son started to drift towards film-making. “My mother always said that I should have become a civil servant and she was very disappointed when I went into film. But when I became a film director she became my number one fan. When the film was released on video she would buy it and distribute it around the neighbours.”

Difficult childhood

Still Walking

In Like Father Like Son, two couples cope with learning that their sons were switched at birth. The latest film, once again, takes us to a hopeful place. “It was fun,” he says. “I did a certain amount of research. I interviewed a lot of real sisters and I did observe the four girls talking on set. I heard them react to one another and I would then change the lines. That was very informative.”

So, the film-making process is still teaching the film-maker about life? “You only get back what you are prepared to put in.”

That could be a tagline to any of Koreeda’s movies.

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